John Henry Ingram.

Oliver Madox Brown. A biographical sketch, 1855-1874 online

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' ~T~ AM sure that no memoir will ever do Oliver
justice,' wrote Mr. Richard Garnett to the
youth's father some months ago : ' The wonderful
precocity of his genius may be set forth, but the
peculiar charm of his character, its sweetness and
manliness, its alliance of the most daring origin-
ality to the most exquisite ingenuousness, can
never be adequately represented, even by those
who knew him most intimately. It was some-
thing unique and indescribable, and the objective
and purely imaginative character of his writings
renders even them very inadequate exponents of
his mind and heart. I should despair of com-
municating any just conception of him to one


who never knew him, and can only say that I
should expect anything sooner than to meet with
another Oliver Madox Brown/

Confronted by this opinion, and by the fact
that, personally, Oliver Madox Brown was
unknown to me, my attempt to compile a short
biography of him will appear to savour of rash-
ness. I was, however, prompted to the undertak-
ing, not only by admiration for his genius, but by
the circumstance that whilst every year lessened
the material for a faithful record, no effort
appeared to be made by any of his personal
friends to produce one ; and that no fuller
Memoir existed of him than the few pages pre-
fixed to his Literary Remains; to which, to Mr. P.
B. Marston's article on ' Oliver Madox Brown '
in Senbner's Magazine, and to an appreciative,
able critique on the Literary Remains in the
Examiner, I am indebted for various items of
value. My researches have been so warmly and
generously aided by the friends and relatives of
the talented youth, and so many interesting data
have been forthcoming, that I am not altogether
hopeless of having obtained a sufficiency and


excellency of material to attract even those who,
like myself, were personally unacquainted with
Oliver Madox Brown.

Indeed, whatever interest appertains to this
monograph is due to the kind assistance afforded
me by those who knew and loved the youthful
author : I am little more than the compiler and
editor of their communications. To Mr. Ford
Madox Brown my warmest thanks are due for
kind permission to make full use of his son's
correspondence and poems (published and unpub-
lished), as also for information and corrections
in matters of fact, and, above all, for the use of
the illustrations to this volume ; to Mrs. William
M. Rossetti I am under deep obligation for
valuable assistance ; to Mr. William M. Rossetti
I am much beholden for the use of Dante
Rossetti's correspondence with Oliver, and to Mr.
Philip B. Marston I am greatly indebted for his
kindness in placing at my disposal some most
interesting correspondence with his deceased
friend, and for various items of information.
My thanks are also tendered to Mrs. Robertson
for the use of the letters addressed by Oliver to


her father, the late Mr. W. Smith Williams, and
to Mr. W. Theodore Watts, Mr. John Payne,
Dr. T. Gordon Hake, Miss Mathilde Blind,
Mr. E. E. Hughes, Mons'eur Y. Barthe, and all
others who have generously aided my work
by the presentation of original poems ; the use
of correspondence; personal information; and
similar assistance.













BOKN 1855. DIED 1874.

Upon the landscape of his coming life
A youth high-gifted gazed, and found it fair :
The height of work, the floods of praise, were there.

What friendships, what desires, what love, what wife ?

All things to come. The fanned springtide was rife
With imminent solstice ; and the ardent air
Had summer sweets and autumn fires to bear ;

Heart's ease full-pulsed with perfect strength for strife.

A mist has risen : we see the youth no more :
Does he see on and strive on ? And may we
Late-tottering world worn hence, find his to be

The young strong hand which helps us up that shore ?

Or, echoing the No More with Nevermore,
Must Night be ours and his ? We hope : and he ?




A DVOCATES of the theory that genius is
-j~ hereditary are justified in referring to
the ancestry of Oliver Madox Brown. His
great-grandfather, founder of the ' Brunonian
system,' was scarcely more celebrated in later
life for his medical skill than in his youth
he was noted for his scholastic precocity. Dr.
John Brown left offspring who, if they did
not rival their parent in genius, certainly up-
held the family reputation for talent. One
son, the editor of his father's works and the
author of his biography, was Dr. William Cullen
Brown, President of the Royal Medical Society
of Edinburgh, and a distinguished scholar,
whilst another son, Mr. Ford Brown, a Com-



missary in the Navy, was richly endowed with
natural gifts. Mr. Ford Madox Brown, the
well-known and most original artist, is son of
the latter, and father of Oliver Madox Brown.

