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  • Writer's pictureLondon On The Ground

'Work' by Ford Madox Brown, a painting to rival a Dickens novel

Updated: Apr 14

The artist tackles Victorian social attitudes, the class divide and urbanisation in this Hampstead scene.

Work, by Ford Madox Brown, The Mount, Heath Street, Hampstead, 1852-1865
Work, by Ford Madox Brown, 1852-1865

On a visit to Manchester last year, I was particularly taken with Ford Madox Brown's painting Work at the Manchester Art Gallery. Ostensibly about manual labour, it has a much larger cast of characters than you realise on first glance and a number of sub-plots.

 

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Work is set in Hampstead, which at that time was on the frontier between the rapidly expanding London and the countryside. The topography of the location at The Mount, a side street above Heath Street, remains very similar today.


Click on any picture to enlarge it.

Work, by Ford Madox Brown, The Mount, Heath Street, Hampstead, 1852-1865
The Mount today, Heath Street on the right
Work, by Ford Madox Brown, The Mount, Heath Street, Hampstead, 1852-1865
The Mount as seen by Ford Madox Brown

It was commissioned by the art collector Thomas Plint and completed in 1865. Thankfully, the artist wrote a lot of interpretive detail about the painting in his exhibition catalogue that year.

 

In the centre of his painting, Ford Madox Brown shows us a group of workers digging a hole in The Mount to build an extension to London's sewer system. They are enclosed by a wall on the left, the fence on the right that divides The Mount from Heath Street and a barrier behind them.

 

A number of other characters surround the workmen, or navvies as they were known, who may or may not be engaged in work of one kind or another. In the distance on the right of the painting, evidence of an election campaign is visible.

 

The building of sewers under the streets was a signal of London's spread at a time when outbreaks of cholera and typhus had cost many lives across the burgeoning metropolis.

 

Most prominent among the group of navvies is a young man (centre left) shovelling soil from the hole in the ground onto a large pile behind him.

Work, by Ford Madox Brown, The Mount, Heath Street, Hampstead, 1852-1865
The navvies

He is standing on a platform inside the hole, onto which another worker is loading soil from much deeper down. Only the shovel blade and hand of the lower man are visible at the feet of the first worker.

Work, by Ford Madox Brown, The Mount, Heath Street, Hampstead, 1852-1865
The shovel in the hole

Behind the young man, below his left arm, a hod carrier is descending with bricks. In front, an older navvy is using a spade to transfer quicklime through a sieve (the wooden device propped up on the left), below which it gathers in a rising pile.

Work, by Ford Madox Brown, The Mount, Heath Street, Hampstead, 1852-1865
Detail of two navvies

The two workmen to the right, in front of the trees, are mixing mortar, for which the lime is an ingredient. Their dress shows them to be Irish migrant workers. Close to them, another hod carrier (his hod empty of bricks) is thirstily gulping beer from a bottle. His smock tells us that he has rural origins and that he has now come to London to obtain work.

 

Next to him is the beer seller, sporting a bow tie, a red waistcoat adorned with cheap jewellery and The Times tucked under his arm, all in an attempt to mimic affluence and modernity.

All of these men at the centre of the composition are clearly at work. At first glance, it might be assumed that none of the painting's other characters are.
Three workmen and a beer seller

All of these men at the centre of the composition are clearly at work. At first glance, it might be assumed that none of the painting's other characters are.


However, the artist is challenging our definition of work and the necessity of work, engaging us in a debate that was popular in the 19th century.


The enclosure formed around the navvies also defines the space within which the characters portrayed can be considered to be at work.

 

The woman on the left, wearing a bonnet with a purple bow under her chin, is distributing leaflets promoting temperance, or abstinence from alcohol, to the workmen. She is clearly not of the working classes, but, for her, the mission to rid society of drunkenness is work. The beer-swilling navvy, the floating copy of the tract in front of the lower hod carrier and the crumpled copy in the wheelbarrow on the right illustrate her lack of success.

Work, by Ford Madox Brown, The Mount, Heath Street, Hampstead, 1852-1865
The ladies and the chickweed seller

The second lady on the left is fashionably dressed and carries a blue parasol to provide shade on a hot day. Like the woman behind her, she is not in need of paid work. Her job is to provide glamour, style and gentility.

 

Ironically, the real life model for this well-heeled lady, the artist's second wife, was the illiterate daughter of a bricklayer. Emma Hill started modelling for Ford Madox Brown in 1848, two years after the death of his first wife. They became lovers and shared a house, but did not marry until 1853 as societal norms frowned on a man of the middle classes marrying 'beneath him'.

 

In front of the lady modelled after Emma is a chickweed seller, barefoot, dressed in rags and a torn hat. He lives in a doss-house in the East End and scrapes a living by selling flowers and plants in London that he obtains from the countryside. The artist described him as a "ragged wretch who has never been taught to work".

