We are looking at Ford Madox Brown’s painting, Work, begun in 1852 and completed after eleven years of hard work in 1863.
It is a consummate masterpiece of Nineteenth Century realism, one of the greatest paintings of the Nineteenth Century and he takes us to the very heart of Victorian London.
So this painting is a social panorama, amazingly for a Victorian artist, Ford Madox Brown makes the hero of this painting a labourer, a manual labourer and a group of navies, this great pentagonal mass of figures in the middle, these heroes in the sunlight.
The other social types are pushed to the sides of the composition - here are the intellectuals, the brain workers, the people who make a living by thinking. Thomas Carlisle, the satirical philosopher with his strange sneer and the holy man, Frederick Denison Maurice, who gazes philosophically even theologically at the central mass and on the other side we have this strange figure of a groundsel seller, a seller of weeds and strange herbs.
This figure is one of the most exciting and the most strange in the painting because his shifty look, his long etiolated stretched figure and if we look closely at this text, Ford Madox Brown has filled the painting with words, you can see the word robber, great violence and it’s clear that that’s actually connecting this text with this character, so there is a danger that he himself will eventually turn to violence because no-one has taught him how to work.
Madox Brown had a wicked sense of humour and what he gives us is a parody of the English class system in terms of the dogs that we see in the painting - so down here at the front we have a working dog, this is a Victorian equivalent of a Jack Russell, a dog which goes down into the excavations and catches rats – here by contrast is a ridiculous middle class dog, a bourgeois dog wearing a kind of necklace and a little red coat.
Meanwhile, here we have a dog which is a kind of homeless mutt, this is a dog who nobody takes care of, a dog who actually belongs to this group of orphaned street children here. We can tell they are orphaned because there is a little black band around the baby’s arm.
And finally at the height of the pyramid, the top of the social pyramid, but thrown into shade at the back is a hunting dog, a dog which belongs to these aristocrats who no longer have an important role in society.
So this painting is an extraordinarily radical avant-garde piece – first of all it takes the format and size of historical or religious paintings of earlier periods and turns that same gaze, that same seriousness to everyday life in the city. It gives us an extraordinary example of the clarity and precision of pre-Raphaelite realist painting.
So this is as if to say that the real heroes of Victorian London, the people who built the Britain that we still live in, were in fact these anonymous labouring men – that was effectively a socialist statement, so this painting is visually radical, but it’s also politically radical.