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Milestones Lecture given by Professor Tim Barringer

21 September 2009

Saturday 21 November 2009

‘In the truest sense historical’: a painting by Ford Madox Brown

Tim Barringer (TH 1983) is Paul Mellon Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of the History of Art at Yale University. He returned to the University as Slade Professor of the History of Art and a Visiting Fellow of Trinity Hall in 2009. His Slade lectures will be published by Yale University Press as Broken Pastoral: Art and Music in Britain, Gothic Revival to Punk Rock.

Tim Barringer has published and lectured widely on British art and visual culture and on art and empire. His books include Reading the Pre-Raphaelites (1998), American Sublime (with Andrew Wilton, 2002) and Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain (2005) and Opulence and Anxiety (2007). He is editor of Colonialism and the Object (with Tom Flynn, 1997) and Frederic Leighton: Antiquity, Renaissance, Modernity (Elizabeth Prettejohn, Yale 1998), Art and the British Empire(with Douglas Fordham and Geoff Quilley, 2007), Art and Emancipation in Jamaica (with Gillian Forrester and Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz, 2007) and Writing the Pre-Raphaelites (with Michaela Giebelhausen, 2009). He is curator of an exhibition Before and After Modernism: Byam Shaw, Rex Vicat Cole, Yinka Shonibare MBE at Central St Martins, London, which opens on 17 November 2010, and (with Jason Rosenfeld and Alison Smith) of Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Gardeat Tate Britain, forthcoming in September 2012.


It was a particular pleasure to include in my Milestone Lecture at Trinity Hall a discussion of Ford Madox Brown’s painting Work (1852–65, now in Manchester City Art Gallery) which I first explored in an essay as an undergraduate here in 1985, and which continues to fascinate me after quarter of a century. That essay – handed in rather late, as I recall – became the kernel of my doctoral dissertation and book Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain (2005). The painting will appear in an exhibition I am curating with colleagues at Tate Britain, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, which will open in September 2012. Returning to Cambridge as Slade Professor of Fine Arts last year, I was delighted to be elected to a Visiting Fellowship at Trinity Hall, and to partake of the generous hospitality offered by Martin and Claire Daunton and the Fellows and staff of the College. I remain deeply grateful to all concerned. With the Milestone Lecture, delivered in the very room where I revised for my finals, I was glad to have a chance to sing for my supper.

In order to do justice to the Victorian painter Ford Madox Brown, we must reconsider the relationship between the two uncomfortably matched, sometimes warring, terms in the name of the discipline I teach – art history. It has often been argued that great art stands outside history, timeless in its aesthetic appeal, and that historical study reduces art to mere illustration of social, economic or political phenomena. I would claim the opposite, however; that only when located in the matrix of its own historical period, or cultural context, can the rich resonances of a work of art fully and truly be registered. Ford Madox Brown, the truculently independent Victorian painter, considered the processes of history to be visible before him on the streets of London. He trained in Antwerp as a painter of historical scenes, and his early works included Chaucer at the Court of Edward III and Wyclif; but in 1852 he realized, with a force of revelation, that outside his window in Hampstead lay scenes which were ‘in the truest sense historical’.

*         *         *

Work – the curse of Adam; a manly duty; the expression of moral rectitude; the essence of modern capitalism; or the route to artistic achievement? Ford Madox Brown’s Pre-Raphaelite panorama of Victorian city life, explores, in turn, all of these aspects of the mysterious set of practices collectively known as work, which give lives structure and meaning in the modern world. In creating this painting over a period of 13 years, Madox Brown attempted to fashion a new artistic genre, a history painting of modern life both scientific in its exactitude and probing in its moral and allegorical interrogation of the world it depicts. The painting’s fanatical level of detail is testimony to the artist’s own massive expenditure of labour, and is also revelatory of his profound analytical insights. He provides a comprehensive taxonomy of Victorian society, deliberately encapsulating the gamut of social types, from the leisured aristocrat, in the form of a mounted gentleman at the rear of the composition, to the manual labourer, in the form of the navvies in the foreground, heroes around whom the composition is built. Brown uses the painting’s dramatic chiaroscuro and its complex deployment of figures to emphasise the merits of honest manual labour, and to push other forms of work to the margins. Most significantly, he locates in the body of the mysterious and shifty-looking flower seller to the extreme left, the tragedy of the ‘ragged wretch who has never been taught how to work’.

