My favourite painting: Tristram Hunt

'Brown’s multi-layered painting celebrates not only the virtue of labour, but also the power of intellect'

tristram huntWork, 1852–65, by Ford Madox Brown (1821–93), 64½in by 88in, Manchester Art Gallery

Tristram Hunt says:

“I must work the work of Him that sent me for the night cometh, wherein no man can work,” reads the Biblical inscription on Ford Madox Brown’s confident masterpiece, but Brown’s multi-layered painting celebrates not only the virtue of labour, but also the power of intellect. It’s no accident that Thomas Carlyle – a Titan at the heart of Victorian intellectual life – is standing next to the sweating navvies. In this highly complex narrative cycle, Brown depicts industriousness in all its facets, but in a manner laden with subversion. Also, I like the fact that this all happens in Hampstead.

Tristram Hunt is the director of the Victoria & Albert Museum

John McEwen comments on Work:

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 first-hand. 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.

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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 self-appointed 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.

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