Oliver was born at Finchley on the 20th of
January, 1855. More fortunate in his lot than
the children of genius usually are, his lines were
cast in pleasant places. From his birth he was
surrounded by friends and relatives capable of
both fostering and comprehending any traces of
talent he might exhibit, so it is not surprising
to discover that his earliest manifestations of
precocity were thoroughly appreciated and
lovingly treasured up in the memories of those
about him. When but two years of age he
made his first acquaintance with death ; and the
loss of a baby-brother whom his elder sister
found him weeping and lamenting in the nursery,
crying out in the bitterness of his own baby
heart, ' Arthur ! Arthur ! shall I never see you
again ?' seems to have left an indelible impres-
sion upon his mind, as towards the close of his
own brief career he spoke of it as the earliest
recollection of his child-life.

Reared in so rare a forcing -ground as was his
parents' home, little Oliver speedily displayed
signs of hereditary genius, and many are the
significant anecdotes and remarks related by his




relatives in proof of his innate cleverness. For
instance, it is recollected how one day, before he
had completed his fourth year, he gave to a
friend of the family so shrewd and critical a
description of a landscape of ' Walton-on-the-
Naze ' painted by his father, that the visitor
declared he felt as astounded as if ' the cat had
taken to speaking.'

Amongst other interesting items told of his
early childhood is that, whilst still in his fifth
year, Oliver ' would cover the white marble
mantel-shelves, and any other available spaces,
with designs of hunts, battles, or subjects of that
sort/ The same authority informs us that
between the age of five and six the little lad
stubbornly resisted being taught to read, 'yet
set himself most sedulously to acquire any other
knowledge that apparently did not concern him,
but especially facts relating to natural history.'
It was at this point of his brief career that his
portrait as The English Boy was painted in oils
by his father. Oliver, or ' Nolly ' as he was
always termed in his own circle, is portrayed
with such characteristic emblems of childhood in
his hands as whipping-top and whip, but, inten-
tionally or not, so earnest and deep-thoughted
an expression has been given to the beautiful
face, that the toys seem less appropriate as play-


things than as artistic accessories. The steady
gazing eyes see something beyond the ken of
conventional children, whilst the shapely nose
and decided oval of the face give the countenance
a definiteness of expression rarely beheld in one
so young, and clearly foreshadow the future,
but scarcely more set, features of the youth.
Only in the delicate curves of the lips is beheld
the one trait that grows less definite in after

Under his father's careful instruction, and im-
pelled by the artistic incentives by which he was
environed, Oliver continued to make good pro-
gress in painting, and by the age of eight had
completed his first picture in water-colours.
For ordinary routine study he does not appear
to have exhibited much inclination, not, indeed,
that any particular pressure was put upon him.
At this period he was quite known in the neigh-
bourhood for his extraordinary success in obtain-
ing possession of small field animals, especially
mice : these he usually kept in the lining of
his jacket, through which they used to eat their
way, to the annoyance' and despair of his

Even as a child he was deemed an acute physio-
gnomist, and a very early instance of his shrewd-
ness in this respect is remembered. When he was


between seven and eight years of age his mother
was needing a cook : young Oliver availed himself
of an opportunity to inspect the candidates, and
looked hard in the face of one of them for so
long a time that at last she said to him, { Well,
master, what do you think of me ?'

' You will stop here seven years/ he answered.
And so she did.

The child's remark evidently impressed her,
for at the expiration of the first seven years she
remembered it, and said to him, ' Master Nolly,
you said I should stay seven years, and here I
am ; what next ?