Work  has achieved an unassailable place among canonical representations of Victorian society. Constantly on public display and widely reproduced commercially, Madox Brown’s composition with its central group of manual workers has been incorporated into modern culture as an all-purpose sign of the Victorian working-class male hero, and as a visual equivalent of the sententious voice of the Victorian novelist. The fact that Work is widely known and reproduced signifies the ultimate fulfilment of Madox Brown’s aspirations for it. Conceiving of the painting as a major public statement, he called it ‘my magnum opus’ and laboured on it for over a decade: when it was completed he devised an elaborate strategy for launching the image into the public domain. Following the precedent of Benjamin Haydon, John Martin and, more recently, William Holman Hunt, he organised a privately funded, one-man exhibition, which was held at the Piccadilly Gallery in 1865 with Work at its centre. The exhibition, however, was only a qualified success and the failure of a plan to produce an engraving of Work precluded the hoped for spreading of its gospel into homes and institutions across the world. Only belatedly, with the spread of colour reproduction in the 20th century, and now through digital media, has the painting achieved the celebrity it richly deserves.

Key to the painting’s interpretation is the lengthy catalogue published by Madox Brown in 1865, in which he offers novelistic ruminations about the identity of the various characters depicted, allotting to them past and future life histories and presenting a tendentious account of their significance. He even included a rather roughly-hewn sonnet which addresses many of the characters in the painting:


WORK! which beads the brow, and tans the flesh

  Of lusty manhood, casting out its devils!

  By whose weird art, transmuting poor men’s evils,

Their bed seems down, their one dish ever fresh.

Ah me! For lack of it what ills in leash,

  Hold us. It’s want the pale mechanic levels

  To workhouse depths, while Master Spendthrift revels.

For want of work, the fiends him soon immesh!

Ah! beauteous tripping dame with bell-like skirts,

  Intent on thy small scarlet-coated hound,

    Are ragged wayside babes not lovesome too?

Untrained, their state reflects on thy deserts,

  Or they grow noisome beggars to abound,

    Or dreaded midnight robbers, breaking through.

                                                                                F M B – February 1865

Madox Brown’s painting was meant not only to represent the entirety of modern life, but also – as in the works of his contemporaries, Dickens and George Eliot – to analyse it, revealing its energies but also its flaws. The process of labour serves, in Brown’s account, as the refiner’s fire, sorting out the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff of humanity. Work’s harsh medicine ‘beads the brow, and tans the flesh / Of lusty manhood, casting out its devils!’ Yet the painting is not merely a sermon; it strives to be the equivalent both of a work of supposedly impartial social analysis such as Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. Nonetheless, its tone more closely resembles a dissertation on social and moral questions like those penned by Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, the pre-eminent sages of Victorian prosody, or preached by the Christian Socialist divine, the Revd Frederic Denison Maurice, one-time Fellow of Trinity Hall. A portrait of him, a diminutive, grey-haired man carrying a Bible, can be seen in the front right-hand corner of Work, standing next to Carlyle, the prophet marked by his wild stare and the gap between his teeth.

But what gospel was Brown preaching and why? Undoubtedly the artist’s understanding of work was deeply conditioned by religion. Inscribed on the frame are biblical texts, forming the first of several verbal commentaries provided by Brown himself, which offer the germ of an exegesis of the world contained within:

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread [Genesis 3:19]

Neither did we eat any man’s bread for naught but wrought with labour and travail night and day [2 Thess 3.8]

I must work while it is day for night cometh, when no man can work [John 9:4]

Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before Kings [Proverbs 22: 29]

In the first of these inscriptions, work is presented, conventionally, as the curse of Adam from the Book of Genesis, the wages of sin; its performance is man’s punitive destiny. These ideas provided the theological underpinnings of political economy, as the Cambridge historian Boyd Hilton demonstrated in his magisterial book The Age of Atonement. Yet Brown’s painting, and his text, also celebrate the redemptive qualities of work: the man of labour shall stand before kings. Deeply embedded in Protestant theology was the notion that work in an earthly calling tests, and displays, the moral fibre of the individual, by which each can earn a place for himself, not only on earth but also thereafter. These ideas owe much to the writings of Carlyle. For Carlyle, work was perhaps the sole means of access to the grace of God: ‘Blessed is he who has found his work: let him ask no other blessedness. He has a work, a life-purpose.’ Visual scrutiny – the work of looking – and artistic interpretation – the work of art – will together reveal underlying truths about society, just as Carlyle did in carefully observed but also wildly judgemental texts such as Sartor Resartus and Past and Present. The revelation of truth through visual scrutiny and the hard work of artistic representation is the project of Madox Brown’s painting. The labour of painting is both an intellectual and a manual pursuit, and stands as a summation of all the forms of labour seen within the composition, from the philosopher to the excavator of holes in the road.

Yet the modern viewer might well ask about the role of women in this composition. The artist and the labourers are united in their seriousness of purpose – a manly endeavour, according to Madox Brown, in contrast to the apparently trivial concerns of women. The ‘beauteous tripping dame with bell-like skirts’, you’ll recall, is ‘intent’ on her ‘small scarlet-coated hound’, when she might have been lavishing her attentions on the orphans who jostle and play in the lower right of the composition. The proper sphere of woman’s work is represented – though not without irony – by the slightly older woman behind the ‘tripping dame’. This more serious woman is distributing tracts to the labourers, trying to convert them to teetotalism – a pointless task, clearly, as the labourers drain jugs brought to them from the local pub. Brown points out that in following her philanthropic endeavours, this lady neglects the proper object of her attentions, her small daughter with a yellow hat, who can be seen at her left-hand side. Brown, radical in political matters, here represented conventional Victorian views on the role of women in society.

