In praise of work

Dinah Birch

  • Ford Madox Brown and the Pre-Raphaelite Circle by Teresa Newman and Ray Watkinson
    Chatto, 226 pp, £50.00, July 1991, ISBN 0 7011 3186 1

Ford Madox Brown’s greatest picture is called Work, and it depicts the laying of a sewer. It is not beautiful. But that is part of Brown’s point, for he was after qualities that counted for more than beauty. Its subject was carefully chosen. Brown knew that sewers mattered. The threat of cholera haunted Mid-Victorian England, and only efficient sanitation could remove it. Seeing a group of labourers excavating some of the first suburban sewers in Hampstead in 1852, he realised that what he was looking at was a proper subject for ‘the powers of an English painter’. It took Brown 13 years to finish this ambitious picture. He endlessly packed and re-packed the picture to accommodate more thought, more observation, further depths of conviction. It was a painting that became a manifesto, a text to be read and learned from.

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