Work, by Ford Madox Brown, The Mount, Heath Street, Hampstead, 1852-1865
The chickweed seller

The characters on the left of the painting must pass the workers along a much narrowed path, taking them very close to the pile of lime, a corrosive. This can be interpreted as a challenge to their disengagement from the kind of useful work carried out by the navvies.

 

The group of ragged children in the foreground have recently lost their mother - the black ribbon on the baby's sleeve indicates mourning - and are now the responsibility of the 10 year old girl with her back to us.

Work, by Ford Madox Brown, The Mount, Heath Street, Hampstead, 1852-1865
The ragged children

Her red dress, old and tattered, is too big for her and is held in by a large safety pin. She is trying to stop her mischievous brother from playing with the wheelbarrow, while her tousled sister looks down into the hole in the ground, sucking on a carrot.

 

This family group must work at scavenging a living by whatever means possible, a full time job.

 

A mongrel dog, wearing a frayed rope collar, may be the children's pet or possibly a stray, happy for their company for the time being. It stares defiantly at the red-coated pedigree dog owned by the lady with the parasol.

Work, by Ford Madox Brown, The Mount, Heath Street, Hampstead, 1852-1865
The pedigree dog

A third dog, a bulldog puppy probably belonging to one of the navvies, is asleep at the front of the scene in the centre.

 

Careful inspection of the painting reveals a fourth dog, probably a hunting dog, just in front of the horse on the right behind the workmen.

 

The man and woman on horseback, wealthy members of the upper class, are outside the work area of the painting, because they have no need to work.

 

In the distance, at the end of the road behind the horses, a man is on a ladder cleaning windows. On a wall behind the two riders, there is a green poster advertising a talk ("Snoox Again Tonight on Cats"), where Professor Snoox will give his advice on the behaviour of cats. According to Brown, the cats on the roof of the building are "denying his theory in toto".

Work, by Ford Madox Brown, The Mount, Heath Street, Hampstead, 1852-1865
The Snoox poster

On the slope between The Mount and Heath Street, we see out of work labourers sleeping. One of them has placed his scythe, the blade wrapped in rope, on the fence.

Work, by Ford Madox Brown, The Mount, Heath Street, Hampstead, 1852-1865
Sleeping labourers and a scythe

At the foot of the tree, a shoeless Irish man and woman carefully feed gruel to their baby. A man smoking a pipe leans against the tree, looking disgruntled.

Work, by Ford Madox Brown, The Mount, Heath Street, Hampstead, 1852-1865
An Irish family under the tree

The two men in the foreground on the right are real people, both Victorian intellectuals. They stand, apparently idle, watching the workers, but Brown saw them as "brainworkers".

Work, by Ford Madox Brown, The Mount, Heath Street, Hampstead, 1852-1865
Thomas Carlyle (left) and F. D. Maurice (right)

The man on the right of the pair is F. D. Maurice, one of the founders of Christian socialism. He set up the Working Men's College, for which Ford Madox Brown worked alongside artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the art critic John Ruskin (the college is referred to on a poster on the wall on the left of the picture).

 

Wearing a hat is Thomas Carlyle, a very influential writer and philosopher, who believed that "a man perfects himself by working". After Brown encountered a group of workmen digging up the road near his studio in Hampstead, Carlyle was the artist's principal inspiration for the painting.

 

Carlyle created a fictional character, Bobus Higgins, who enters politics after a corrupt career making sausages from horsemeat. In the painting, on Heath Street, sandwich boards urge the public to "Vote for Bobus".

Work, by Ford Madox Brown, The Mount, Heath Street, Hampstead, 1852-1865
The scene on Heath Street

Behind some ragged children playing on the fence, a notice being fixed to the wall shows the results of a poll putting Bobus at the top. Beyond that, as the road turns the corner, we can just see a dog barking at horses pulling a carriage, perhaps a portend of the turmoil to come.

 

At the extreme right of the picture, beyond Maurice's shoulders, a policeman nudges an orange seller to prevent her from 'setting up shop' by resting her basket on a bollard.

Work, by Ford Madox Brown, The Mount, Heath Street, Hampstead, 1852-1865
The policeman and the orange seller

Brown was heavily influenced for his subject matter by the 18th century artist William Hogarth, who portrayed life in London for many disadvantaged groups of people.

 

Artistically, Brown was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painters. Although never officially a member, his friends included Pre-Raphaelites such as Rossetti and he is associated with the group.

 

Brown's work displays Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood features such as bright colours and attention to detail. However, whereas the Pre-Raphaelites were fond of scenes from literature and the past, Brown was more interested in modern life.


In Work, the artist broadens our view of work, its definition and value. However, while Brown acknowledges different versions of work, he places manual work centre stage and portrays it as a noble activity.

 

Ford Madox Brown worked on Work for 15 years, from 1852 to 1865, taking his canvas and paints to The Mount in Hampstead on a special cart. He even made a second, smaller, version of the painting, now on display at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

 

Work is widely regarded as Ford Madox Brown's most important work.

 

Walks available for booking

For a schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground guided walks, please click here.

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