Ford Madox Brown’s Work (1865)

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 6 (November/December 2017), Volume 25

Images of the Irish in a revolutionary painting.

By Royston Spears

Between 1815 and 1845 perhaps half a million men and women left Ireland to escape economic hardship and famine, and crossed to Britain in search of work. There many of them began new lives as navvies, farm labourers and street traders. For much of the nineteenth century their stories were largely ignored by the world of art (with the exception of a few cartoons in publications such as Punch), but in 1865 a revolutionary painting by Ford Madox Brown catalogued the contributions of Irish workers (and their British counterparts) to Victorian society on a scale and with a dignity normally associated with the great battle scenes of history painting.

In his 1865 exhibition catalogue (from The Gallery, 191 Piccadilly, London) Brown explained how Work was originally conceived in the Hampstead of the 1850s:

‘At that time extensive excavations, connected with the supply of water, were going on in the neighbourhood, and seeing and studying daily as I did the British excavator, or navvy, as he designates himself, in the full swing of his activity (with his manly and picturesque costume, and with the rich glow of colour, which exercise under a hot sun will impart), it appeared to me that he was at least as worthy of the powers of an English painter as the fisherman of the Adriatic, the peasant of Campana, or the Neapolitan lazzarone.’

This scene inspired Brown to create a painting that would portray a wide variety of workers from Victorian society, many of whom were Irish, and at its heart would be the navvy. Brown places one of these heroic labourers at the centre of his picture, in a stance that prefigures the great Soviet Socialist Realist art of the 1930s. Around him are other navvies, whom Brown describes as a ‘selfish bachelor’, a navvy of ‘strong animal nature’ and an Irish ‘Paddy’ with his hat and a pipe in his mouth. These were the workers who constructed the canals in the eighteenth century, and subsequently worked on railway and road construction in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The role of the navvy has long been associated with the Irish; although they never constituted a majority of the workforce, their contribution to the great transport projects of history was substantial. Brown knew many of these men personally and described them as serious, intelligent men with interesting conversation and as much ‘morality and sentiment’ as any men who have to face a hazardous life.

To the right of the navvies, leaning against a fence, are two characters who appear to be idle bystanders but are in fact leading nineteenth-century thinkers or ‘brainworkers’, as Brown describes them. Revd Frederick Maurice (the bare-headed figure in the dark coat) was a Christian Socialist who in 1854 opened a Working Men’s College, where Brown later gave lectures. Just behind him is the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, leaning on his cane and smiling. Carlyle had travelled to Ireland in the 1840s and witnessed firsthand the tragedy of the Great Famine. In a letter to Lord Clarendon (5 August 1849) he wrote about his tour around ‘this unfortunate Ireland’ where he had discovered more good men than he had dared to anticipate. He expressed his hope that something positive would arise from the tragedy of famine, that the reliance on the potato could be abandoned forever and that a new Ireland would ‘dawn upon the astonished imaginations of Irishmen’. Brown admired Carlyle’s writings on poverty and the demeaning nature of factory work in the industrialised world, and he persuaded him to pose for a studio photograph so that his portrait could be included in Work.

Tied to the fence next to Maurice and Carlyle is a scythe, which belongs to some of the unemployed labourers who rest on the grassy bank below. Brown’s catalogue entry again gives an insight into the lives of these unfortunate characters, among them ‘A stoic from the Emerald Island, with hay stuffed into his hat to keep the draught out, and need for his stoicism just at present, being short of baccy’. Behind him is an Irish couple—a young shoeless man and his wife, ‘feeding their first-born with pap’. There is also an old sailor turned haymaker, and two young peasants in search of harvest work who have been weakened by fever or ‘possibly by famine’.

Above: The Irish Girl (1860) by Ford Madox Brown. (Yale Center for British Art)

At the far right of the picture is a small scene which is easily overlooked. It shows an orange-seller illegally placing her basket on a post (street traders had to keep moving and were not allowed to place their wares on bollards, as this could be classified as ‘setting up a stall’). In response, a policeman thoughtlessly pushes the girl and knocks her oranges onto the street, a scene that Brown had witnessed firsthand; it deeply upset him. In his catalogue entry he describes how many of his friends, on examining this part of the picture, ‘laughed over a good joke’. Only two men saw the tragedy and injustice of the situation. One of them was a clergyman and the other was a young Irishman, who pointed to the scene and said, ‘That, Sir, I know to be true’. In his catalogue entry, Brown accusingly dedicates his vignette of the poor orange-seller ‘to the Commissioners of Police’. Again, many of the orange-sellers whom Brown encountered in London were Irish, and in 1860 he recorded a young orange-seller in one of his most famous portraits, The Irish Girl (front cover and p. 36).

Throughout Work and his accompanying catalogue notes, Brown expresses his compassion for the disadvantaged in society. Perhaps this stemmed from his own tragic experiences. In 1841 he had married Elizabeth Bromley, but she died from consumption in 1846, aged just 27, leaving Brown to bring up their young daughter, Lucy.

At the left of the picture is an unusual figure, often mistaken for a woman. This is the barefoot groundsel- and chickweed-seller, with his tattered hat. Brown’s catalogue describes how he could have become a criminal had he not found employment. Fortunately, this harmless character now collects plants from the countryside and sells them to botanists in town. Behind him are two wealthy ladies, who do not need to work. The younger of the two exists only to look beautiful and enjoy life, while her older companion spends her free time distributing religious tracts entitled ‘The Hodman’s Haven, or drink for thirsty souls’ to the scornful navvies. In contrast to this temperance campaigner, a prosperous beer-seller, complete with red waistcoat and black eye, shouts ‘Beer ho!’ to attract customers. In the foreground of the painting are a group of impoverished children. They are motherless (as indicated by the baby’s black ribbon), and if they have a father Brown suggests that he will be a heavy drinker and will undoubtedly be ‘sentenced in the police-court for neglecting them’. In the meantime, the girl in the red dress, who can be no more than ten, has been forced to take on the role of caring for the family. And at the apex of the painting, in the background, are a wealthy man and his daughter on their horses. Brown speculates that the man may well be a colonel in the army, with a seat in parliament, and believes that this ‘true-hearted gentleman’ could easily be persuaded to help the poor if he were to listen to the words of Carlyle and Maurice.

Work exists in two slightly different forms. The original version, painted between 1856 and 1863, was commissioned by the Pre-Raphaelite collector Thomas Plint and now hangs in the Manchester Art Gallery. A second, smaller version was painted in 1863 and now hangs in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Royston Spears completed an MPhil. in art history at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and now works as a schoolteacher.


T. Hilton, The Pre-Raphaelites (London, 1993).

T. Newman & R. Watkinson, Ford Madox Brown and the Pre-Raphaelite circle (London, 1991).

C. Wood, The Pre-Raphaelites (London, 1981).

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Ford Madox Brown


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