‘The Prisoner of Chillon’ by Ford Madox Brown


‘The Prisoner of Chillon’ by Ford Madox Brown

Accession Number: 1927P353

Date: 1857

Ford Madox Brown was interested in the poetry of Byron all his life, and in 1843 had painted an oil based on ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’.[1] He was asked, in 1857, to produce an illustration for the poem for an anthology, and the result is very different to the oil, which is dimly lit, and in which only three figures are visible, or partially visible.

Byron’s poem features an isolated individual and explores his suffering; he is the only remaining member of his family, the rest having been killed in violent ways. Three brothers are imprisoned at Chillon; two of them have died, chained to pillars and watched by the protagonist, who remains to reflect on mortality and misery:

They chain’d us each to a column
And we were three—yet, each
We could not move a single
We could not see each other’s face,

Now, the remaining brother (who is unnamed), reflects on the life and death of his brothers, fruitlessly angry at the fate that has overtaken his family. Ford Madox Brown’s illustration foregrounds the corpse (unlike his earlier work), for which there is a detailed sketch in the Birmingham collection, in order, perhaps, to emphasise the horror of the moment. The final illustration produced from this sketch is described by Simon Cooke as “Pre-Raphaelite horror, or verisimilitude in the service of Gothic.”[2] The two figures in the foreground are jailers, and in the final work the head jailer is added in the doorway to the prison. The horror of the image is reflecting the horror of the poem:

Oh, God! it is a fearful thing
To see the human soul take wing
In any shape, in any mood
I’ve seen it rushing forth in blood
I’ve seen it on the breaking ocean
Strive with a swoln convulsive motion
I’ve seen the sick and ghastly bed
Of Sin delirious with its dread:
But these were horrors—this was woe
Unmix’d with such—but sure and slow.
He faded, and so calm and meek,
So softly worn, so sweetly weak,
So tearless, yet so tender—kind,
And grieved for those he left behind;
With all the while a cheek whose bloom
Was as a mockery of the tomb,

The prisoner who speaks throughout the narrative is almost hidden in Madox Brown’s work, captured in a shaft of sunlight through the window, a painful reminder of the outside world he will never see. The light is mentioned in the poem (‘A light broke in upon my brain – / It was the carol of a bird;’) but this ‘light’ is metaphorical; it is interesting that Brown has given it physical representation. Both represent an increasing of the agony of imprisonment, however. The completed work gives more detail, of course, but also moves this figure into the centre of the image, reminding the viewer of his role as narrator.

[1] You can see the painting here.
[2] The Victorian Web.