Into the Frame: The Four Loves of Ford Madox Brown

Chatto & Windus, March 2010, with 86 illustrations, 16 in colour

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into the frame by angela thirlwellRomantic and illuminating, Into the Frame is a vivid account of the public art and private demons of Ford Madox Brown, the finest but least understood of artists in the Pre-Raphaelite circle, and the four central women in his life: his two wives and models, and his two secret loves.

Madox Brown, who grew up in France and Belgium before he came to England and won fame with paintings like The Last of England, was always an outsider, and the women he loved also burst out of stereotypes. His two wives, Elisabeth Bromley and Emma Hill, and his secret passions, the artist Marie Spartali and the author Mathilde Blind, were all remarkable personalities, from very different backgrounds. Their striving for self-expression, in an age that sought to suppress them, tells us much about women’s journey towards modern roles.

Elisabeth Bromley was born in 1818, the year Mary Shelley published Frankenstein; Marie Spartali died in 1927, a year before all women won the vote in England. Their lives – full of passion, sexual longing, tragedy and determination – take us from the English countryside and the artist’s studio to a Europe in turmoil and revolution. These are not silent muses hidden in the shadow of the ‘Master’. They step out of the shadows and into the picture, speaking with voices we can hear and understand.

Richly illustrated throughout, based on new research and written with verve and sympathy, this book is a rare opportunity to explore the life of a great artist and to enter a fascinating and neglected world of Victorian bohemianism.

Ford Madox Brown and the women in his life – biographies

Ford Madox Brown
16 April 1821 – 6 October 1893

FMB4BioBorn in Calais, northern France, Ford Madox Brown was nevertheless the most quintessentially English of all the artists in the Pre-Raphaelite circle. He was also one of the greatest. Trained in Continental Europe, his most famous Pre-Raphaelite paintings were The Last of England (1852-55) and Work (1852-65), pictures that anatomised the state of the nation. He was known as a history painter but he also painted singing landscapes and insightful portraits, designed furniture and stained glass. Always a painter of hyper-realism, he was ‘the first person in England, if not in the world, to attempt to render light exactly as it appeared to him’ observed Ford Madox Ford, his grandson and first biographer. In Manchester Town Hall is his public memorial – the 12 murals he painted to illustrate Manchester’s history in its Great Hall. Into the Frame reverses the usual pattern of biographies that show a great man attended by satellites. Through the linked stories of the four women who turned the art of Madox Brown in unpredictable directions, an unusual alternative biography or ‘portrait of the artist’ emerges.

Elisabeth Bromley
10 September 1818 – 5 June 1846

Elisabeth BromleyElisabeth was Madox Brown’s first cousin, first wife and first love. Perhaps he fell in love with her after the early deaths of his mother Caroline and sister Lyly because she was ‘family’. Well-educated and imaginative, she shared his intellectual and artistic interests, wrote poetry and spoke French. They lived initially in Paris, then England, and eventually Rome. Their son lived only a few days but their daughter Lucy, born in 1843, became an artist. Elisabeth’s health deteriorated and she died of TB in Madox Brown’s arms as they crossed Paris in a desperate attempt to reach England and home. In a sense, he spent of the rest of his life looking for the ideal Elisabeth.

Emma Hill
16 May 1829 – 11 October 1890

emma hillEmma Hill first came to Madox Brown’s studio as a seductive young model two years after the death of Elisabeth Bromley. Unlike cultivated Elisabeth, Emma was uneducated and working class. She climbed out of the class system by marrying Madox Brown in 1853, over two years after the birth of their daughter Cathy. Emma and Madox Brown had two more sons, Oliver, who died aged 19, and Arthur who died as a baby. Emma bettered herself through books and enjoyed the novels of George Eliot and Tolstoy. She was Madox Brown’s most significant model whose face looks out of his most unforgettable picture, The Last of England. Emma battled with a drink problem, undoubtedly exacerbated by her husband’s intimacies first with Marie Spartali and then with Mathilde Blind. But Emma was the constant in his life.

Marie Spartali Stillman
10 March 1844 – 6 March 1927

marie spartali stillmanBeautiful, accomplished and well-educated, Marie Spartali was the daughter of wealthy Anglo-Greek parents in London. Unlike both his wives, the very English Elisabeth and Emma, Marie was an exotic. All the artists in London clamoured to paint this new celebrity. But Marie wanted to be more than a model. She applied to Madox Brown’s studio for art lessons in 1864, determined to become an artist. In a twist of the classic scenario, the teacher fell in love with his student. But Marie was in love with another man, American widower William Stillman, whom her parents considered a fortune-hunter. Out of the debris of Madox Brown’s infatuation with her, Marie was able to build her own artistic career and a life-long friendship which sustained them both over long distances.

Mathilde Blind
21 March 1841 – 26 November 1896

Mathilde BlindMathilde Blind (pronounced ‘Blint’ in German, probably ‘Blinned’ in Victorian London) was a German-Jewish outsider who immigrated to England as a child after the European revolutions of 1848. Poet, critic, translator, novelist and biographer, she became a prominent literary figure, passionately supported by Madox Brown. They shared radical social and political views as well as rational agnosticism. Emotionally complex, Mathilde lived on and off for twenty years in the curiously triangular Madox Brown household in Manchester and London. Many people surmised that after the death of Emma in 1890, Madox Brown and Mathilde would marry, or had already married. But ultimately Mathilde always chose her career above marriage. When Madox Brown died in 1893, the press committed the Freudian slip of reporting Mathilde’s name as ‘Mathilde Brown’.


‘This beautifully written, emotionally intelligent and finely detailed account of Ford Madox Brown and the four women who shaped and gave meaning to his life…What impresses is how richly informative is this history of individual lives, about the period as a whole, its culture and material existence.’

Frances Spalding, The Independent

‘A humane and intelligent book… an up-close, colourfully detailed study of the interweaving lives and passions of a small group of sophisticated Victorians.’

Serena Davies, Daily Telegraph

‘Angela Thirlwell’s Into the Frame, a carefully researched and sympathetic biography of Brown and the four women he loved….A heroic stoicism emerges from these lives…each carrying a huge emotional and intellectual charge…Ms Thirlwell writes with great thoughtfulness and insight.’

The Economist

‘The most exciting part of Into the Frame is its examination of Madox Brown’s puzzling relationships with two determined and remarkable young women…compulsively readable…Into the Frame is often engrossing…’

Grevel Lindop, Times Literary Supplement

‘The description of the swirling, febrile emotional temperature is drawn concisely and yet with great feeling. Thirlwell’s history of Brown’s masterpiece, The Last of England, is a fine interweaving of biography and art history.’

Judith Flanders, The Spectator

‘Thirlwell is so gifted at spinning a yarn [that she delivers] an absorbing account…moving and unexpectedly comic reading. Into the Frame is an engaging book and a valuable contribution to Pre-Raphaelite studies.’

Henrietta Garnett, Literary Review

‘A rich and rewarding perspective on more than a century of social and cultural history as refracted through the lives of four fascinating women.’

David Waller, History Today, July 2010