'The Last of England' by Ford Madox Brown 1855, Pre-Raphaelite Painting

'The Last of England' by Ford Madox Brown

Now owned by Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery
Now owned by Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery

'The Last of England' - leaving it all behind

It's almost impossible not to be moved by Ford Madox Brown's 1855 painting, 'The Last of England'. Painted in an era when emigration from Europe was at it's height, this picture gives us a very intimate glimpse into what it actually meant to pack up one's life and sail off into in an uncertain future. This is a decision that would not have been taken lightly, and yet thousands upon thousands of people, men, women and children, quit their homes and packed up their possessions in the hope of a new start in the Americas, or Australasia during the 19th century. For many amongst the poorer and middle classes, this was an opportunity to escape the grinding poverty and the slums that had grown up in big cities in the wake of industrialisation. For others it was the prospect of adventure, and the lure of the unknown that drew them to take passage to a new world and a fresh start.

In 1852, the sculptor Thomas Woolner, one of the founder members of the Pre-Raphaelite art movement, took ship for Australia. Ford Madox Brown was a close associate of Woolners, and this painting, 'The Last of England', was inspired by his departure. The emigrants are depicted in great detail, and the picture gives us a snapshot of Victorian society.

In the background we see the white cliffs of England receding into the distance, and the green, choppy sea hints at challenging times ahead. On a net In the foreground we see some of the ship's supplies hanging. You can't help but wonder just how fresh those cabbages will taste a few weeks into the voyage! Behind the main characters a small child in a bonnet grasps her mother's scarf. Someone else is smoking a long clay pipe, and a man in a top hat is brandishing his fist at the coast line as if to say, 'and good riddance to ye!'

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Look at the hands in this close-up

Detail from 'The Last of England' by Ford Madox Brown
Detail from 'The Last of England' by Ford Madox Brown

Hand in hand into a new beginning

For me this is the most touching detail in the painting. The resolute young man, grim faced, yet determined, has turned his back on England, and he and his young wife stare at the horizon, taking comfort each from the other. His bare, workman-like hand is clasped by her neat, gloved hand, whilst, just visible in the folds of her cloak, you see her left hand, clasping the small fist of the child that is cradled in the crook of her arm.

'The Last of England' was sold in March 1859 for the sum of 325 guineas. It now hangs in Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery.

Ford Madox Brown was born in the French port of Calais in 1821 and died in England in 1893. He is buried in the St Pancras and Islington Cemetry in London

 

Ford Madox Brown's preparatory sketch of Emma Hill

Ford Madox Brown's wife Emma Hill, served as the model for his painting 'The Last of England'
Ford Madox Brown's wife Emma Hill, served as the model for his painting 'The Last of England'

A film about 19th century emigration

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Comments 27 comments

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 6 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

Very different from our 'hop on a plane' society. One way voyages, into the unknown, must have taken a lot of courage.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida

Thank you for this fascinating look at a beautiful work of art. Of all the thoughts and feelings it brings to me, there is one very personal aspect to all of this. I wonder if my parents, my dad from Yorkshire and my mom from Scotland, didn't look (emotion wise) and feel much the same in 1959, as they climbed aboard a "Flying Tigers" aircraft with two children, my sister and me (I was six) and headed off for western Canada. Of course, no great travail like the voyage we see embarking here, but not the stuff of air travel today -- a stop in Greenland, Gander Newfoundland, Toronto, Winnipeg and finally their destination, Calgary. I still have faint memories of my family's great 'migration.' It is the emotion portrayed on the face of the couple that makes me think of my parents, and how they may have felt leaving their home behind and heading out to the great prairies of Canada. Excuse my waxing personal, but wanted to share the feeling. Thank you. Lynda


Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

A real tale-telling picture. Thank you for brining it to our attention. Gosh, that really must have taken such courage or deperation. Especially in those days where they knew nothing but their little village. Even to go to the next village was a great adventure.


Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 6 years ago from UK Author

Hi Paraglider, the emigrants in the 19th century were a special group of people. They really were making a leap into the unknown. They had no TV documentaries to guide them, nor any real guarantee of security on the other side of the ocean. Real courage indeed.


Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 6 years ago from UK Author

Hi Lynda, some years ago I flew out to visit family in New Zealand, and I sat on the plane alongside a couple who were in the process of emigrating. They were a bit like the pair in the picture, a little shell-shocked and numb in a way, yet at the same time, quietly determined to make a success of it all. I often wonder if they stayed in NZ, but of course it would have been relatively easy to come back again.

I wonder how your parents felt making their great migration in the 50s. Travel was much easier for them than it had been in Victorian times, but the decision was still a huge one. Thanks for sharing your memories here. Times change, but the emotions must still be similar.


Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 6 years ago from UK Author

Hi Hello, hello, yes the emigrants showed both courage and desparation. They had no telephones to chat long distance to their loved ones. They left knowing that they might never see their friends and families again It's a sobering thing to contemplate.


diogenes profile image

diogenes 6 years ago from UK and Mexico

Hi Amanda, we missed you. Touching work of art. We need to examine life through a glass darkly. Bob


VioletSun profile image

VioletSun 6 years ago from Oregon/ Name: Marie

This was a beautiful read into 'The Last Of England" painting. Before starting to read your hub I looked at the painting and it was the sadness of eyes that caught my attention.


Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 6 years ago from UK Author

Hi Bob, thank you for missing me! This picture is a personal favourite, probably because of the story it tells. I look at the sad eyes, and the very restrained way that the couple quietly hold hands. It all speaks volumes. I've never seen the original, although I have seen the smaller version in the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge.


Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 6 years ago from UK Author

Hi Marie, I'm always touched by this painting. It holds my attention in much the same way as a beautiful piece of music might for someone else. I guess for many present day Americans and Australians there is a similar scene somewhere in their family history.


bayoulady profile image

bayoulady 6 years ago from Northern Louisiana,USA

What great insoght and comments on this painting. I have never seen this painting before,

VERY well written, and very interesting.


Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 6 years ago from UK Author

Hi Bayoulady, I'm glad you enjoyed the painting. It's one of my favourites, and it's very well known here in the UK, but I guess you must have your own home-grown favourites! Thank you for stopping by and commenting.


amillar profile image

amillar 6 years ago from Scotland, UK

Amanda, this is a beautiful hub. And we think we have worries?


Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 6 years ago from UK Author

Hi Amillar, you're so right. How desparate would you have to be to make such a leap into the unknown?


ethel smith profile image

ethel smith 6 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

What stuff they must have been made of. Makes me feel pampered and spoilt. Excellent hub


ladyjane1 profile image

ladyjane1 6 years ago from Texas

I enjoyed this hub, I had never seen this painting before but it does bring a person lots of emotions and thoughts about how it must have been for them and how it still is for people migrating to other countries. My husband just became an American from Russia and I see that same look of wonderment in his eyes as well. Great job. Cheers.


billyaustindillon profile image

billyaustindillon 6 years ago

A great review and I have ancestors that have emigrated from all over the world by sea so this was very touching - the facial expressions are so telling.


Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 6 years ago from UK Author

Hi Ethel, they were a special breed, those early emigrants. I'm sure that their descendants have every reason to be proud of them.


Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 6 years ago from UK Author

Hi Ladyjane, for me, the sign of a great painting is that it stays with you after the first glance, and this is one that certainly does it for me. It really does make you think about how all migrants must feel.


Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 6 years ago from UK Author

Hi Billyaustindillon, I'm glad you enjoyed the hub, and thank you for stopping by and commenting.


2patricias profile image

2patricias 6 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

Hi Amanda, Pat knows this painting well, as it is in the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. (That museum has a splendid collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings).

Both of us admire the depth of emotion. It is rather sad that so much contemporary art is concerned with concepts rather than feelings.


Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 6 years ago from UK Author

I've never been to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, though it's definitely on my list of places I'd like to see. I've been to the Ashmolean in Oxford a few times, and they also have a great collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings.

I agree with your comment about concepts. I've been to quite a few of the Sussex Art Trails this summer and I've noticed that abstract art is becoming increasingly popular. I hardly saw any representational art, let alone figurative art at Arundel this year. As a painter myself, I enjoy all types of art, but I like to see a broader spectrum rather than everyone just following the crowd.


Les Trois Chenes profile image

Les Trois Chenes 5 years ago from Videix, Limousin, South West France

As a child I used to look at an old book that we had in the house, 'The World's Most Famous Paintings', and this was one of the paintings in the book that I loved most. As you can probably guess, the collection was not really the best, but perhaps it reflected the most popular at the time and I still find this one of the most moving and interesting. Many thanks for reminding me about it.


Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 5 years ago from UK Author

Hi Les Trois Chenes, this has always been one of my favourites. I sometimes think Ford Madox Brown suffered from being too nice and too ordinary. Perhaps if he had had as colourful a life as Rossetti and Millais he might have enjoyed the same level of fame. He was a fabulous artist with a painstaking attention to detail.


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 5 years ago from The English Midlands

This is indeed a lovely picture. It is on the cover of one of my history books and I have always liked it. And I can pop in to see the original from time to time :)


Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 5 years ago from UK Author

Hi Trish, lucky you to have the original on your doorstep. I've never seen the original in the flesh, but it's definitely on my 'to do' list!


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 5 years ago from The English Midlands

Good luck with arranging your visit, Amanda :)

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