Work (painting)
Work is a painting by Ford Madox Brown
Ford Madox Brown
Ford Madox Brown was an English painter of moral and historical subjects, notable for his distinctively graphic and often Hogarthian version of the Pre-Raphaelite style. Arguably, his most notable painting was Work...

, which is generally considered to be his most important achievement. It attempts to portray, both literally and analytically, the totality of the Victorian
Victorian era
The Victorian era of British history was the period of Queen Victoria's reign from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. It was a long period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities and national self-confidence...

 social system and the transition from a rural
Rural areas or the country or countryside are areas that are not urbanized, though when large areas are described, country towns and smaller cities will be included. They have a low population density, and typically much of the land is devoted to agriculture...

 to an urban
Urban area
An urban area is characterized by higher population density and vast human features in comparison to areas surrounding it. Urban areas may be cities, towns or conurbations, but the term is not commonly extended to rural settlements such as villages and hamlets.Urban areas are created and further...

 economy. Brown began the painting in 1852 and completed it in 1865, when he set up a special exhibition to showcase it along with several of his other works. He wrote a detailed catalogue explaining the significance of the picture.

The painting was commissioned by Thomas Plint
Thomas Plint
Thomas Edward Plint, was a stockbroker and important Pre-Raphaelite art collector who commissioned and owned several notable paintings. In 1839, with his friend Charles Reed, he started and edited a magazine called The Leeds Repository,...

, a well-known collector of Pre-Raphaelite art, who died before its completion.


The picture depicts a group of so-called "Navvies
Navvy is a shorter form of navigator or navigational engineer and is particularly applied to describe the manual labourers working on major civil engineering projects...

" digging up the road to build a system of underground tunnels. It is typically assumed that these were part of the extensions of London's sewerage system, which were being undertaken to deal with the threat of typhus
Epidemic typhus is a form of typhus so named because the disease often causes epidemics following wars and natural disasters...

 and cholera
Cholera is an infection of the small intestine that is caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. The main symptoms are profuse watery diarrhea and vomiting. Transmission occurs primarily by drinking or eating water or food that has been contaminated by the diarrhea of an infected person or the feces...

. The workers are in the centre of the painting. On either side of them are individuals who are either unemployed or represent the leisured classes. Behind the workers are two aristocrats on horseback, whose progress along the road has been halted by the excavations.

The painting also portrays an election campaign, evidenced by posters and people carrying sandwich board
Sandwich board
A sandwich board is a type of advertisement composed of two boards and being either:*Carried by a person, with one board in front and one behind, creating a "sandwich" effect; or...

s with the name of the candidate "Bobus". A poster also draws attention to the potential presence of a burglar.

The scene is set on The Mount on Heath Street in Hampstead
Hampstead is an area of London, England, north-west of Charing Cross. Part of the London Borough of Camden in Inner London, it is known for its intellectual, liberal, artistic, musical and literary associations and for Hampstead Heath, a large, hilly expanse of parkland...

, London, a side road which rises up from the main road and runs alongside it. Brown made a detailed study of the location in 1852.

Background and influences

Brown explained that he had intended to demonstrate that the modern British workman could be as fit a subject for art as the more supposedly picturesque Italian lazarone
Naples Lazzaroni
The Naples Lazzaroni is used as a generic term to include various kinds of the lower class people in Naples, Italy. Described as "street people under a chief", they were often depicted as "beggars"—which some actually were, while others subsisted partly by service as messengers, porters, etc.No...

(literally, the "mob," used to refer to the street people of Naples
Naples is a city in Southern Italy, situated on the country's west coast by the Gulf of Naples. Lying between two notable volcanic regions, Mount Vesuvius and the Phlegraean Fields, it is the capital of the region of Campania and of the province of Naples...

). He set the painting on Heath Street in Hampstead
Hampstead is an area of London, England, north-west of Charing Cross. Part of the London Borough of Camden in Inner London, it is known for its intellectual, liberal, artistic, musical and literary associations and for Hampstead Heath, a large, hilly expanse of parkland...

