Chatto & Windus £25 (328pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Into the Frame, By Angela Thirlwell

The Pre-Raphaelites knew how to take pains. Holman Hunt had sheep dropped from a height so that, while they remained stunned, he could study such details as the translucent membrane in their ears. Millais's Ophelia floats eternally to her death, thanks to Lizzie Siddall who posed, fully-clothed and fully compliant, in flower-strewn tepid bathwater. Ford Madox Brown spent four weeks painting the livid-pink bonnet-ribbons that fly out from under the chin of the young woman who, with her husband, is setting sail for Australia in the hope of finding gold.

"The Last of England" is one of the great treasures in Birmingham's Museum and Art Gallery. It is based on experience. In July 1852, Rossetti, Hunt and Brown all stood on the quayside as the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner departed Gravesend. In the painting, Brown used himself and his wife as models for the couple who, wrapped fast against the wind, grimly face what lies ahead. The nub of the picture lies in the clasped hands below. The woman's black gloved fingers contrast with the man's bare hand, chapped with cold. The pressure of her thumb pushes his skin askew, while the clasp of her fingers turns his flesh white. His fingertips touch the knitted bootee of the small child, hidden beneath her cloak aside from a hand, just visible, which the woman holds tight to her chest.

Such affecting detail gives the Pre-Raphaelites lasting appeal. But they tug at our hearts in more ways than one, not least through their convoluted pursuit of love. Earnestness and idealism may benefit art, but relationships turn daft under their pressure. The dizzying twists and turns in the lives of these friends have given rise to Desperate Romantics, a recent television soap opera and book. But just when it seems as if the high watermark of popular interest in the Pre-Raphaelites has passed, along comes 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.

Angela Thirlwell has already published a life of William Rossetti and his wife Lucy, Brown's daughter. She is thoroughly at home in the second half of the 19th century and, in particular, with the web of complicated feelings that bound the Brown and Rossetti families together. This association began when the young DG Rossetti asked to become Brown's pupil. He soon began referring to him as "old Bruno", an affectionate nickname that captures his rough edges, his clumsiness, and what made him loveable.

Though Scottish in origin, Brown had been brought up abroad, largely in northern France. He had studied art in Antwerp and Ghent and this Belgian training continued to infuse his art, giving it a fervid literalism. Brown was also dedicated to radical causes and the rights of the working class. He abjured cliques and groups, despised Royal Academicians and never belonged to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, even though he wrote for its journal, The Germ.

Because of his outsider position, he has never figured prominently in the histories of Pre-Raphaelitism. Much in his book will surprise even aficionados. The early death of his first wife, Elizabeth, which left him with two small children, caused the onset of a depression. This was made worse by his conviction that the art world ignored him.

His second wife Emma, though memorably portrayed in several paintings, remains something of a mystery for she left no diary and very few letters. Initially her attraction lay in her youth, vigour and sense of fun. But her reliance on alcohol may explain why Brown arranged matters so that Lucy, his daughter by his first marriage, lodged for most of her childhood elsewhere, chiefly with the Rossettis.

But it is the two non-wives who come to occupy centre stage. There is a compelling account of Marie Spartali, a wealthy Greek beauty and artist, whom Brown tutored. He fell passionately in love with her, revealed by a book of poems he wrote but did not publish.

However, he never broke the silence that surrounded his suppressed love and Marie entered into what proved to be a desiccated marriage with the journalist, William Stillman. With Marie married and living abroad, Brown filled the hole she left with Mathilde Blind (pronounce Blinned). Poet, novelist and biographer, Blind matched Brown's intellect and shared his interest in history and radical causes.

She more or less moved in to the Brown house, becoming a persistent presence and the cause of family rows. But it is unclear whether the relationship was sexual or platonic, and Thirlwell subtly suggests that it was Emma who remains the core thread in Brown's life. Overall what impresses is how richly informative is this history of individual lives, about the period as whole, its culture and material existence.

Frances Spalding's latest book is 'John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art' (Oxford)

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past