'Now you may stop another seven/ was the
lad's rejoinder. And she is still with Oliver's
parents, after a period of nearly thrice seven years'

In September, 1863, Oliver had his first
genuine experience of the sea. He had been
staying with his mother at Tynemouth, near
Newcastle- on -Tyne, and it was arranged for
them to return to London by steamboat. The
windows of the house where they were staying
overlooked the German Ocean, and enabled the
inmates to discern the ominous appearance of
the weather. Mrs. Madox Brown, however,
determined to undertake the journey, although
implored up to the very last moment not to risk


a voyage with the child in such weather. About
five o'clock in the evening the steamer crossed
the bar of the Tyne, when the full fury of the
storm at once broke around her ; the wind blew
a hurricane, the rain poured in torrents, the
thunder roared overhead, whilst as the gloom
increased the lightning grew vivid and con-
tinuous. Swept by spray and rain, the deck was
neither comfortable nor safe, and all the pas-
sengers went below save Mrs. Madox Brown and
her son. Cradled in a coil of rope on the fore-
castle, for a long time the little fellow remained
intently absorbed in the grandeur of the scene,
too interested in it to feel afraid. Succumbing
at last to sea-sickness, he was persuaded by the
sailors to be carried down to his berth. The
next day the storm continued, and all the follow-
ing night the vessel had to lie-to in the wash of
the Humber, afraid to steam ahead, it even being
doubtful where they were, nothing being dis-
cernible in the gloom but the white- crested
mountainous black waves. The engines got out
of order, rockets were fired, and altogether
matters seemed to have reached a dangerous
pass. Eventually, however, the state of affairs
improved, and after all the steamer reached the
Thames in safety. Mr. Madox Brown waited
vainly for many hours at St. Katherine's Wharf


in a state of anxiety that may well be imagined ;
but it was not until long past midnight of the
third night that the weary travellers reached
their home in the Highgate Koad, having dis-
embarked at Tilbury, and finished their journey
by train. The wind was still howling round
the house, and still furiously tossing the trees in
the Grove. The influence of this voyage on the
imaginative temperament of such a child as
Oliver would be intense and lasting, providing
him in after life with valuable material for his
literary productions.

In due course of time, Oliver entered the
junior classes of University College, and is said
to have been chiefly distinguished among his
schoolfellows for his idleness. One day his
father called on the late Eev. Mr. Case, then
head master of the junior boys, respecting his
son's laziness. Mr. Case expressed regret at the
fact, remarking that Oliver was as gentlemanly
and nice a boy as could be desired, and always
gave very clever answers. He added that the
boy would be better away from the school, and
if carefully looked after he believed he would
grow up to distinguish himself. A characteristic
scene now took place. Oliver was sent for and
lectured kindly and seriously by the master for
his idleness and untidiness.


6 You cannot deny,' said Mr. Case, * that the
visitors at their last inspection described you as
the dirtiest boy in the school. What a disgrace
that was for you.'

'Yes, sir,' replied Oliver; ' but just before
the inspection some big boys had thrown me
down in a puddle, so that I was splashed all

1 Ah, that is just you,' was the master's
rejoinder ; ' always such capital answers ; but
don't you see, my boy, you would not be known
for your excellent excuses, were it not for you
so constantly doing things that require excusing.
There, you may go now.'

In the December of 1865, Mr. Madox Brown
removed with his family to 37, Fitzroy Square,
and in that house Oliver spent nearly the whole
remainder of his short life. At this time his father
took him from University College and provided
instruction for him at home. As yet it was only
in painting that he made any considerable pro-
gress, his first production of any note after
leaving school being a water-colour of Queen
Margaret and the Robbers. The subject, which
had been selected for him by his father as a task,
was thoroughly appropriate for so juvenile an
artist ; but Oliver's treatment of it, so far from
being weak or puerile, was strikingly original