, of which he made a detailed study. Hampstead was at the time a wealthy area on the outskirts of London, which was undergoing rapid expansion. The development of the new sewerage and drainage systems in the city was also widely discussed in the press as an agent of modernisation. The character of "Bobus" appears in the writings of Thomas Carlyle
Thomas Carlyle
Thomas Carlyle was a Scottish satirical writer, essayist, historian and teacher during the Victorian era.He called economics "the dismal science", wrote articles for the Edinburgh Encyclopedia, and became a controversial social commentator.Coming from a strict Calvinist family, Carlyle was...

 as the epitome of a corrupt businessman who uses his money to market himself as a politician.

Brown's principal artistic model was the work of William Hogarth
William Hogarth
William Hogarth was an English painter, printmaker, pictorial satirist, social critic and editorial cartoonist who has been credited with pioneering western sequential art. His work ranged from realistic portraiture to comic strip-like series of pictures called "modern moral subjects"...

, in particular his paintings Humours of an Election
Humours of an Election
The Humours of an Election is a series of four oil paintings and later engravings by William Hogarth that illustrate the election of a member of parliament in Oxfordshire in 1754. The oil paintings were created in 1755...

 and his prints Beer Street and Gin Lane. The Election paintings depicted both the vitality and the corruption of British society, while the prints set up a contrast between poverty and prosperity. While working on the painting Brown founded the Hogarth club
Hogarth Club
The Hogarth Club was an exhibition society of artists, based at 84 Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia, which existed between 1858 and 1861. It was founded by former members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood after the original PRB had been dissolved...

 to link artists who saw themselves as Hogarth's admirers and followers.

The rustic aspects of the composition draw on the established tradition of the picturesque
Picturesque is an aesthetic ideal introduced into English cultural debate in 1782 by William Gilpin in Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, etc. Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the Summer of the Year 1770, a practical book which instructed England's...

, epitomised by the work of artists such as John Constable
John Constable
John Constable was an English Romantic painter. Born in Suffolk, he is known principally for his landscape paintings of Dedham Vale, the area surrounding his home—now known as "Constable Country"—which he invested with an intensity of affection...

 and William Collins
William Collins (painter)
William Collins was an English landscape and genre painter. In the late 19th century his work was more popular and highly valued than even Turner or Constable.-Life and work:...

. The satirical and critical aspects of Hogarth's style work in tandem with Brown's Pre-Raphaelitism, with its intense concentration on the complication of the pictorial surface in conflicting details. This image of potentially violent and jarring confrontation is set in opposition to the social harmony and deference epitomised by the picturesque tradition.


The principal figure of the young workman is shovelling soil from a platform hanging in a hole onto a large pile behind him. Beneath him in the underground shaft another workman is digging the soil and shovelling it onto the platform. He is only visible in the form of a hand and a shovel appearing from the hole. To his right an older navvy is seen shovelling unsifted lime
Calcium oxide
Calcium oxide , commonly known as quicklime or burnt lime, is a widely used chemical compound. It is a white, caustic, alkaline crystalline solid at room temperature....

 into a sieve. The fine powder accumulates in a pile on the left.

The lime is to be used to make mortar
Mortar (masonry)
Mortar is a workable paste used to bind construction blocks together and fill the gaps between them. The blocks may be stone, brick, cinder blocks, etc. Mortar becomes hard when it sets, resulting in a rigid aggregate structure. Modern mortars are typically made from a mixture of sand, a binder...

 which is being mixed by other navvies at the right of the composition. A hodcarrier, visible behind the main navvy, is transporting bricks down into the hole. The sheet floating in front of him is a copy of a religious tract handed to him by the lady in the blue bonnet at the left, who is attempting to evangelise the navvies. She is carrying copies of a tract called The Hodman's Haven or Drink for Thirsty Souls. The reference to "drink" in the title reflects the emergence of the temperance movement
Temperance movement
A temperance movement is a social movement urging reduced use of alcoholic beverages. Temperance movements may criticize excessive alcohol use, promote complete abstinence , or pressure the government to enact anti-alcohol legislation or complete prohibition of alcohol.-Temperance movement by...

. A navvy on right, swigging beer, emphasises their rejection of teetotalism. The woman in front of the evangelist represents genteel glamour - a fashionable lady whose only "job" is to look beautiful. The figure beyond her epitomises the opposite end of the social scale, a ragged itinerant who lives in a flophouse
A flophouse , doss-house or dosshouse is a place that offers very cheap lodging, generally by providing only minimal services.-Characteristics:...

 in Flower and Dean Street
Flower and Dean Street
Flower and Dean Street was a road situated at the heart of the Spitalfields rookery in the East End of London. It was one of the most notorious slum areas of the Victorian era and was closely associated with the victims of Jack the Ripper...

