Work: Ford Madox Brown

 Work, painted in 1852-3 by Ford Madox Brown, is one of my favourite Victorian paintings.  This lively street scene, with its diverse cast of characters, has the same fascination as The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke – I’m drawn into the picture.  But while there’s no escape from Dadd’s claustrophobic vision, I would be be happy to wander off up that street in the top right of the painting, just to see what’s round the corner.

It’s a very moral painting, celebrating the maxim that work is ennobling and beneficial.  Look at how clean, strong, and healthy the labourers are – and the pretty young wife of one of them has brought their three children and several dogs into the picture, to demonstrate the virtues and blessings of family life.

Everyone looks well, if not well-off, apart from the flower-seller.  Her ragged coat, tattered dress, and bare feet at least give a nod in the direction of economic reality.  The factories in the North where children worked 12 hour days in filthy, dangerous conditions for meagre pay are left completely out of this picture.  Ford Madox Brown’s patrons would not have thanked him for rubbing their noses in the source of their prosperity.

His patrons are represented in the prosperous Victorians walking or riding past the roadworks.  I particularly like the two men leaning against the railing and enjoying the sight of other people working.  They’re probably armchair labourers, telling each other how the work might be managed more efficiently.  Could one them be Ford Madox Brown?  The man in the brown coat, leaning on a stick and looking out at the viewer, is remarkably like his photo.

On one level, I know this is propaganda, painted to show a stable, contented society where the sober, industrious lower classes know their place and everyone gets along in a civilized way.  But the cheerfulness and postcard quality of the sunlit scene combine to superimpose the picture’s reality on my mind.

It does look very attractive – I’d love to step into the painting and walk up that road to the right.

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