At the same time that William Frith was painting his social panoramas, one of the Pre-Raphaelites was painting his own. Although not one of the Brotherhood itself, Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893) was invited by Dante Gabriel Rossetti to become his tutor, and remained close to the inner circle.
Some of Brown’s early paintings were of crowds, but retained single narratives. His first painting to establish his interest in more complex storytelling was The Last of England, which he started as his response to the emigration to Australia of the only Pre-Raphaelite sculptor, Thomas Woolner, in 1852.
Brown’s original oil version is one of his most subtle compositions. Central to its imitation of a circular tondo is a middle-class couple who are not enjoying the fact that their migrant ship is ‘all one class’. They both stare with grim determination at the prospect of sharing the next few weeks with the rowdy working class passengers behind them, eating the same increasingly stale vegetables which are now slung from cords around the ship’s rail in front of them.
This isn’t just a couple, though: look closely at their hands, and the woman’s left hand is clutching the tiny hand of her baby, who is safely swaddled inside her weatherproof hooded travelling cape. Her right hand, wearing a black leather glove, grasps that of her husband, whose left hand is tucked under his heavy coat. Splashes of brilliant colour are supplied by the wind blowing the woman’s ribbons.
Other small details lend authenticity and a little humour: behind are the white chalk cliffs of Dover, consistent with this ship having sailed from London, and there’s a paddle steamer working its way inshore, closer to the cliffs. A cabin boy is selecting some vegetables for cooking from the lifeboat in the background, and a smaller ship’s boat reveals the name of the migrants’ vessel to be Eldorado, the mythical city of gold in Colombia.
At the same time that he was starting The Last of England, Brown began what many consider his masterwork, titled simply Work. This was commissioned by the collector Thomas Plint, who died in 1861, four years before it was completed. While still working on that original, now in Manchester, Brown was commissioned to paint a second, which is now in Birmingham. The original wasn’t completed until 1865, but he finished the slightly smaller second version two years earlier.
This is the Birmingham (second) version of Work, painted between 1859-63, which is rather lighter and richer in colour, making it easier to read.
This crowded street scene is set in Heath Street, Hampstead, one of London’s ‘leafy’ suburbs at the time, in which Brown has crammed references to many aspects of contemporary Victorian society, including an election campaign.
At its centre is a gang of navvies, the term originating from the word navigators, usually Irish labourers, who had dug the canals during the previous century. Here they’re engaged in digging up a road to lay a sewer as part of the campaign to improve the hygiene of Victorian London. Inspired by the social satirical comment of William Hogarth’s many prints and paintings, Brown is effectively giving a meticulously detailed account of the breadth and depth of contemporary society, using multiple interwoven narratives in this single image.
Behind this scene of bustling workers are an aristocratic couple riding their horses, who are obstructed by the road works in front. Although they’re shown at the top of a social pyramid, behind them is an Institute of Arts overlooking them all.
At the left is a file of people making their way down the pavement. To the rear, heading uphill, is a porter carrying a green case on his head. Next down are two well-dressed women carrying parasols. The woman behind is carrying religious tracts, one of which has floated in front of the navvies, while the woman in front of her represents ‘genteel glamour’. In front is a barefoot flower-seller who lives in a flophouse in Flower and Dean Street in Whitechapel. She is on her way to scrape a living from the wicker basket full of freshly picked wild flowers.
In front of the younger navvy is the shovel of the older man, putting lime through a standing sieve. Between those, shown only as a disembodied hand holding a shovel, is another navvy digging underground. The face of a hod carrier and the bricks he is taking down the hole are visible to the right of the younger navvy. In the immediate foreground is a pet dog in a scarlet coat.
Posters on the wall at the extreme left advocate voting for Bobus, and warn of a man wanted for robbery. Bobus is a character in the writing of Thomas Carlyle who uses the ill-gotten gains from his business to sell himself as a politician.
In the centre a country bumpkin in a smock is drinking the last drop of beer from a mug. To the right is the beer seller calling out his wares above the noise. He has tawdry jewellery in his pockets, and a copy of The Times newspaper tucked under his left arm. The older of the navvies is bent over as he sieves lime to the left. In front of him a young girl and her three children are seen in frayed and torn clothing, with their dog.
To the right a young couple rest in the shade of trees, feeding their young infant. At their feet unemployed rural labourers are asleep, their scythe and rake hanging over the railing above them. In the street behind there are several ‘sandwich board’ carriers promoting Bobus.
At the far right are cameo portraits of Thomas Carlyle and Frederick Maurice. Carlyle was a philosopher whose writings praising work were the underlying theme of the painting, while Maurice founded educational institutions for workers, in which Brown worked. Behind and to the right of their heads, a policeman wearing a top hat is pushing a woman selling oranges in the street.
Although Ford Madox Brown went on to paint several more narrative works, none was as rich in stories as this, a worthy successor to Frith’s social panoramas, and a complete illustrated textbook on work.