This is the watercolour replica for Brown's famous image of emigrants leaving England (1855, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery). The theme was inspired by the emigration of the sculptor Thomas Woolner, a fellow Pre-Raphaelite, who left for the goldfields of Australia in July 1852. In the same year, 369,000 emigrants left Britain to seek their fortune overseas.
Brown himself, hardly able to make a living from his art, was contemplating emigrating to India when he began work on The Last of England. As the main focus of the picture he chose a middle-class couple, 'high enough, through education and refinement, to appreciate all they are now giving up, and yet depressed enough in means to have to put up with the discomforts and humiliations incident to a vessel "all one class".'(Catalogue of Mr Brown's Exhibition, 191 Piccadilly, 1865, quoted in Lambourne 1999, p.356). Beneath her shawl the woman cradles a small baby, whose tiny hand (modelled on that of Brown's own child) is just visible, grasping its mother's hand. The models for the figures were the artist himself and his second wife, Emma. The father's brooding expression betrays his anxiety and apprehension at the voyage ahead, while the mother's serene features convey her trust and sense of resignation. Following the Pre-Raphaelite prerequisite of truth to nature, Brown painted the bulk of the picture out of doors and asked his wife to sit in all weathers, even when there was snow on the ground. His intention, as he himself explained in 1865, was to achieve 'the peculiar look of light all round which objects have'(ibid., quoted in Newman and Watkinson 1991, p.89).
The circular format is reminiscent of a Renaissance tondo, but also serves to emphasise the couple's unity. Accompanying them in the boat are 'an honest family of the green-grocer kind' and, behind them, 'a reprobate', who 'shakes his fist with curses at the land of his birth, as though that were answerable for his want of success' (ibid., quoted in Lambourne 1999, p.356). The rather comical-looking cabbages arranged around the boat are intended to indicate a lengthy voyage. In the distance, the White Cliffs of Dover are just visible, while at the back of the boat a cabin boy is selecting vegetables for dinner from a small lifeboat, which bears the ironic name of the ship, Eldorado.
The watercolour replica was painted for George Rae of Birkenhead, an important patron of the Pre-Raphaelites. Some of the preliminary work for the copy is said to have been done by Brown's daughter Catherine.
Lionel Lambourne, Victorian Painting, London 1999, pp.355-9, oil version reproduced p.357, in colour.
Teresa Newman and Ray Watkinson, Ford Madox Brown and the Pre-Raphaelite Circle, London 1991, pp.72-3; 88-93, oil version reproduced pl.1, in colour.