George Peploe Brown crafted sculptures and created paintings borne out of a fascination with his travels and his time in the British army.
As was family tradition, Brown enrolled into the British army as a young man, serving in Bengal, where his family was living within the bounds of the British Empire. The sword and bayonet were not the only items the Browns wielded, however, as it seems both Peploe and his brother Horace practised art. Horace created images celebrating his time in the army and thanking his comrades for their companionship and loyalty. Peploe’s interests, however, stretched further.
It seems Peploe’s artistic career was brought about by a rather sudden turn of unfortunate events. Brown met his wife, Harriette Wilberforce Bird, whilst in India. She was the daughter of the Governor General. However, they were only married for three months when Harriette died suddenly. According to Brown’s friend and the diarist Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (1840-1922), ‘this destroyed his life.’ Brown entered a deep period of mourning, a fugue which would not, apparently, lift until he himself passed.
Blunt mentions Harriette’s possessions being found upon Brown’s body upon his death, 45 years after her passing. Furthermore, it seems an accident forced Brown into resigning from the army. With his wife and familial, familiar career torn from him, Brown seemingly found solace in art.
Travels to Syria and Spain brought inspiration and friendship. Brown began to cultivate for himself a successful career as both a painter and, more predominantly, a sculptor. Sculpture was incredibly popular in 19th-century Britain, and Brown, it seems, was a man of considerable aptitude.
A Spanish bullfighter is suspended in time and in bronze, preparing to face off the great beast that is his namesake. A dancer with her form frozen like a river, the quicksilver movement of her limbs captured in stillness. These snapshots of a life abroad, so very different from what might be found in Britain, were praised in exhibitions.
So, too, were the busts Brown executed, sometimes of esteemed patrons, such as Major General Sir James Hills, or of his painter friends, such as Keeley Halswelle (1831-1891). ‘Remarkable,’ the critics would say, ‘for the freedom and mastery with which it is executed, as for the strikingly life-like character of the head.’ Indeed, it seems Brown had a talent for capturing the energy of the everyday and chiselling it into a new form.
In his painting, Brown found less commercial success. Blunt records that in Brown’s final years, he would sit, a ‘pathetic figure in his studio in York Place surrounded by canvases of gigantic size, the monuments of ancient failures in his art.’ This scathing observation is certainly fuelled by Blunt’s own estimation of the man Brown had become in his later years. Some credit should be given to Brown, however, for persevering to make a career with his art in those lonely years of grief and torment.
Indeed, his paintings are not without energy and atmosphere. Inspired, once again, by his trips abroad, Brown would depict scenes of the cathedral in Seville.
Swathed in dark shadows, the interior scenes are set alight with gentle yet powerful highlights of golden light. They cling to the walls, defining the chiselled architecture, and create a balanced sense of chiaroscuro which lends anonymity and awe to the crowd in the foreground.
They are touched only scarcely by the light as they observe a service, made a mass by the darker tones of Brown’s palette. They are clearly observers, the viewer’s attention is drawn to the centre, past elegant gates wrought in black to the heart of the holy communion. Brown was apparently much inspired by the Spanish master Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) and indeed it seems his passion went beyond simply observing to feeling and understanding life in Spain through his art.
Whilst Brown’s death was a lonely affair in the musty rooms of his cluttered studio in London, his life was full of adventure and experiences which influenced the pieces of art he created. From grief and loss came new life, and above all, perseverance, until old age and illness could no longer sustain such vigour.
Brown’s life is a fascinating snapshot of life for aspiring artists within the British Empire and beyond.
Born in Bengal.
Enrolled in the Royal Military College, Addiscombe.
Passed military training and became part of the Bengal Artillery Army. Promoted to Lieutenant.
Married Harriette Wilberforce Bird. Harriette died three months later.
Resigned from the army.
Exhibited in London.
Member of The Arts Club.
Died in London.