The Opening of the Bridgewater Canal, AD 1761. Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893). Completed 1892. Oil on canvas Introduction to the Manchester Murals. Downloaded and reproduced here from "Ford Madox Brown Murals" by kind permission of Manchester City Council. Commentary by Jacqueline Banerjee.

Eleventh in the historical sequence and eleventh in order of completion, this painting probably caused Brown more heartache than all the rest put together. The subject, a happy episode in the city's history, was clearly less contentious than that previously proposed, the Peterloo Massacre. The trouble is that, as usual, the artist has imagined a scene in which ordinary folk are more prominent than their "betters." In this case, he emphasizes those who will actually use the canal. With the dignitaries performing the inauguration ceremony moored rather feebly by the bank, a bargee's wife actively steers the first coal barge over the Barton Viaduct. Comfortably ensconced in front of her loll her plump, brightly dressed, white-bonneted twin babies, one of them with her arm round a cat. The babies are safely tied on (Brown has thought of everything), and, despite carrying blue flags, pay no heed to the ceremony. Meanwhile, according to Brown's own account, the canal engineer, James Brindley, is pouring some brandy for the officiating Duke of Bridgewater, and pointing out that "his Grace (who was not of a convivial turn)... has omitted providing refreshments" (Ford 387). Some spectators can be seen behind the coal barge's funnel, but the smocked farm-lad on the next barge, with a consignment of coal in front of him, raises his cap more visibly. On another platformed barge for the posher spectators, just showing on the far left, some fashionable shoes peep out from under the canvas. An important element of the festivities is the band, all handsomely liveried, but here again the working class intrudes, with a boy reaching between their legs, trying to get his dog out of the water.

Closer view of the dignitaries. According to William Michael Rossetti, the model for Brindley, in the long wig, was Brown's friend, the artist William Cave Thomas, providing the only known likeness of him (see "William Cave Thomas (1820-1906): A Pre-Raphaelite Associate," by Scott Buckle, who kindly contributed this close-up view).

"The mural provoked a great deal of criticism," reports Julian Teurherz, "the overall yellow cast and the babies coming in for particular opprobium" (307). He goes on to quote one of the councillors, who described it as a "burlesque .. one of the most painful things he has seen in the way of art for many a long year" (307). Such was the outrage that the committee decided it ought to see a preliminary drawing of the next and last mural (not the one depicting John Dalton, which was already finished, but Bradshaw's Defence of Manchester, completed last) before approving it. This caused a furore, angering not only Brown himself but his friends in the art world.

Nowadays, the initial reaction would be different. Such a picture seems a precursor of the work of Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), and indeed, Spencer's obituarist in the Glasgow Herald suggests that the later artist saw these murals "at a formative moment in his development." The same obituarist draws significant parallels between their approaches to the human form and its movements. Beryl Cook (1926-2008), herself influenced by Spencer (see "Beryl Cook"), is another artist who has made it easier for us to appreciate Brown's boldness of line and colour. Her work too shares the zest and fellow-feeling that inform paintings like The Opening of the Bridgewater Canal, and make them so endearing.

Related Material


"Beryl Cook" (obituary). The Telegraph, 28 May 2008. Web. 27 April 2012.

Ford, Ford Madox. Ford Madox Brown: A Record of His Life and Work. London: Longmans, 1896. Internet Archive. Web. 27 April 2012.

"Sir Stanley Spencer: An Original of British Art" (obituary). The Glasgow Herald, 16 Dec. 1959. Web. 27 April 2012.

Treuherz, Julian, with contributions by Kenneth Bendiner and Angela Thirlwell. Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer. London: Philip Wilson, 2011.

Last modified 27 April 2012