, Whitechapel
Whitechapel is a built-up inner city district in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, London, England. It is located east of Charing Cross and roughly bounded by the Bishopsgate thoroughfare on the west, Fashion Street on the north, Brady Street and Cavell Street on the east and The Highway on the...

, the most notoriously criminalised part of London at the time. He is a plant and animal seller, a form of urban worker who obtained flowers, reeds and small animals from the country to sell in the centre of the city. These characters had been described in Henry Mayhew
Henry Mayhew
Henry Mayhew was an English social researcher, journalist, playwright and advocate of reform. He was one of the two founders of the satirical and humorous magazine Punch, and the magazine's joint-editor, with Mark Lemon, in its early days...

's book London Labour and the London Poor
London Labour and the London Poor
London Labour and the London Poor is a work of Victorian journalism by Henry Mayhew. In the 1840s he observed, documented and described the state of working people in London for a series of articles in a newspaper, the Morning Chronicle, that were later compiled into book form.-Overview:The...

. All these figures are passing by the workers through a narrow pathway which brings them up against the sifted lime powder, a corrossive which symbolises the cleansing assault on their complacent rejection of useful work.

In the centre of the composition is a countryman who has recently moved to the town, identifiable by his rural smock
A smock-frock or smock is an outer garment traditionally worn by rural workers, especially shepherds and waggoners, in parts of England and Wales from the early eighteenth century...

. He is holding a brick-hod and drinking beer supplied by the man in the red waistcoat
A waistcoat or vest is a sleeveless upper-body garment worn over a dress shirt and necktie and below a coat as a part of most men's formal wear, and as the third piece of the three-piece male business suit.-Characteristics and use:...

 who is supposed to be a "bouncer" employed in a local pub. The beer seller's costume includes examples of cheap brummagem
Brummagem is the local name for the city of Birmingham, England, and the dialect associated with it...

 jewellery. His persona — including a copy of The Times
The Times
The Times is a British daily national newspaper, first published in London in 1785 under the title The Daily Universal Register . The Times and its sister paper The Sunday Times are published by Times Newspapers Limited, a subsidiary since 1981 of News International...

 under his arm — is a pastiche of a gentleman-flaneur
The term flâneur comes from the French masculine noun flâneur—which has the basic meanings of "stroller", "lounger", "saunterer", "loafer"—which itself comes from the French verb flâner, which means "to stroll". Charles Baudelaire developed a derived meaning of flâneur—that of "a person who walks...

. The two men behind him are imported Irish labourers, recognisable by their costume. This aspect of the painting is directly influenced by Hogarth's Beer Street.

In the foreground are a group of ragged children who have recently suffered a bereavement, evidenced by the black band on the baby's arm. As Brown says in his description, their ragamuffin status suggests that it was their mother who died. The oldest child, wearing borrowed clothing too old for her, tries to control her wayward brother, who is playing with the navvies' wheelbarrow. The younger girl sucks a carrot in lieu of a dummy and looks into the hole created by the workers. Their mongrel pet dog challenges the fashionable lady's pet dog, because, writes Brown, he hates "minions of aristocracy in jackets". The baby, who looks challengingly out at the viewer occupies a central position in the composition. Brown's description emphasises this challenge by suddenly moving from a first-person narrative
First-person narrative
First-person point of view is a narrative mode where a story is narrated by one character at a time, speaking for and about themselves. First-person narrative may be singular, plural or multiple as well as being an authoritative, reliable or deceptive "voice" and represents point of view in the...

 to the second person
Second-person narrative
The second-person narrative is a narrative mode in which the protagonist or another main character is referred to by employment of second-person personal pronouns and other kinds of addressing forms, for example the English second-person pronoun "you"....

 - speaking to his fictional fashionable lady about the perilous situation of the impoverished children.

