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Today’s Manchester painting dissected, discussed and dismembered is “Work” by Ford Madox Brown (1852-65).

Ed Glinert of New Manchester Walks reveals all behind Manchester Art Gallery’s most complex and epic painting.

No painting in Manchester Art Gallery attracts more viewers than “Work”. Hordes of people make for it as if by magic, and when they get there they are astonished at the breathtaking panoply of figures, ideas and stories.

On first inspection “Work” is simply an array of different types of workers, all gathered together on land in a smart part of town. But it is also a celebration of one of life’s greatest offerings: work. Even if in real life not everyone can see virtue in their labouring, in FMB’s “Work” the workers are all happy in what they do, from the salt-of-the-earth navvies digging up the road to the intellectuals watching wryly from the side; from the itinerant herb seller to the colonel-MP on horseback.

Work in the fight against cholera
The location of “Work” is The Mount, Hampstead, now one of the most desirable residences in the capital. Brown came across a group of workmen digging up the road and had an epiphany that convinced him such a scene was as worthy of reproduction as any group of Italian peasants toiling in the sun. He then added every type of worker and shirker he could conjure up. But Brown took advantage of this concept to include a subtle but important social message. Why are the navvies digging up the road? They’re digging sewers and laying down pipes to bring clean water to Hampstead and take away dirty water. These measures will rid the locale of cholera, one of the most prevalent diseases in the growing populations of cities like London and Manchester.

In 1854, during the painting’s gestation, a London surgeon, John Snow, caused controversy among the experts by claiming cholera was caused from raw sewage being dumped into rivers and cesspools near the wells that gave people their drinking water. This explanation was dismissed by leading medical figures such as Florence Nightingale who cited a “miasma” in the atmosphere as the cause of cholera. Where Snow was based in Soho, central London, some 600 people died from cholera. Snow discovered they had been drinking from a standpipe in Broad Street (now Broadwick Street). The water company rejected his findings. They cited a woman who had died from cholera in Hampstead four miles north, an area largely free of the disease. Snow made some enquiries and discovered that she sent her servants to fill up at that Soho standpipe and bring her the water because she liked the taste!

Cholera touched a raw nerve in Manchester. In 1832 more than five hundred people had died of the disease. The work these navvies were doing would eliminate further outbreaks of cholera. That a painting like “Work” should reside in Manchester Art Gallery fits in perfectly with the city’s ethos. Manchester was built on the notion of work, of hard work, of a new kind of work: mass production that came in with the machine age. Manchester’s civic motto, created in 1842, is Concilio et Labore – “with diligence and hard work” (from the Book of Ecclesiasticus), The city’s symbol is the bee; the worker bee. It also chimes with that rather insulting cliché, the Protestant work ethic, given that the people who made Manchester a great city in Victorian times were nearly all Protestants.

Who are the Characters?
Now let’s have a look at “Work” in more detail. The canvas is decorated with four quotes from the Bible, the King James Version, the Protestant version, of course:

  • “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” (Genesis 3:19)
    • “Neither did we eat any man’s bread for naught but wrought with labour and travail night and day.” (2 Thessalonians 3:8)
  • “I must work while it is day for night cometh, when no man can work.” (John 9:4)
    • “Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before Kings.” (Proverbs 22:29)

Who are all the people in the painting? What do they represent? In this we’re helped by the artist himself, who published copious notes with the painting, which need only the lightest of touches to expand upon.

From left to right we have:

  • “The ragged wretch who has never been taught to work; with his restless, gleaming eyes he doubts and despairs of everyone. But for a certain effeminate gentleness of disposition and a love of nature, he might have been a burglar! He lives in Flower and Dean Street, where the policemen walk two and two, and the worst cutthroats surround him.”

What an excellent choice Brown made with Flower and Dean Street. Many said it was the worst slum in mid-19th century London. In 1888 all five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper had connections with the street.

  • “The lady [with the parasol] whose only business in life as yet is to dress and look beautiful for our benefit.”

This is Emma, Mrs Brown, who also features as the young woman in his painting The Last of England (1855).

  • “The [lady] with the purple bonnet devotes her energies to handing out religious pamphlets warning against the perils of drink – The Hodman’s Haven or Drink for Thirsty Souls – which the countryman with the rural smock and the beer seller next to him ignores.”

Temperance was a major movement in mid-19th century England. In 1847, the Band of Hope was founded in Leeds to save working class children from the perils of drink. Members had to pledge to abstain “from all liquors of an intoxicating quality, whether ale, porter, wine or ardent spirits, except as medicine [always a good excuse].” The Sale of Beer Act 1854 to restrict Sunday opening hours was repealed following widespread rioting. In 1859 a prohibition bill was defeated in the House of Commons.

In the centre of the painting we have “the young navvy who occupies the place of hero in his group; the young navvy in the pride of manly health and beauty; the strong fully-developed navvy who does his work and loves his beer”. The latter presages a wicked codicil from Brown: “The man with the beer-tray, calling ‘Beer ho!’ so lustily, is a specimen of town pluck and energy contrasted with country thews and sinews. He is humpbacked, stunted in his growth, and in all matters of taste vulgar as Birmingham can make him look in the 19th century.” Ah yes, Birmingham; Manchester’s great rival in the battle of the industrial giants.

In front of them is a group of “small, exceedingly ragged, dirty children. The eldest girl, not more than ten, poor child! is very worn-looking and thin. The sunburnt baby, looks wonderfully solemn and intellectual. The other little one, though it sucks a piece of carrot in lieu of a sugar-plum, and is shoeless, seems healthy and happy, watching the workmen”. They are in mourning, their parents dead from cholera probably.

Over on the right of the picture are the brain workers: “the cause of purposeful work and happiness in others”. These are real people. The taller man with the hat is the essayist Thomas Carlyle, friend of Dickens. Carlyle wrote about work in Past & Present (1843):

“An endless significance lies in Work; a man perfects himself by working. Foul jungles are cleared away, fair seedfields rise instead, and stately cities; and withal the man himself first ceases to be a jungle and foul unwholesome desert thereby.

“Workers, Master Workers, Unworkers, all men, come to a pause; stand fixed, and cannot farther. Fatal paralysis spreading inwards, from the extremities, in St. Ives workhouses, in Stockport cellars, through all limbs, as if towards the heart itself. Have we actually got enchanted, then; accursed by some god?”

Next to him, shorter, hatless, is the Reverend Frederick Dennison Maurice. The Rev. Maurice was a leading Christian Socialist and founder of the Working Men’s College where Brown worked as a tutor alongside Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the art critic John Ruskin. One of the posters visible on the far left side of the canvas is an advertisement for the college. Maurice was a huge influence on a new strain of Christianity muscular Christianity – the notion that if young men indulged in manly physical pursuits they would stave off their sexual urges and attain a higher moral plane. Some Manchester sports clubs, such as St Mark’s West Gorton, played with the white cross of purity on their shirts. St Mark’s are now Manchester City and no longer part of that movement.

Just to the left of Carlyle and Maurice political canvassers are promoting their candidate, Bobus, for an election. We take such movements for granted but we must remember that municipal politics – democracy – was a new thing in those days. In Manchester the people didn’t wrest control of the town from the landowners until 1838. Unfortunately Bobus in Thomas Carlyle’s writings is a sausage maker that slips horsemeat into his products.

Lastly and easy to miss is the woman holding a basket of oranges being arrested by a policeman (another recent invention). She is a prostitute. This is a standard device in Victorian painting. The idea of an orange seller being a street walker goes back to the time of Charles II when the girls who sold oranges inside theatres would do a little tomming on the side.

It all works.