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)

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