November 6, 2011
Work - I Could Watch It All Day Long
Madox Brown started Work in 1852 and finished it in 1863. It was the embodiment of the Protestant work ethic. Those in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, despite their radical thinking in artistic matters, wanted to be seen as hardworking members of the middle-class, not bohemian layabouts. To Madox Brown, the navvies at the centre of the painting were the heroes of the time. At the top of the painting on horseback is a Member of Parliament. His work is deemed irrelevant compared to that of the Hampstead ditch diggers. He and his wife are relegated to the shadows.
This painting reminds me very much of one of the singing and dancing tableaux from the film Oliver! There is a hierarchy to the placement of people in Madox Brown's painting. The rich are at the top, the workers front and centre, women to the left. Carlyle and his colleague Rev. F.D. Maurice, the founder of the Working Man's College, represent the intellectuals. On the shady bank on the right, the unemployed sleep and picnic under a tree. To a modern eye, the people wearing sandwich boards in the far distance could represent strikers. There even seems to be a pecking order between the dogs in the foreground. The terrier with the the rope leash, a real ratter, seems to be ready to give the sweatered whippet "the what for".
There's an urchin in the foreground who looks no more than 12. She's wearing her mother's hand-me-down dress. She's not with the women on the left. She knows her place one day will be with someone like the labourers highlighted in the painting. She's perhaps getting a head start on her flirting.
The women on the left depict "women's work". The lady in the violet bonnet is distributing temperance brochures much to the chagrin of the man in the hole who's just had a leaflet drift by his face and the thirsty worker polishing off a pint.
The woman with the parasol manages to avoid work. And the flower seller at the front of the procession, well she's another piece of 'work'. Upon a closer look she is a he and the shifty eyes reveal that he has shirked the labour that Madox Brown idealizes. He is the antithesis of the hardworking navvies.