Tristram Hunt’s favourite painting
The director of the V&A chooses ‘the most socially conscious of all English 19th-century paintings’
That exuberant scholar timothy hilton, biographer of John Ruskin, has described Work in his book The Pre-raphaelites as ‘the most fully socially conscious of all English 19th-century paintings’.
Like Ruskin, Ford Madox Brown was slightly older than the painters of the Pre-raphaelite Brotherhood—of which he is often, mistakenly, thought to have been a member—and knew Europe firsthand. he was born in Calais, where his parents moved in the interests of economy after his father’s naval retirement. Later, the family lived in Bruges to enable the artistically gifted Brown to study at the academy. his training was completed in Ghent and antwerp.
three years in Paris, largely spent copying in the Louvre, were followed by spells in Basel and Rome, in vain to save the life of his young bride, a cousin. after her death, he settled in England.
the Brotherhood had no common purpose, but Brown did know them —Rossetti was briefly his selfappointed pupil—and he shared some of their aspirations. these were encouraged, articulated and championed by Ruskin: truth to Nature, day-lit effects, moral emphasis. art and work should be indivisible, with all work, artistic or otherwise, of equal moral merit; artistic value could even be measured by the labour involved in achieving factual truth.
Work proclaims this. It was specifically inspired by thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present, the author shown in the painting with hat and cane. as Brown said, London navvies installing sewage pipes were every bit as worth a picture as ‘the peasant of the Campagna, or the Neapolitan lazzarone’.
Notice, too, the rich mounted couple and, easily missed, the homeless sleeping in the shade. heath Street, hampstead, is still recognisable today—as are the inequalities Brown exposed.
Work, 1852– 65, by Ford Madox Brown (1821–93), 64½in by 88in, Manchester Art Gallery