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Work: a blessing and a curse

15 March 2019

Ford Madox Brown’s monumental painting Work speaks to Ayla Lepine in part two in our Lent series on the art of the Fall


Work (1852-63), by Ford Madox Brown (1821-93)

Work (1852-63), by Ford Madox Brown (1821-93)

THE Pre-Raphaelite artist Ford Madox Brown planned a revolutionary manifesto on canvas throughout the 1850s. Beginning what he called his “magnum opus” in 1852, he completed it 11 years later, and finally exhibited it in a solo show he curated himself — with much fanfare (but less than he would have liked) — in 1865. Work is now in the Manchester Art Gallery, in the city in which Madox Brown painted a vast cycle of murals in the Victorian Town Hall.

It is a large-scale oil painting, with a monumentality usually reserved for monarchs, battles, and biblical drama. At the heart of the painting’s purpose is a paradox that connects a London street to a theological problem. Work — and physical labour in particular — is praised in this painting as the noble calling of an honest English Everyman, involving every sinew in city improvements as a group swelter in the noonday heat to lay new pipes along The Mount in Heath Street, Hampstead.

In this same picture, however, work is also associated directly with the Fall and all the anguish that it brings. The Fall, as delineated here by Madox Brown, creates social division and class conflict, making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Work is the solution; work is also the problem.

MADOX BROWN was a Hampstead resident, painting what he saw and creating unique views of his expanding neighbourhood in a manner that combined wit and meticulous detail. When criticised by John Ruskin, who asked why Madox Brown had painted what Ruskin considered to be a dull and ugly landscape of one of Hampstead’s hills, the artist retorted “because it lay out of a back window!”

Madox Brown was rooted in his local London parish, and rooted in scripture. For the inscriptions on the painting’s frame, which he also designed, he selected four biblical citations: “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 Thessalonians 3.8); “I must work while it is day for night cometh, when no man can work” (John 9.4); and “Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings” (Proverbs 22.29)

In selecting and juxtaposing these passages (which punctuate the whole of the Bible, from Genesis through to the epistles), Madox Brown builds into his London canvas a theology of work. The Fall’s punishment — the requirement for men to toil for sustenance, and suffer for nourishment — is connected to the needful work of Christ’s mission, the moral decency of diligence as opposed to laziness, and the importance of spreading the gospel as round-the-clock toil. Notably, Madox Brown’s interest in work and the Fall does not extend to Eve and the fate of women, at least not in this painting.

The interplay of day and night, Christ and Adam, and rich and poor (the worker offered a seat at the king’s table), are striking in relation to a painting that teems with diverse bodies going about (or not going about) their business.

THE painting, of which there are multiple versions, is a visual description of the characteristics of every British class in Victorian London. From beer-swilling to parasol-twirling, all are flamboyantly on show. And the dogs match their owners: the sleek bourgeois dog in its delicate collar and red coat is worlds apart from the shaggy stray mutt belonging to the three orphaned children in the foreground.

What Madox Brown described as the “democratic dog” resting in the lower foreground, oblivious to the cacophony, “hates minions of aristocracy in red jackets” — and indeed uses a red textile as a blanket, rather than a jaunty fashion statement.

The aristocrats in the background are deliberately and literally in the shade; the shifty-looking flower-seller on the far left, barefoot and in rags, skulks next to a poster proclaiming “robbery” and “great violence”; and the lady on the left with a purple bonnet distributes tracts on the dangers of the demon drink, one of which drifts pathetically on the wind past one of the workers in the foreground, who couldn’t care less.

ON THE opposite side of the painting are two men who are also working, though they represent brains rather than brawn: the man in the hat, leaning on his cane, is the cultural critic Thomas Carlyle, who wrote in his influential book Past and Present that “Labour is Life”. Carlyle the “brainworker” also observed, “In idleness alone there is perpetual despair.”

Next to him, clutching a Bible behind his back, is the founder of Christian Socialism, F. D. Maurice. Madox Brown was a friend of Maurice’s, and taught at the Working Men’s College that Maurice also co-founded in 1854, not long after his dismissal from King’s College, London, for his theological views. Inspired by the working-class Chartist campaign, Maurice sought an Anglican ecclesiology that was energetic in the public square.

Michael Ramsey’s view on Maurice was that “his liberalism was not born of any indifference to dogma; rather it was the freedom of mind which can come to those whom genuine orthodoxy lifts above the partial conceptions of a particular age.” For Madox Brown, too, the nobility of work — whether physical, mental, or indeed artistic — was a route to liberation rather than oppression.

Only those who did not, or could not (according to the London social observer Henry Mayhew’s Victorian categories), work were subject to real oppression and marginalisation. That is, unless they did not work because of the sheer scale of their wealth and status. In Madox Brown’s view, the upper crust would be supplanted — indeed, in his painting they already are — by the honest sweat of the hearty navvy.

THE navvies, whose movements form a strong geometry anchoring the centre of the composition, are the real heroes of this sunny English afternoon. They are the only inhabitants of the street whose presence is actually required. Everyone else is promenading, playing, sleeping, evangelising, selling, or casually observing. Only the navvies — none of whom engages with the viewer, because they are all too busy doing their jobs — are well and truly labouring for their daily wage.

They are also, unlike some in the painting, not local residents. They would travel throughout the city, going wherever the work was. In this case, the work was about the fundamentals of life and death, health and disease: water and sewage. Pipes needed to be laid so that this region of London could thrive.

Two serious issues had prompted this infrastructural development: population growth, and the fear of cholera. The size of Hampstead’s population doubled between the 1840s and the 1860s. In 1849, churches gathered to raise funds and give thanks after a scare about cholera that, as it turned out, affected fewer than had been greatly feared.

At the time when Madox Brown began his painting and observed Hampstead’s populace looking for inspiration, those same residents erected the Provident Dispensary, mere steps away from The Mount (where Work is set). The plaque — which is still there — reads: “A thank offering to Almighty God for His special mercy in sparing this parish.”

Hampstead was no Eden, despite current perceptions about its highly coveted postcode, and sky-high property prices. Its history, much like that of any parish, is marked by the ravages of poverty and the visceral struggles through which lives are shaped and offered to God.

WHEN Madox Brown exhibited the fruits of his own labours, he didn’t limit the text to the four biblical inscriptions on the frame, but wrote additional notes, and a sonnet, which was printed to accompany the painting. It begins: “Work! Which beads the brow and tans the flesh Of lusty manhood, casting out its devils!” The devil may have tempted humanity into the condition whereby work that “beads the brow” would be necessary, but — in Madox Brown’s view — it was only through the claiming of that work as a noble and moral pursuit that true freedom might be found.

When the serpent encouraged transgression, the gateway to humanity’s condition and the promise of Christ’s salvation opened out into wild territory. “O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer!” This Easter message of the Second Adam is as much for the orphan children — distinguished by the tiny baby’s tragic black ribbon — as it is for the beer-seller with his black eye, and the woman with the parasol. But, in Madox Brown’s Hampstead world, those who would seek to build up the common good and its vital infrastructure — whether through Maurice’s theology or the navvies’ energetic shovelling of London’s hard soil — were ahead of the game in pursuing the true labour of the Kingdom with noble righteousness.

The Revd Dr Ayla Lepine is an art historian and Assistant Curate of Hampstead Parish Church.

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