King Lear (Lear and Cordelia). Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893). 1849-54. Oil on canvas, 28 x 39 inches (71.1 x 99.1 cm). Collection of Tate Britain, accession no. N03065. Reproduced from the gallery website on the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives licence (CC BY-NC-ND), with caption material and text added by Jacqueline Banerjee.

Ford Madox Ford tells us that his maternal grandfather had worked on the painting during the winter of 1848—49, and that he said later, in 1865, that he thought it to be "one of his chief works" (55); Ford himself suggests that "although subsequent developments have perhaps diminished its relative consequence, it must still be conceded a place amongst his pictures of primary" (55-56). He explains that it shows the awakening scene of Act IV, and continues by quoting his grandfather's own description of it:

Once possessed of power, the true character of the elder sisters discloses itself, and Lear, ill-used, aged, and helpless, goes mad. Cordelia, now Queen of France, returns with an army to rescue him. Found wildly running about the beach at Dover, he is secured, put to sleep with opiates, and the physician, who is about to wake him by means of music, has predicted that his reason will return with consciousness. Cordelia, at the foot of the bed, awaits anxiously the effect of her presence on him, and utters the touching soliloquy beginning — "Had you not been their father, these white flakes Had challenged pity of them."

Now would she recall the moment when honesty, stiffened to pride, glued to her lips the soft words of flattery expected by the old man, and perhaps after all his due, from her who was the best beloved of his three. So virtue, too, has its shadowed side, pride — ruining itself and others. Having its origin in the old ballad, Shakespeare's "King Lear" is Roman-pagan-British nominally ; mediaeval by external customs and habits, and again, in a marked degree, savage and remote by the moral side. With a fair excuse it might be treated in Roman-British costume, but then clashing with the mediaeval institutions and habits introduced, or as purely mediaeval. But I have rather chosen to be in harmony with the mental characteristics of Shakespeare's work, and have therefore adopted the costume prevalent in Europe about the sixth century, when paganism was still rife, and deeds were at their darkest. The piece of Bayeux tapestry introduced behind King Lear is strictly an anachronism, but the costume applies in this instance, and the young men gaily riding with hawk and hound contrast pathetically with the stricken old man. The poor fool who got hanged for too well loving his master, looks on with watery eyes. The Duke of Kent, who, though banished, disguised himself in order to remain with the king, is seen next the fool, having a wig on to alter his appearance. The physician, with his conjuring book, was magician also in those days. [56-57]

Related Material


Ford, Ford Madox. Ford Madox Brown: A Record of His Life and Work. London: Longmans, 1896. Internet Archive. Web. 21 December 2021.

Lear and Cordelia. Art UK. Web. 21 December 2021.

Created 21 December 2021