The image of mother and child appears three times in Work, superficially united by the concept of the separate spheres of gender, but actually divided by class. Balancing the bourgeois evangelical lady are a migrant farmworker, ‘a young shoeless Irishman, with his wife,’ and their child, seen in the shade on the grassy bank. Poor and homeless through no fault of their own, they are responsible parents, and the sacred bond is intact between the mother and her child, whom she feeds with ‘cold pap.’ Most significant, however, is the street urchin girl in the central foreground, holding a baby, comforting a younger sister and disciplining her unruly brother. Madox Brown’s explanatory text assimilates this group into the morality of separate spheres, reading the girl’s efforts as another indication of the hidden, household work permitted under an orthodox account of the sexual division of labour. Visual clues provide the narrative details; the baby’s black armband indicates the recent death of the mother, whose role the elder daughter has through necessity taken on. The catalogue text urges us to accept the moral, claiming that a ‘germ or rudiment of good housewifery seems to pierce through her disordered envelope, for the younger ones are taken care of, and nestle to her as to a mother.’ With this image of respectable motherhood, Brown invokes a future narrative in which she will eventually withdraw from the public arena – the place of work – and carry out wifely and motherly duties in the privacy of her home. But the visual imagery indicates an opposite narrative: although only a child, small and thin with ragged hair, she bears the signs of a mature female, notably in the battered velvet dress, too long for her and falling off her shoulders. This detail resonates with Ruskin’s reading of a narrative from the garment minutely depicted in Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience in 1854: ‘the very hem of the poor girl’s dress, at which the painter has laboured so closely, thread by thread, has story in it, if we think how soon its pure whiteness may be soiled with dust and rain, her outcast feet failing in the street.’ In the same way, the urchin girl’s ill-fitting and tattered velvet dress, her bared shoulders and her shameless proximity to the exposed flesh of the navvies and beer seller indicate a future life history of poverty leading to prostitution. Such a narrative questions not only Brown’s text as the arbiter of the significance of these figures, but also the respectably ‘manly’ rather than merely ‘male’ character of the workmen around her. Her fall, already prefigured by her premature assumption of the status of a mature woman, is foreshadowed in that of the dress itself; once modest, laced up and fashionable, like that of the lady with the parasol to the left, it has been dragged in the dirt and now exposes as vulnerable that which it was meant to protect: the female body. This group prefigures the crisis of femininity in which the collapse of the domestic sphere and of normative family relationships ends in prostitution. Though Victorian culture is replete with narratives in which the fall of the respectable woman is presented as resulting from a flaw of feminine character, Brown’s catalogue accounts for the plight of the children in the foreground in terms of a failure of masculinity, a dereliction of the duty of the father, who drinks and faces a prison sentence for his neglectfulness.

In the end, what is on display in Work is not merely a painting as a reified form of labour – a work of art, frozen in time – but the process of labour itself. The image celebrates the heroic endeavour of the manual labourers, the brave and original thought of the brainworkers – Carlyle and Morris – and most of all, the artistic labour of Madox Brown himself. The painting demands labour, too, in the form of close looking and thinking. Its detailed iconography demands, and repays, intensive study. But ultimately, Brown’s painting is blissfully ambivalent. One of the most sophisticated and fully worked-out statements of 19th century bourgeois ideology, it also contains the germs of a critique of capitalism parallel to the one being formulated in the same years and in the same city, by Karl Marx. A supreme attempt to efface the personality of the artist and present the world as it actually is, Work draws attention most of all to the artist’s own spectacular labours. It offers a philosophical analysis while simultaneously articulating a critique of bourgeois labour and brainwork as feeble compared with the real sweat of earthmoving. Ultimately, Brown’s canvas, private testimonial and public icon, brings the 19th century city and its inhabitants sharply into focus, triumphantly registering, and humorously critiquing, their many contradictions. It is a supreme example of art’s self-conscious engagement with history.


Further Reading

Tim Barringer, Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

Tim Barringer, Reading the Pre-Raphaelites (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999).

Kenneth Bendiner, The Art of Ford Madox Brown (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998).

Mary Bennett, Ford Madox Brown: A Catalogue Raisonné (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010).

Martin Danahay, Gender at Work in Victorian Culture (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005).

Ford Madox Hueffer [later called Ford Madox Ford], Ford Madox Brown: A Record of his Life and Works (London: Longmans Green, 1896).

Angela Thirlwell, Into the Frame: the Four Loves of Ford Madox Brown, (London: Chatto and Windus, 2009).

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