Painter Ford Madox Brown was born in Calais in 1821. His parents had moved there to cut living costs when struck by poverty. He studied art at Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Rome and Paris before returning to England in 1845.
Emma Hill, the illiterate child of a bricklayer, was one of his models and became his mistress. In 1848 they settled together at no. 17 Newman Street, Fitzrovia, close to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s studio, though the relationship remained a secret from all but his closest friends. In November 1850 she gave birth to a daughter. Brown taught Emma to read and write, and they were married at St Dunstan-in-the-West on 5 April 1853, in the presence only of Rossetti and another friend, the landscape painter Thomas Seddon.
In 1852, Brown had been lodging in Heath Street, at a time that Hampstead was expanding dramatically with the wholesale development of its large estates. Adelaide Road and South Hampstead were developed from the 1840s, Kilburn and Belsize in the 1850s, Lyndhurst Terrace in the 1860s. Gas lighting began to be introduced in the 1840s. Hampstead’s population grew from 10,000 in 1841 to 15,000 in 1851 and 19,000 in 1861. Brown witnessed this intense activity which transformed a largely rural area into a London suburb. In Heath Street he spotted a gang of navvies (manual workers on major civil engineering projects – mostly Irish immigrants) digging up the road for the laying of a sewage system. This lively scene of men at work fascinated him and he judged the activity of a navvy in full swing (in his own words) ‘at least as worthy of the powers of the English painter, as the fisherman of the Adriatic, the peasant of the Campagna, or the Neapolitan lazzarone’. Soon after, Brown began work on what has been called the first serious attempt by a British artist to represent the working class in an urban environment. Thirteen years later he completed the picture which he called Work.
Brown’s painting has been interpreted as one of the most didactic and moralistic paintings of his age. Despite the fact that he was never considered a true member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the painting made a considerable contribution to the intellectual orientation of the movement. Brown created a ‘realist’ painting utilising a composition crowded with figures that represent various types of workers and citizens in Victorian society. Every character tells its own story. The image is an odd combination of navvies digging a hole (representing the nobility of physical work); an orphan girl wearing her dead mother’s dress looking after brothers and sisters whilst her father is in the pub (the plight of neglected children); a flower seller from the country stuck in the city (the curse of urbanisation); standing against a railing there is a group of apparently jobless people (the plight of poverty); and, further to the right, there appear the figures of Frederick Maurice, leader of the Christian Socialist movement, and of Thomas Carlyle, the social critic.
They represent the ‘brainworkers’ and – in a Saint-Simonian sense – the social responsibility of the intellectual elite. Brown had been influenced by Carlyle’s view of the ‘nobleness and even sacredness of work’. In the painting he attempted to capture the dignity of the British worker. The women on the left, in fine dress and parasols, represent members of the middle class. One of the women is distributing pamphlets regarding the Temperance movement (the curse of alcoholism). Two well-dressed figures on horseback are placed towards the back of the painting (the idleness of the leisure class). Brown focuses the sunlight in the painting on the labouring figures, whereas the middle class members are painted in shadowy light. This contrast of labour and idleness continues on the gold frame which contains Biblical quotations about to the virtue of hard work.
The image is – to put it mildly – a confusing one. In 1848, as revolutions swept continental Europe and a Chartist movement for social reform unsettled England, at a time of industrialism and urbanisation, of newspapers and expanding means of communication, seven rebellious young London artists formed a secret society. They called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Disenchanted with contemporary academic painting, members of the Brotherhood were inspired by late medieval and early Renaissance art up to the time of Raphael. This art was characterised by minute description of detail and by subject matter of a noble, religious or moralising nature. Late medieval ideals in mid-nineteenth century England – the concept appears an aberration: interesting, impressive at times, but a weird anachronism none the less. This is historicity at it most absurd, a retreat into the past.
