The Watts Gallery, until 20 February 2022
There are already countless reasons to visit the Watts gallery, in Compton, near Godalming: G F Watts’s own paintings, the arts and crafts house, the cosy tea rooms and a dangerous shop. And I haven’t yet mentioned the prominence of the work of two women closely associated with the Arts and Crafts movement: painter Evelyn de Morgan, and designer and social reformer Mary Watts, whose small but perfectly formed chapel is a short stroll away from the main gallery.
Until 20 February there is yet another reason to visit: the exhibition Uncommon Power, focusing on painters Lucy Madox Brown and Catherine Madox Brown. From their earliest years, these half-sisters had been immersed in the Pre-Raphaelite world. As daughters of the artist Ford Madox Brown (who was not formally a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), they grew up surrounded by luminaries of the movement such as William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (Lucy was raised in Rossetti’s household after the death of her mother.)
Both girls and their brother Oliver trained in Ford Madox Brown’s studio, which art historian Dr Ruth Brimacombe describes as being like a Florentine atelier, where numerous fully-fledged and student artists worked alongside one another. As well as learning drawing and painting, Lucy and Catherine acted as assistants to their father, undertaking preparatory work and gaining a grounding in the administrative aspects of the life of a professional artist. The trio of young Madox Browns were considered to show great promise.
Both women exhibited for only a few short years, from 1869 to 1875, giving up when marriage and children claimed their time and attention. But it is also tempting to wonder whether survivor guilt may also have played a part in this: their beloved brother Oliver died of blood poisoning in 1974, aged only 19. With the most fêted member of the trio gone, was it right for the other two to continue?
But what of the works themselves? Lucy Madox Brown’s narrative paintings all display the ‘uncommon power’ detected by a contemporary critic, among them The Tempest, depicting Ferdinand and Miranda in Prospero’s cave, Romeo and Juliet the Tomb Scene, or, most spectacularly Margaret Roper Rescuing the Head of her Father – her father being Sir Thomas More, who was executed by Henry VIII for refusing to acknowledge him as head of the Church. Margaret balances awkwardly in a rowing boat on the Thames, stricken but resolute as she catches the basket, presumably lowered from London Bridge, containing the severed head of her father.
In complete contrast, there is her View of Charmouth. This village landscape, painted in 1879, nods to Impressionism, and is surely an indication of how Lucy Madox Ford would have developed as a painter.
Catherine Madox Brown’s talents lay in portraiture. While A Deep Problem: 9 Plus 6 is – to our eyes – a deeply sentimental portrait of a child puzzling over an arithmetic problem, At the Opera sweeps all before it in its lush colour, classic Pre-Raphaelite profile, and use of texture – notwithstanding the art of critic of the Athenaeum declaring the subject’s shoulders ‘not to be accounted for’.
Though small, this exhibition places the output of these two women comprehensively in its context, bringing the works and their creators into the light once more. They may have learnt their craft in their father’s studio, but they also had something to teach him, for he acknowledged that his use of colour had been improved by his daughters’ ‘more opulent and refined colour-sense’.