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Ford Madox Brown, Carlyle, Macaulay and Bakhtin: The Pratfalls and Penultimates of History

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Ford Madox Brown’s Manchester Town Hall mural series was the site of late Victorian contentions about both history and history painting. A long-standing discourse of history, represented in Manchester’s many local histories and guidebooks, debated the ‘facts’ and significance of Manchester’s history and contributions to British history. Brown’s murals participated in this debate at the very moment of the city’s new emergence as an independent municipality with its own self-government and new rebuilding projects.

Brown’s murals commented on this discourse through imagery and the accompanying narratives he wrote. Unlike his earlier narratives for paintings, these narratives were not about Brown’s ideas and intentions. Instead, they incorporated the new historical language of satire, displacement and factual ambiguity. Brown was an avid reader of Carlyle and Macaulay who, despite their differences, shared innovative methods; a criticism of cause and effect; and a focus on quotidian, collective, and anonymous actors and motives. Brown employed their methods, including passages from Carlyle’s French Revolution, to satirize official history. His selection of ‘minor’ details and figures foregrounded the selection process itself and problematized historical content, as did Carlyle’s and Macaulay’s methods.

Brown’s relationship to history painting, however, was not satirical. He admired Dyce, Maclise and the German Nazarenes without imitating their idealism. Brown eschewed high seriousness, diluted important events with banal incidents, put crucial events in the street rather than the court, and juxtaposed ‘heroes’ with anonymous passers-by to interrogate notions of idealism and heroism. Respectfully quoting Maclise’s works through visual reversals, Brown conveyed his own `reversal’ away from idealism toward the revisionism of Carlyle and Macaulay.

The murals authored and authorized Manchester history. Bakhtin’s themes of the carnival, novelization, surprise and the ‘word with a loophole’ illuminate how the murals forged a new civic history built on collectivity, working-class contributions, and corporate capital. Radical in his support for the working class, Brown was also nationalistic in his expression of Manchester’s English pedigree and mercantile hegemony. His murals express innovations and contradictions in their melding of Manchester history into broader Victorian discourses of history, history painting, British hegemony and the Empire, while offering criticism of cherished Victorian ideals and revealing the depths of Brown’s own intellectual comprehension of changing Victorian notions of history.
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Document Type: Original Article

Affiliations: Arizona State University

Publication date: 01 September 1998

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