T J McNamara on the arts
T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: Huge paintings create pageant of the past

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Cymon and Iphigenia by Frederic, Lord Leighton. Photo / Supplied
Cymon and Iphigenia by Frederic, Lord Leighton. Photo / Supplied

In his painting of Chaucer, Madox Brown strove to recreate history. Even the lectern was carefully researched.Any gallery that has rooms devoted to 19th century academic painting will always feature huge works. The National Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney is no exception. The room devoted to 19th century English painting is home to The Queen of Sheba approaching the Throne of Solomon by Sir Edward Poynter on one side. It's so large that when it was listed for an exhibition in Auckland, it was too big to get in the door and couldn't be shown. Poynter also has a large picture of Helen of Troy, Helen, that is actually a portrait of Lillie Langtry. The room also holds Cymon and Iphegenia, an immense love scene by moonlight painted by the president of the Royal Academy, Frederic, Lord Leighton.

Facing it is an even more massive visual vehicle, of Chaucer - the first great poet to write in English - reading to King Edward III and his court. The painting, by Ford Madox Brown, was begun in 1851 and finished in 1868.

The fame of this painting is not only because of its size and complex subject but because there is a much admired replica in London's Tate Gallery. But the original is in the Sydney gallery. The picture was sold by the artist to the gallery in 1876 for £500. It was his first painting to enter a public collection.

There is a certain irony in that another of Madox Brown's famous paintings, The Last of England, in Birmingham, shows a husband, wife and baby looking back at the white cliffs of Dover from the stern of an emigrant ship bound for Australia.

The full title of the painting in Sydney is Geoffrey Chaucer Reading the 'Legend of Custance' to Edward III and his Court at the Palace of Sheen, on the Anniversary of the Black Prince's Forty-fifth Birthday. The poem is a story of fortitude and may be significant because Madox Brown felt the need of strength after the recent death of his first wife.

Usually Madox Brown was a stern realist but, here, after reading a history book about the genius of Chaucer, he wrote: "I immediately saw visions of Chaucer reading his poems to knights & ladyes fair, to the King & court amid air & sun shine."

Ford Madox Brown was associated with the revolutionary Pre-Raphaelites led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This painting is not revolutionary; it represents the culmination of a tradition of history painting passionately concerned with authenticity.

A generation ago, the painting and the people in it would have been familiar figures. When schools taught history, it was British history and textbooks were illustrated by pictures such as this. The classic example is how children learned that Cavaliers were heroes and Roundheads were villains from the picture, And When Did You Last See Your Father by W.F. Yeames. A heroic little boy in a blue suit trimmed with lace is interrogated by rough and tough Roundheads in armour. The painting was endlessly reproduced.

In his painting of Chaucer, Madox Brown strove to recreate history. The artist made many preliminary studies that drew on antiquarian books recording details of dresses, hoods, headdresses and armour. Even the lectern from which Chaucer reads was carefully researched to make sure it belonged to the furniture of the time.

Madox Brown set out to bathe the whole scene in sunlight so he sets it out of doors, an innovative thing to do at the time.

Beneath the arched top, Chaucer stands on a dais that includes the royals. Rossetti posed for the figure but the face is based on a little portrait in a manuscript version of Chaucer's poems. The story he reads, according to the wordy title, is an early poem later reworked as The Lawyer's Tale in his marvellous collection of stories The Canterbury Tales.

In front of Chaucer, the elderly bearded King is sitting on a throne staring rather blankly at the poet. The King has a ring on his finger and is wearing little soft, embroidered slippers that match the pointed toes of the shoes of Alice Perrers, his mistress, on his right. On the King's left is "The Fair Maid of Kent" and her husband, the hook-nosed, moustachioed King's eldest son, the Black Prince, remembered as a winner of great victories in France but ill and soon to die.

The child in front of them will become Richard II. The armoured figure is the powerful and influential regent of England, John of Gaunt, born in Gaunt (Ghent). He was the King's fourth son. Shakespeare gave him a wonderful speech about England as a "sceptred isle ... set in a silver sea" in his play Richard II.

The armour, based on a grave statue, may be authentic but it seems more than a little odd the regent is wearing it at a poetry reading. John of Gaunt's son, carrying his shield and spear, is behind Chaucer. He will grow up to be Henry IV.

The foreground is occupied by a mass of colourful figures gathered around a little fountain. The fountain may be symbolic of the Fountain of Knowledge.

On the left is a noble couple flirting. The young man is meant to be Thomas of Woodstock, the King's fifth son, and the woman is Lady de Bohun, who he later married. His cheerful face is a portrait of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Walter Deverell, much admired for his good looks, who later died aged 26. On the right a figure representing the famous historian, Froissart, is taking notes on his tablets and just above him in black cap and bells is the King's jester, gazing at Chaucer in wonder. A cardinal, clad in red, is joking with women.

The whole painting, based on Ford Madox Brown's enthusiasm for English poetry, is intent on showing the colourful nature of English history. The setting, with a scene in the background of a ploughman working in an English landscape, is part of the glorification of the past that was a romantic aspect of Victorian England.

The vivid colour which is still delightfully bright comes from his adoption of the Pre-Raphaelite way of working into a white ground.

Madox Brown set out to bathe the whole scene in sunlight so he sets it out-of-doors. The bright sunlight was an innovation in history painting.

At nearly 3m tall, the painting is an impressive assemblage of colourful figures. That so many of them are talking and not taking much notice of the poet and his reading is sometimes seen as a comment on what little recognition an artist received in Victorian times.

There is some truth in that but really what Ford Madox Brown wanted to create was a pageant of the past. Nowadays he would be directing movies or TV shows about the past.

Check out your local galleries

- NZ Herald

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