The Infant Jason delivered to the Centaur by Oliver Madox Brown. Watercolour and gouache on paper, signed with an OMB monogram and dated “69,” lower right, 12 ¾ x 17 ⅞ inches (32.3 x 45.4 cm). Private Collection. Click on image to enlarge it.
Oliver Madox Brown, always known as ‘Nolly’ to his family and close friends, was not only a painter but also a talented writer. His paintings are very rare because he died young of blood poisoning at the age of nineteen. Oliver’s precocious artistic talent showed itself when he executed his first watercolour, Centaurs Hunting, at the age of eight. His work was not surprisingly heavily influenced by that of his father, Ford Madox Brown, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Infant Jason delivered to the Centaur is Oliver’s most Pre-Raphaelite picture, perhaps because of its theme which illustrates the episode in William Morris’s epic poem The Life and Death of Jason where the centaur Chiron receives the baby Jason from the slave.
Until at last in sight the Centaur drew,
A mighty grey horse, trotting down the glade,
Over whose back the long grey locks were laid,
That from his reverend head abroad did flow,
For to the waist was man, but all below
A mighty horse, once roan, now well-nigh white
With lapse of years; with oak-wreaths was he dight
Where man joined unto horse, and on his head
He wore a golden crown, set with rubies red,
And in his hand he bare a mighty bow,
No man could bend of those that battle now.
So, when he saw him coming through the trees,
The trembling slave sunk down upon his knees
And put the child before him; but Chiron
Who knew all things, cried: ‘Man with Jason’s son,
Thou needest not to tell me who thou art,
Nor will I fail to do to him my part:’”
Brown began this work when he was only age thirteen. In a letter to his sister dated July 26, 1868 he wrote “I have begun painting my Jason picture: the colour has not come out good at present, but I suppose it may come better when I get more of it in” (quoted Ingram, 15). William Michael Rossetti’s diary from Wednesday September 16, 1868 records: “Brown has to-day taken Nolly round to Richmond Park, to look for a spot whence his background can be carried on: they wish Nolly to get this water-colour ready for next Dudley Gallery, or, failing that, for the R.A. G[abriel] says that B[rown] makes his Son work on the strict Praeraphaelite system” (328-29). On November 30, 1868 F. M. Brown wrote to the collector George Rae: “My son Nolly is hard at work on an [Infant] Jason being delivered to the Centaur from Morris's book. This time it is a good-sized water-colour, and, I think, will turn out very fine. He beats me in colour already, and I fancy, before many years he will beat me in other qualities also, seeing that till February he will not be fourteen years old. This work is for exhibition” (quoted in Hueffer, 244). The watercolour was shown as no. 125 at the Dudley Gallery’s 1869 General Exhibition of Water Colour Drawings. This was his first exhibited work, although it was skied almost out of sight.
After Oliver’s death W. M. Rossetti wrote in his memoir of him: “At the age of fourteen [sic], the boy undertook a water-colour of The Centaur Chiron receiving the Infant Jason from the Slave, the subject being this time of his own choosing. The work was one of no small labour, being almost scrupulously studied from nature; it was exhibited in 1869 in the Dudley Gallery, and one may well doubt whether – even leaving out of account the question of comparative merits – any other so juvenile painter ever offered, or obtained admission for, a work in that exhibition”(Rossetti, 4-5). It leaves us to wonder what he might have accomplished had he not died so young.
Hueffer, Ford Madox. Ford Madox Brown A Record of his Life and Work. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896.
Ingram, John H. Oliver Madox Brown; a biographical sketch, 1855-74. London: E. Stock, 1883.
Rossetti, William M. “Memoir”, prefacing Oliver Madox Brown. The Dwale Bluth, Hebditch’s Legacy, and other Literary Remains. London: Tinsley Bros., 1876.
Rossetti, William Michael: Rossetti Papers, 1862 to 1870. London: Sands & Co., 1903.
Last modified 10 August 2021