and vigorous. The scene is depicted as taking
place in the skirts of a forest, where, behind the
thickly tangled boughs and bosky stems of great
trees, the sun is setting with an angry glare.
This little work, say the authors of the intro-
ductory memoir to Oliver's Literary Remains,
1 which was executed almost entirely without
Nature, but with great pains and study, exhibits
choice colour and dramatic vitality in the heads,
which, when examined minutely, for they are
not half the size of a thumb-nail, are really sur-
prising, compacted as they are of childish naivete
and vivid characterization; the young prince's
head is, indeed, as unexceptionable as anything
the painter might afterwards have achieved. 1
To this analysis may be added that the mingled
expressions of princely pride, boyish courage,
and struggle to suppress fear, are portrayed with
a power of introspection that shows something
more matured than mere promise. This water-
colour, which became the property of Dante
Eossetti, elicited flattering notice from the acute,
kind-hearted painter-poet. There are in exist-
ence still earlier paintings by Oliver, notably one
of Centaurs Hunting, executed before the artist
was eleven years old ; but naturally they are of
inferior merit to that which invoked the appre-
ciative criticism of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.


When about twelve years of age Oliver was
taken to Southend, and whilst there beheld for
the first time, as the rain swept across the
smooth water of the Thames estuary, that phos-
phorescent glow of the sea which he afterwards
made such effective use of in his initial romance
of The Black Swan : it was one of those weird
phenomena of nature so calculated to deeply
impress a child of his excitable temperament and
vivid imagination. A typical incident is related
in connection with this sea-side visit. One
night Oliver greatly alarmed his mother and
sister by prolonging his boyish rambles until
past eleven. He returned home with his clothes
torn and dirty, but with a collection of glow-
worms carefully tied up in his handkerchief.
These insects were speedily transferred to a
box, which was placed in their captor's room ;
but in the night they contrived to escape, and
penetrated under the door into his mother's
bedroom, much to her dismay, and to the no
slight disgust of the landlady, whose proclivities
towards natural history were not very strong.
The next morning Oliver managed to recapture
his entomological pets, and insisted upon re-
taining them until the evening, when, after dark,
he deposited them upon a bush growing in the
front-garden, where they formed a brilliant illu-


ruination, to the astonishment of the visitors and
his own exceeding delight. In The Dwale
Bluth Oliver made most effective use of this
episode of his boyhood, as, indeed, he did of so
many others, apparently basing all leading in-
cidents of his works on the personal experiences
of himself or of his friends.

Another picturesque, but somewhat hazardous,
adventure appertains to the same year. A friend
of Mr. Madox Brown gave a picnic on the
Thames, in a flat-bottomed' boat especially pre-
pared for the occasion. About thirty guests,
including Oliver, were invited and assembled at
Southend, whence they sailed to the Nore and
about the mouth of the river. The entertain-
ment proved a complete success, and the whole
party was very joyous. At sunset most of the
company were sent home by way of Southend,
but a few sailed back to Gravesend and spent
the night there. The following day was passed
on the water, and the night on shore at Herne
Bay. The next morning all, including young
Oliver, had to be on board by four o'clock in
order to catch the tide ; and a wonderful sail they
had back to Southend. The breeze being brisk,
and, in nautical phraseology 'full in their teeth/
they had to tack about to reach the estuary of
the Thames. The wind having veered round in


the night, hundreds of colliers that had been
wind-bound for days met them on their journey,
and in accordance with the rule of the sea had,
each of them, to lie-to to let the barge pass ; for
a barge having only a captain and one boy for crew
was literally helpless in such a crisis, and but
for such a rule, might have been run into at any
moment. The scene, with the bright morning
sun level with the horizon, was magnificent, and
with the spice of danger thrown in was quite
exciting. The wind continued to blow fresh,
and the barge, all open as had been arranged for
the picnic, heeled over somewhat more than was
desirable, but eventually made Southend and
anchored in safety. Oliver and his host went on
shore in the small boat to procure some milk for
breakfast, but in rowing back to the barge the
wind caught them and carried them out to sea.
During their desperate efforts to row back, one
of the rowlock-pins broke, and had they not
been overtaken and rescued by a large cutter
sent in pursuit of them, they must have drifted
out helplessly to sea. It was in such stirring
incidents as these that Oliver found material out
of which to fashion, in after years, the realistic
scenes of nautical life with which The Black
Swan abounds.

