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Pre-Raphaelites sent packing: a letter from Ford Madox Brown

5 May 2016 by Felicity

Ford Madoz Brown's 'Coat of Many Colours', which can be seen in the Walker Art Gallery's Pre-Raphaelite exhibition

Ford Madox Brown’s ‘Coat of Many Colours’ can be seen in the Walker Art Gallery’s exhibition, ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion’

When they weren’t painting pictures, the Pre-Raphaelites wrote a lot of letters. It’s thanks to these that we can get an insight into their characters, learn details about their paintings and, as a bonus, experience the quality of their handwriting. In the blog post, Ann Bukantas, Head of Fine Art at National Museums Liverpool, shares Ford Madox Brown’s letter to art collector George Rae:

“Ford Madox Brown (who I would rate at 8/10 for the legibility of his writing) and the Liverpool banker and art collector George Rae (6/10!) enjoyed an extensive correspondence, and some of their letters are now in the archive of the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

In 1866, in one of these letters, Brown wrote to Rae about the loan of one of his paintings, The Coat of Many Colours (Jacob and Joseph’s Coat) ­– or ‘Joseph’, as he referred to it. Rae had commissioned the painting from Brown for 450 guineas. Brown writes about the loan of ‘Joseph’ to an exhibition being organised in London by the picture dealer Ernest Gambart.

Brown's letter to Rae, which includes a helpful illustration!

Brown’s letter to Rae, which includes a helpful illustration

The artist is nervous about the loan because he’s recently had a bad experience with the packing of one of his drawings (not Rae’s doing, I should add) which appears to have involved a badly made crate, egg-boxes and three dozen brass-headed nails. The crate was returned to him saturated with water, having been mistreated by the ‘people of the rail’ (as a daily commuter, I share his pain). The drawing, miraculously, was alright.

Brown therefore advises Rae on how ‘Joseph’ should be packed – ‘with all tenderness’. He explains how the packer should ‘paste strips of brown paper across & across the glass outside’ and fix the picture firmly inside the crate. What makes this letter especially memorable is Brown’s jolly little sketch, demonstrating how the glass should be taped.

Every two years we send similarly detailed instructions through to the artists who’ve been selected for Stage 2 of the John Moores Painting Prize – and we’d have been happy to employ Brown on that project, since he was clearly a ‘details’ man. You heard it from this leading Pre-Raphaelite – good packing is the way forward!

As for ‘Joseph’, it survived the journey and in 1904 made its way into the Walker Art Gallery’s collection. It’s one of the stars of our current exhibition, ­Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion, which runs at the Gallery until 5 June 2016.”

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