To many artists and intellectuals of the nineteenth century the Middle Ages offered an asylum in which to hide from the relentlessly changing present. A similar symptom of European intellectual escapism during the late 1900s and early twentieth century was the cult of the Renaissance. The veneration of this period by such thinkers as Gobineau, Nietzsche, Taine, Jacob Burckhardt, or John Addington Symonds, was associated with an intense contempt for the present. While being swept into an uncertain future, men sought counterbalance in the past. Yet, each of these retrospective strands also reflected different attitudes towards the present. History, after all, was not read for history’s sake, but as a lesson for the here and now. The past should teach the present, preferably with concrete examples to be followed or avoided. The standard had been set by Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present (1843). This ‘flight into the past’ was not a matter of pure escapism. Most idolaters of Europe’s great tradition had an agenda that concerned their own time. Nostalgia is by implication socio-cultural criticism. Victorian medievalists pitted their glorified past against the reality of capitalism and gross materialism. Pre-Raphaelite painters depicted medieval, Renaissance and Romantic themes mixed with contemporary subjects and criticism of society, including exploitation, poverty, and taboos such as prostitution, suppressed sexuality or homosexuality. They countered the reality of Victorian orthodoxy by celebrating neo-pagan and hedonistic lifestyles, and setting alternative ethical and aesthetic values.
All that however is philosophy, not reality. It is quite astonishing that the labels of ‘social realism’ and ‘urban observation’ are still used to describe Brown’s odd picture. The working conditions of navvies in particular were squalid. The men were paid daily and their pay reputedly went on drink, leaving little for food. The building of Britain’s infrastructure, roads, canals, railways, has an often painful history. It takes some leap of the imagination to associate Brown’s men who are digging sewers with the sacredness of work. For all its aesthetic qualities this is a strange painting, one of muddled imagery and confused thinking. In an age that work was increasingly divided, mechanised, and degraded, philosophers and moralists sang the praises of labour, whilst artists and poets ignored the drudgery of machines and instead observed the muscles of digging men with an almost Soviet like admiration. Brown and the Pre-Raphaelites were not of this world – they were nostalgic dreamers at best and sloppy sentimentalists at worst. There was no nobility in work. There was factory labour, mechanised labour, child labour, slave labour. There were greedy owners, relentless hours, low pay, dirty factories, and poor conditions. There was oil and grease. Life was black. There was but one escape: drink.
One of the workmen in Brown’s painting is draining a pewter pot of porter. In front of him stands the potboy from one of the local pubs. He is dressed in bowtie and waistcoat, wearing a publican’s apron, and in his left hand he carries the pot-board (beer tray) which bore up to ten beer pots and, on the top, clay pipes for those who wanted a smoke with their beer. The introduction of this figure stresses the anachronistic nature of the image. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word ‘potboy’ was first used in an anonymous book published around 1662 entitled The Life and Death of Mrs Mary Frith, Commonly Called Moll Cutpurse. A potboy was a young man employed at a public house to fill orders for those wanting beer at home, or delivering porter for an aristocratic household’s servants to drink with their meals, or bring beer to those who were working in the building trade or repairing the roads. His shout of ‘beer-ho’ was once one of the familiar cries of London. Madox Brown painted Work at a time when the institution of the potboy had become mere memory. Gin had replaced beer as the cheap and common drink amongst the working poor. The contented workmen drinking tankards of foaming beer in Hogarth’s moral image of Beer Street (which includes a potboy) had made way for the chaos and drunkenness of Gin Street.
The English passion for gin dates back to the Glorious Revolution. On 24 August 1689 William III banned all trade with France. Low levels of duty on liquor or cider established by statute in 1690 were introduced in an attempt to encourage native alternatives to French wines. As a possible substitute, William encouraged the distilling of Dutch ‘jenever’ (geneva) or gin as it was known in England. This politically motivated economic move heralded the beginning of an urban gin addiction. The effect was such that in London, despite some real improvements in sanitation and health care, the population of the metropolis actually fel in numbers. Londoners were drinking themselves to death. There was an alarming increase in the number of ‘gin shops’, many of which were former public houses that had been converted. George Dodd, in The Food of London, published in 1856, observed that many small pubs were being transformed into gin houses, ‘from painted deal to polished mahogany, from small crooked panes of glass to magnificent crystal sheets, from plain useful fittings to costly luxurious adornments’. The success of the gin-shops coincided with developments in plate glass production and gas lighting which were employed to the full, creating a dazzling spectacle of light and reflection. In the dark city streets these places stood out like beacons. To the poor they were palaces – Gin Palaces. At the time of its exhibition, Madox Brown’s Work was timeworn in almost every detail of the painting. A jug of stale beer.