The Last of England
by Ford Madox Brown
Emigration played a key part in the expansion of the British Empire and also in providing opportunities for the poor and unemployed in England who without the possibility might well have become a focus for social unrest. The most famous painting depicting the feelings of those who left their homeland for the unknown was Ford Madox Brown’s The Last of England.
A self portrait by Ford Madox Brown
Art training in Belgium
Brown was born on 16 April 1821, the son of a Ford Brown, a purser in the Royal Navy and Caroline Madox. The family moved to France where Ford Madox was born. Due to the constant movement of the family around northern France, Brown’s education was quite limited, although he showed artistic promise in his copying of some of the old masters. In 1835 the family moved to Bruges so that Brown could study under Albert Gregorius. He continued his studies in Ghent and Antwerp.
Brown first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840 and was soon painting historical events, painting The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots with his future wife as one of his models. In 1843 he submitted work for the Westminster Cartoon Competition, bringing attention from Dante Gabriel Rossetti who asked Brown to be his tutor. Brown began to adopt the colours and style of the Pe-Raphaelites but his work was not selling. He considered emigration to India but then began work on what turned out to be his most successful compositions: The Last of England (1852-1855) and Work (1852-1865).
The Last of England depicts a young couple beginning a voyage of migration. The white cliffs of England are visible in the background, their last sight of England. The waters are choppy, symbolic of uncertain times ahead. They don’t have a cabin to themselves and will be among the standard class passengers on one deck together. Vegetables are hanging over the side, whilst the woman is holding the little hand of her child. She seems to be resigned to her fate whilst her husband is anxious and resentful. This is not something they necessarily want to do but their economic circumstances give them little choice. The want to give their child a new opportunity in a new country. Of the 20 million emigrants who left England in the c19th nearly 12 million went to the United States. Of those who went between 1861 and 1900 between a quarter and a third came back.
Brown felt he got little support from the Royal Academy and in 1858 founded the Hogarth Club with William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, and his former pupil Rossetti. The club prospered whilst it was supported by Brown but once he left in 1860 the club closed down. From the 1860s Brown designed furniture and stained glass and became a founding member of William Morris’ company. Brown’s major achievement after his two early works was The Manchester Murals, not finished until he was 72.