Returned to Fitzroy Square, he resumed the


even tenor of his way, nothing more exciting
happening, so far as our researches show, than
the thinking out of poems and the working out
ideas on canvas. Writing to his sister on the
26th of July, 1868, he said, <I have begun
painting my Jason picture : the colour has not
come good at present, but I suppose it may come
better when I get more of it in.' The painting
thus referred to is a water-colour of Chiron
receiving the Infant Jason from the Slave; the
subject having been selected by the youthful
artist himself. This work was exhibited in the
Dudley Gallery, in 1869, and it may well be
doubted, say the editors of the Remains, f even
leaving out of account the question of compara-
tive merits, whether any other so juvenile painter
ever offered, or obtained admission for, a work
in that exhibition/ In the same year that he
painted the Jason picture, Oliver drew some
sketches of Kittens , now the property of Mr. E.
R. Hughes, the artist. These sketches, though
roughly executed, are quite remarkable for the
knowledge of feline character they display : the
difficulty of expressing traits of cat-life correctly
is well known, and the happy way in which the
young artist has caught and transferred the
poses of his unruly sitters demonstrates at least
his sympathetic acquaintance with animal life.


Some time in 1869 Oliver drew two designs
for an edition of Byron's poems which his father
was illustrating, and Mr. W. M. Kossetti editing,
for Messrs. Moxons, and they were published
with the other illustrations in the volume re-
ferred to. Mazeppa, one of these drawings, he
afterwards painted in oils and exhibited at the
New British Institution in 1871, whilst the
other, illustrating a scene in the Deformed
Transformed, he also commenced in oils but
never completed. About the time he was paint-
ing his Jason picture he also made some sketches
of which the ideas if they had possessed no
other merit were certainly very remarkable for
a lad: one of these tentatives represents two
men rowing across a river and meeting the
ghosts of all the people who had been drowned
in it, walking in procession. Truly an extra-
ordinary subject for a boy to conceive !

The summer of 1869 Oliver spent with his
mother and younger sister (now Mrs. HuefFer),
at Gorleston, a village on the mouth of the Yar,
by Great Yarmouth. Yarmouth harbour is at
the mouth of the river, where there are a couple
of rough picturesque piers pushed out into the
sea, one at each side of the river's junction with
the ocean. Gorleston is a long quaint sort of
village skirting the river and bounded by a


series -of shipbuilding yards, through each of
which a right-of-way exists along the water's
edge. Here the lad was quite at home, making
friends with the sailors, and listening to their
yarns about the sea and shipping, of which
themes he was always delighted to hear. He
appears to have been allowed, even at that early
age, to follow out his own ways and inclinations,
but one night his staying out was so prolonged
that his mother became anxious, and he had to be
sought for. He was finally discovered crossing
and recrossing the ferry between the ship-build-
ing yards on the one side of the harbour and
the race- course on the other, ruining himself in
halfpenny journeys in order to study once more
that phosphorescence of the water which had
so greatly excited his boyish imagination two
years before.

Whilst at Gorleston Oliver did not neglect his
artistic studies. Writing to his elder sister, he
says, ' For the last four or five days I have been
making a sketch of the pier. It is not very
pleasant drawing from the top of the cliffs, the
weather has been so nasty, and the sand is blown
into one's eyes so. When I went yesterday I
found that a piece of the cliff, a few yards from
where I had been sitting, had fallen away ; there
was a lump big enough to crush an ox on the



sand underneath.' In another letter to his sister,
referring to his view of the pier, he says, ' I
almost received an offer for my sketch from two
fishermen who, after looking over my shoulder
for two or three minutes, at last made out
that I was sketching the pier. One asked the
other in a low tone what I should be likely
to ask for it. His friend, however, muttered
something that I did not hear, and dragged him

Apparently Oliver did not get on so well with
these men on all occasions. A number of fisher-
men were wont to watch him from the upper
cliff, and one day they excited his anger by
throwing small pieces of earth or turf at him.
He climbed up the bank to them and demanded

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Online LibraryJohn Henry IngramOliver Madox Brown. A biographical sketch, 1855-1874 → online text (page 1 of 12)