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)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
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.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor