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THE VICTORIAN GOSPEL OF WORK

JOHN A. WALKER (COPYRIGHT 2009)

Ford Madox Brown, Work (1852-65). Oil on canvas. Manchester City Art Gallery. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------All true work is sacred; in all true Work, were it but true hand-labour, there is something of divineness. Labour, wide as the Earth, has its summit in Heaven ... the mandate of God to His creature man is: Work! Thus spoke Thomas Carlyle, the sage of Chelsea, in his book Past and Present (1843) a passionate critique of the condition of England in the early 1840s. In the Autumn of 1842 Carlyle had visited a workhouse in St Ives, Huntingdonshire, and

had been shocked by the sight of so many able-bodied paupers condemned to poverty and idleness.

Juila Margaret Cameron, Portrait of Thomas Carlyle, (1867). Albumen print. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------(At that time there were two million unemployed out of a working population of fifteen million.) Carlyle's view was that happiness is a paltry goal for humankind. We are not placed on this earth to be happy but to work. In work humans find fulfilment; consequently, the only happiness they should be concerned about is that associated with work. Happiness is a transient, subjective phenomenon which

vanishes when we die, but the fruits of our labour remain. Our present material and cultural achievements are the culmination of centuries of human labour; hence, the overriding importance of work. The gospel of work - the ideology of the nobility of work - so relentlessly expounded in Past and Present was to prove extremely influential amongst the Victorian intelligentsia and middle classes. For example, the English painter Ford Madox Brown (1821-93) owned a copy of Past and Present in which the passages about work were underlined. Brown had been trained in academies in Belgium and France where he had acquired the skills of a history painter. Initially, his aim was to make a career as a painter of large scale murals in public buildings dealing with subjects from English history. By the 1850s he had developed a more realist approach to art and an interest in contemporary life. It was during a stay in Hampstead in June 1852 that the idea for an ambitious figure painting - a contemporary history painting - on the theme of human labour came to him. At that time excavations were taking place in the streets in connection with water supplies. Brown admired the manliness of the British navvies digging the trenches and decided to make them the heroes of his picture, to use them to personify the nobility of work. At once he began to produce an oil sketch of the setting in which he intended to place his figures: the Mount and Heath St looking northwards (remarkably, this setting has changed little since 1852). 'Work', as the picture was inevitably called, proved very difficult to execute and to complete. It engaged Brown on and off for the next eleven years. It was finally publicly exhibited as the centre-piece of Brown's London retrospective in 1865. Besides the artistic and technical problems posed by such an elaborate

composition, Brown was hindered by domestic and financial difficulties. Visits to the pawnbroker were a regular occurrence in the Brown household. He could only make steady progress on 'Work' with the support of patronage. Eventually this was supplied by Thomas E. Plint a pious Leeds stockbroker who, from November 1856, paid Brown a monthly salary to complete the picture, and by James Leathart a wealthy industrialist from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne who in 1859 commissioned a smaller replica of 'Work' which is now in Birmingham City Art Gallery. (Both these men were patrons of Brown's artist friends the Pre-Raphaelites.) The ideology of the nobility of work embodied in Brown's picture obviously appealed to the emergent merchant and industrialist classes of Victorian England. Changes to the picture were necessitated by the advent of Plint: he asked Brown to include the figures of two intellectuals - Carlyle and Charles Kingsley - whose ideas were sympathetic to work and to workers. Brown included Carlyle but substituted the Rev. F. D. Maurice for Kingsley. Maurice and Kingsley were leading figures in the Christian Socialist movement which developed in the aftermath of the French revolution of 1848 and the mass demonstrations of the English Chartists in the same year. 'Work' is frequently reproduced in books on the Victorian period but few historians bother to analyse it in any detail; they seem unwilling to treat it as a historical document in its own right even though Brown derived the content and characters of the painting from the world around him and attempted to synthesize within it all kinds of contemporary issues and debates. In seeking to understand the painting's iconography and symbolism, the modem viewer is drawn inexorably

into the complex world - the people, classes, ideas, ethics, conflicts - of Victorian society. The painting, therefore, is a relic which enables us to engage with a bygone age but one which has many parallels with our own (the issues of work and unemployment, for example). The composition of 'Work,' is crammed with human bodies; the wide variety of types and dress depicted directly communicates a sense of the complex structure of Victorian society and the teeming street life of the metropolis. Brown's cast of characters includes manual labourers, street urchins, two ‘brainworkers’, various street sellers (a herb gatherer, an orange girl, a pastry delivery boy, a beer seller), fashionable ladies, a rich man and his daughter on horseback, unemployed agricultural labourers, a policeman, soldiers, figures advertising an election candidate, and four dogs (these animals are differentiated as to type and character in order to exemplify the various social classes of their respective owners). For his sources Brown relied on popular imagery as well as direct observation: there are a number of striking similarities between details of 'Work' and Hogarth's prints of London street life, and engravings of similar scenes appearing in such magazines as Punch and the Illustrated London News. Also influential, it seems probable, was Henry Mayhew's survey of the social, economic and cultural conditions of London's workers and lumpen proletariat first published as a series of newspaper articles in 1849-50. Mayhew was a journalist with ambitions of becoming a sociologist or anthropologist: he made great efforts to order and classify the large amount of raw data he and his collaborators assembled. See, for example, his classification of London's population in terms of workers and non-

workers (the latter subdivided into 'those who cannot work', 'those who will not work', and 'those who need not work'). The opposition between industry and idleness, first treated as a pictorial theme by Hogarth, also underpins Brown's painting: the honest toil of the navvies is juxtaposed against the less worthy labour of the street folk and the even worse idleness of the rich. Indeed, all the characters of 'Work' can be mapped onto Mayhew's classification scheme. Both journalist and painter, then, aimed to provide a scientifically accurate description of Victorian society by means of representative types arranged in a hierarchy. Brown deserves credit for this achievement but it also has to be recognised that a typology - a representation restricting itself to a single moment in time - yields a static image; what is missing from 'Work' is any sign of social change or class struggle. This is why some art historians have found the picture 'uncommitted' and rather mild in its social criticism. (Brown was a left-winger but a reformist rather than a revolutionary.) Brown's ambition was to grasp Victorian society as a totality. The question arises: How accurate, complete was his representation? Judging from the reviews of 'Work' which appeared in 1865, Brown's contemporaries seem to have found it an accurate picture. The issue of completeness turns upon the representativeness of Brown's cast of characters, and in particular those that personify noble toil. The group of semi-skilled labourers known as 'navvies' were highly respected by the Victorians because their muscle power built the roads, canals, public works, and railways of industrial Britain. They were an elite amongst manual labourers: they were stronger, more highly paid, and better fed than most other workers. (Always

providing they avoided being killed or injured at work or worn out with toil early.) They dressed picturesquely, enjoyed a good deal of freedom and independence, lived an outdoor life, worked, played and drank hard. Railway navvies were to some extent feared by the public because they assembled in large gangs far from the centres of authority. Small armies of navvies could and did terrorize rural areas with virtual impunity from the law and riots between rival gangs of English and Irish navvies were commonplace. But, as time passed, they became an efficient and disciplined workforce which the country was proud to send abroad. During the war against Russia - which occurred whilst Brown was designing 'Work' - a team of navvies was sent to the Crimea to build a rail supply link for the British troops. Cartoons of the period show that public opinion regarded them as more of a threat to the enemy than the army. Brown's choice of the navvy as the personification of labour was, therefore, an apt one even though from the perspective of the twentieth century the more typical manifestation of industrial Britain was the factory hand. (By 1900 very large bodies of navvies were no longer needed; their tasks were completed and muscle power was increasingly being replaced by machine power.)

Children and women employed in factories and down the mines.

Industrialisation is the principal absence of 'Work'. It forms the background to the picture even though its most characteristic manifestation - factory production is not represented. It was the North of the country which experienced a really

violent transformation, hence Londoners such as Brown were shielded to some extent from its impact. This may be one reason why Brown picked the navvy as the archetypal representative of British workers rather than the less glamorous factory hand or men, women and children employed in London’s sweatshops. A high proportion of factory workers were women, adolescents and children. In order to obtain a cheap and tractable workforce, mill owners frequently recruited their labour from workhouses and orphanages. 'Work' is an overwhelmingly masculine picture: the only women workers depicted are marginal figures (the orange girl, an old woman carrying an election board); the three major female characters arc all ladies of leisure. If Brown had chosen factory hands as the epitome of noble labour, his task would have been much more difficult; furthermore, he would have had to abandon the outdoor setting because factory work did not take place in the fresh air under blue skies. On the other hand, an indoor location would have prevented Brown from exploring the issue of urbanisation which is an important subsidiary theme of 'Work'. A whole book would be required to examine the significance of all the characters in 'Work', therefore, in this article, I will focus on the topic of the ideology of work.

Stitching in a tailor’s swaetshop ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Work-work-work Till the brain begins to swim; Work-work-work Till the eyes are heavy and dim. Stitch-stitch-stitch, In poverty, hunger and dirt, Sewing at once with a double thread,

A shroud as well as a shirt.

Thomas Hood, 'The Song of the Shirt', Punch (1843).