On the embankment between the upper and the lower road a group of unemployed rural labourers are sleeping in uneasy postures. A scythe
A scythe is an agricultural hand tool for mowing grass, or reaping crops. It was largely replaced by horse-drawn and then tractor machinery, but is still used in some areas of Europe and Asia. The Grim Reaper is often depicted carrying or wielding a scythe...

 wrapped in protective rope hangs over the railing that separates the productive from the unproductive figures in the composition. The Irish couple by the tree are feeding their baby with gruel, while an older man stands by the tree looking resentful. This aspect of the painting recalls Carlyle's discussion of unemployed Irish migrants in his book Past and Present.

Beneath these figures on the road children can be seen playing, while genteel couples and sandwich-board carriers wander through the sun-dappled lower street. At the extreme right a policeman pushes a female orange seller who is resting her basket on a bollard (technically illegal, because she is setting up shop).


At the right the workers are being watched by two intellectuals who "seem to be idle but work". They are described as workers in their minds and as "the cause of well ordained work in others". In fact these are portraits of Thomas Carlyle
Thomas Carlyle
Thomas Carlyle was a Scottish satirical writer, essayist, historian and teacher during the Victorian era.He called economics "the dismal science", wrote articles for the Edinburgh Encyclopedia, and became a controversial social commentator.Coming from a strict Calvinist family, Carlyle was...

 and Frederick Maurice. Maurice was the founder of Christian socialism
Christian socialism
Christian socialism generally refers to those on the Christian left whose politics are both Christian and socialist and who see these two philosophies as being interrelated. This category can include Liberation theology and the doctrine of the social gospel...

. He established worker's educational institutions for which Brown worked. Carlyle was the main inspiration behind the picture. His books Past and Present
Past and Present
Past and Present may refer to:* Past and Present , a 1843 book by Thomas Carlyle* Past & Present, a historical journal* Past and Present , an episode of the science fiction television series Stargate SG-1...

 and Latter-Day Pamphlets
Latter-Day Pamphlets
Latter-Day Pamphlets was a series of "pamphlets" published by Thomas Carlyle in 1850, in vehement denunciation of what he believed to be the political, social, and religious imbecilities and injustices of the period...

 had criticised the laissez faire economic system and political corruption. He was known for his so-called "gospel of work", which described work as a form of worship. He wrote in Past and Present,
It has been written, 'an endless significance lies in Work;' a man perfects himself by working. Foul jungles are cleared away, fair seedfields rise instead, and stately cities; and withal the man himself first ceases to be a jungle and foul unwholesome desert thereby. Consider how, even in the meanest sorts of Labour, the whole soul of a man is composed into a kind of real harmony, the instant he sets himself to work! Doubt, Desire, Sorrow, Remorse, Indignation, Despair itself, all these like helldogs lie beleaguering the soul of the poor dayworker, as of every man: but he bends himself with free valour against his task, and all these are stilled, all these shrink murmuring far off into their caves. The man is now a man. The blessed glow of Labour in him, is it not as purifying fire, wherein all poison is burnt up, and of sour smoke itself there is made bright blessed flame!

In the same book Carlyle creates the character of Bobus Higgins, a corrupt sausage maker who uses horsemeat in his product to undercut competitors. In Latter-Day Pamphlets Bobus is portrayed as a populist manipulator who is going into politics. In the painting his agent appears behind Carlyle's head, prodding local "idlers" to walk through the streets carrying signs with his name on them. At the left a "Vote for Bobus" poster has been hit by a ball of mud or faeces and has "don't" chalked onto it.

Composition and significance

The painting is structured by the increasing compression of space from right to left, as the rural relaxation on the right side is replaced by the concentrated labour in the middle and the urban crush on the far left. The workers in the centre break up the established relationship between the characters, throwing people together in new ways. Brown reproduces the common triangular structure of the social system, with the horse-riding aristocrats at the top. But they are pushed to the back, stuck and unable to progress — forced into the shade in the background, while the workers occupy the brightly lit foreground. The railings around the excavations separate the realm of productive work from that of leisure, lassitude and unproductive work.

As with most Pre-Raphaelite paintings the composition minimises chiaroscuro and accummulates motifs in deliberately confusing abundance, containing numerous Hogarthian sub-episodes within the main image (a man washing windows; a dog worrying horses leading a carriage etc). The composition is also used to dramatically crop figures and motifs which complicates the legibility of space (the hand emerging from the hole; the cropped figures behind the intellectuals' head). Carlyle's smile links the viewer in a paradoxical engagement with the re-working process depicted.
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