It is clear from this quotation that not all Victorians subscribed to Carlyle's gospel of work which Brown's painting relayed so uncritically. The questions arise: To whom was this gospel addressed? Who were the audiences for Past and Present and 'Work'? Who felt the need of such a gospel? It seems highly unlikely that workers required an ideology of the nobility of labour to persuade them to work because they had to work to live (being landless and propertyless, they had only their labour-power to sell in the marketplace). If they refused to work their only options were starvation, begging, crime, the poorhouse or emigration. It seems reasonable to assume that the gospel of work was produced by and for a middle class which, having presided over, and benefited from, the creation of an industrialised society characterized by over-work, by unpleasant, boring, unhealthy and dangerous jobs, wished to justify to itself all forms of labour. Some middle class Victorians, of course, were genuinely concerned about the poverty, inequality and exploitation which marred their society, but they differed amongst themselves as to what remedies were needed. A number were in favour of doing nothing because any interference with the laws of the marketplace and free trade would aggravate matters. Some were in favour of no-strings acts of charity and philanthropy. And some were in favour of limited acts of assistance, for example loans, and legislation to control trade. The great fear of the first and last groups was that of undermining

the nation's economy and the self-reliance of the workers by means of excessive charity. (If workers learned that they could live on charity, then they would lose the desire to, and habit of, work.) The puzzle was how to help the workers to help themselves without in the process making them dependent upon their benefactors. (All these issues and problems arose again in the 1970s and 1980s.) Neither Carlyle nor Brown were sufficiently conscious of the differences between work and play, between forced and voluntary labour, and between useless and useful toil. The work/play, or work/leisure, distinction was greatly sharpened by industrialisation and the increased division of labour associated with it: factory and sweatshop work was regimented and repetitive; consequently, as pleasure in work decreased, workers increasingly sought enjoyment during leisure hours. During the 1840s, the difference between forced and voluntary labour was discussed but by a German writer, socialist and Manchester businessman - Frederick Engels: Another source of demoralization among the workers is their being condemned to work. As voluntary productive activity is the highest enjoyment known to us, is compulsory toil the most cruel. degrading punishment. Nothing is more terrible than being constrained to some one thing every day from morning to night against one's will. And the more a man the worker feels himself, the more hateful must his work be to him. because he feels the constraint. the aimlessness of it for himself. Why does he work? For love of work? From a natural impulse? Not at all! He works for money. for a thing which has nothing whatsoever to do with work itself, and he works so long. moreover, and in such unbroken monotony. that this alone must make his work a torture ... The division of labour has multiplied the brutalizing influences of forced

work. (The Condition of the Working Class in England; 1st German edition 1845.) The distinction between productive and unproductive labour was elaborated some decades later by William Morris in his pamphlet Useful work versus Useless Toil (1885).

Portrait of William Morris, (1877). Elliot and Fry. Walthamstow, William Morris Gallery. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------He begins by questioning the validity of Carlyle's gospel of work (though he does not mention Carlyle by name): it has become an article of the creed of modern morality that all labour is good in itself - a convenient belief to those who live on the

labour of others. He then undertakes a socialist critique of capitalism and blames the existence of so much useless toil on this economic system. Morris argues that work should be pleasurable in itself, and result in socially useful goods. (That Brown was aware of Morris's point is indicated by the fact that in a commentary he wrote explaining 'Work', he cites the classic example of useless work in Victorian times the crank. This was a machine with a handle which criminals in prison were compelled to turn as a form of exercise and punishment; the crank had no other positive function or output.

Morris's aim as a designer and manufacturer was to produce well-designed, beautiful artefacts made from sound materials in order to provide an alternative to the mass of kitsch and shoddy goods so prevalent in Victorian times. The work ideal which Morris had in mind when making his criticisms was, of course, his own multifarious practice as poet, prose writer, lecturer, designer, craftsman, printer and

political activist. His essay includes a number of sensible and practical suggestions as to how this state of affairs could be achieved and the problem of unpleasant tasks overcome. Work, for Victorian manufacturers, (their own and that of their employees) was the means to self-enrichment and self-improvement; hence, the logical necessity for an ideology affirming the intrinsic nobility of work. While Britain enjoyed a monopoly as the workshop of the world, that ideology was justified by the unprecedented increase in Britain's wealth brought about by industrialisation and empire. Today, that monopoly has gone for ever and with it the certainty that work is noble. On the one hand, those in work. are urged to become more productive, to work harder, in order to save the country's economy from ruin, whilst on the other hand, a growing army of unemployed are expected to adjust calmly to a no-jobs situation. (Or compelled to seek work which does not exist.) Workers are also told that as a result of automation and new technology, jobs are disappearing and that in the future work as we know it will be performed by only a small minority. The ideology still holds sway amongst many politicians, employers and trade union leaders, and it is still directed at the labour force. However, it is an especially cruel ideology when received by the unemployed: if men and women achieve nobility through work, then what is the fate of those for whom there is no work? If work is becoming a scarce resource, should it not be more fairly distributed among the populace along with wealth? If that were to occur, then all workers could enjoy a shorter working week. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

-This is a revised version of an article that was first published in the British art magazine Artery, Vol 8 nos 1/2, May 1984, pp. 17-19. It was written during the course of researching a detailed book about Brown’s painting ‘Work’ later published as Work: Ford Madox Brown’s Painting and Victorian Life, (London: Francis Boutle, 2006). John A. Walker is a painter and art historian. He is the author of many books and articles on contemporary art and mass media. He is also an editorial advisor for the website: "http://www.artdesigncafe.com">www.artdesigncafe.com</a>