This clearly written and handsomely produced little book has much in common with the old Art in Context series that John Fleming and Hugh Honour edited three decades ago. Like the volumes in this series, Walker's "Work": Ford Madox Brown's Painting and Victorian Life concentrates upon a single painting, which it attempts to place in its artistic, cultural, and political contexts. Measuring 8 1/2 by 11 1/2 inches, it is somewhat larger than the Art in Context volumes, which measured roughly 9 x 7 1/2 inches, and benefiting from twenty-first-century computer design, imaging, and typesetting, Walker's book has a large number of fine color reproductions not possible three decades ago. Unfortunately, it does not produce the impression of expertise and sure control of the materials conveyed by say, John Gage's Turner: "Rain, Steam and Speed" in the Art in Context series or Benedict Nicholson's Courbet: "The Studio of the Painter" in the same series.
Nonetheless, Walker has much valuable information on offer: this clear, well written, and beautifully illustrated survey effectively conveys the crucial influence of Brown's patrons, provides a useful timeline for the painting, and makes available the painter's own exhibition pamphlet. Walker, who is unusually generous to other workers in the field, also provides valuable information about Hampstead, where the painting is set, and points to the intriguing absence of engineers from Work— those Victorian heroes whose accomplishments even today still astonish.
The introduction divides into a brief section on the theme of labor in the visual arts, which is followed by a discussion of the painting's social and historical contexts, much of which takes the form of potted social and economic history. The first chapter's title, "The Painter and Designer: Origins, Training, Character and Politics," points to the material it covers, after which comes a chapter on Hampstead. Walker next includes a chronology of the conception, development, funding, and painting of the picture. The following chapter, which discusses the iconography of Work, valuably reproduces both the rather poor sonnet Brown wrote for the picture and the exhibition pamphlet. This, the longest chapter in the book (pp. 45-91), has sections entitled "The setting in Hampstead," "Symbolic objects," "Popular and artistic sources," "William Hogarth," "Henry Mayhew," "The election of Bobus," "Mayhew and the Navvies," "Other characters and motifs," "The Navvies,""Carlyle and the Gospel of Work," and "Maurice and Christian Socialism." The following chapter covers "Brown's Patrons and Critical Reception of Work since 1865," which includes extensive quotation and summary of essays by twentieth-century art historians. The book then concludes with what the author identifies as the picture's "artistic and literary influences" (109).
For all his hard work assembling materials and his generosity toward other scholars, Walker left me with three unfortunate impressions — namely, that he does not himself like the painting as a work of art, that he does not have either a methodology or a definite idea of what the picture means, and that, however hard he has tried, he seems quite uncomfortable with the Victorian period, particularly with members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle including Ruskin. When he quotes from the Athenæum (p. 35), for example, he doesn't seem to know that F. G. Stephens, an original member of the Brotherhood who became an important periodical critic, was the Athenæum's usual reviewer: he not only possessed inside information about Pre-Raphaelite paintings, often basing his reviews on material provided by the artist, but also occasionally wrote, or assisted in writing, exhibition pamphlets and monographs sold at the exhibition — something he did for Hunt's The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (1860), a work whose exhibition, publicity, and reviews anticipate in detail that of Work (something which again Walker does not seem to realize).
He similarly seems not quite at home with either of the key figures, Thomas Carlyle or John Ruskin. He never seems to have in focus Carlyle, probably the most influential writer of the Victorian years, particularly in regard to his notion of work, which this first Victorian sage saw chiefly as an alternative to spiritual despair in a coming age of unbelief. As I have pointed out elsewhere, like Jean Paul Sartre and Jose Ortega y Gasset, Carlyle believes
the human condition is epitomized by that instant after shipwreck when man is hurled into the cold, alien sea; and each emphasizes this instant not as cause to despair, but as cause to act, to choose, to create oneself. In the Carlylean version of this perilous situation, the castaway chokes, coughs up the stinging cold water, and, flailing his arms, discovers to his surprise, nay, to his joy, that he can keep his head above water — by struggling against this fearful element, he can make it support him. It is difficult; "it is like swimming with a millstone round your neck," he tells Emerson, but it is not impossible. Thus the major discovery enunciated in Past and Present: work will save the man who finds himself immersed in the waste ocean of life: "All work is as the swimmer's: a waste ocean threatens to devour him; if he front it not bravely, it will keep its word. By incessant wise defiance of it, lusty rebuke and buffet of it, behold how loyally it supports him, bears him as its conqueror along. "It is so," says Goethe, "with all things that man undertakes in this world." ['Labour', bk III, ch. 11] Goethe says so, true, but with a very different emphasis, with a markedly different sense of the world. His swimmers, to begin with, are hardly Carlylean castaways, abandoned in mid-ocean. . . . The context of Goethe's similitude makes it apparent that the education of the young boys which Wilhelm has come to observe is a common effort: all head cooperatively in the same direction, the older helping younger. When these young boys find themselves in the situation of the swimmer, they feel little danger because there is always someone near to give assistance. But when Carlyle uses this situation to convey his sense of being in the world, he shows us a swimmer who struggles alone, far from help in the midst of an ocean that has already dragged many to watery deaths. Carlyle, who described himself to Emerson as a "Castaway," frequently returns to this paradigm in public and private writings throughout his life. ["The Advantages of the Castaway," Images of Crisis (1980)]
Thus, although discussing Carlylean work in the context of physical labor and capitalism, as Walker does, is quite appropriate, one cannot omit the more important spiritual context of his conception that made him a prophet to so many of his contemporaries. By the way, the person who complained that Carlyle was a prophet who led people into the wilderness and then left them there was not a "commentator" (83), as Walker misleadingly describes him, but a disciple, and an important one at that — the fine poet Arthur Hugh Clough. Before leaving Carlyle, I should point out that Walker also fails to draw upon "Hudson's Statue" from Tracts for the Times, which is an obvious source for Brown's painting. "Hudson's Statue" makes a scathing attack on the public's inability to distinguish true leaders from a stock swindler (Hudson), and it therefore attacks extending the vote. Carlyle has much to say about Bobus, who turns out to be a man who has made his wealth, not as a one of Past and Present's captains of industry, but as someone who has sold the public — the people who would have the vote when suffrage is extended — contaminated or adulterated sausages.
One can point to a considerable number of other omissions or misconceptions. Walker does not have a clear notion of Hogarth's importance to Brown and the Pre-Raphaelites: He taught them to place a range of texts and symbols within and without the picture space. At the same time that Walker makes the long-disproved claim that the German Nazarenes influenced the Pre-Raphaelites, he similarly does not know that Northern Renaissance painters like Van Eyck, Memling, and Van der Goes were far more important to Brown and the PRB than Italian painters before Raphael — a point made, incidentally, in The Times review of The Shadow of Death, a painting with many connections to Work, when the reviewer described Hunt as "the sincere and well-equipped representative in England and the nineteenth century, of the low countries' school of the Van Eycks and their contemporaries and scholars" (review quoted in full in Hunt's exhibition pamphlet; see references). In fact, the most serious problem in Walker's book is its almost complete omission of Holman Hunt, who provides a crucial context for Work. In particular, Hunt anticipated Brown's
- use of biblical texts on gilded frames as far back as The Light of the World and its companion piece The Awakening Conscience
- explanatory exhibition pamphlet as early as The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (1860)
- connection to Carlyle
- hostility to the upper classes (The Awakening Conscience and Rienzi)
- creating replicas
- Christian symbolism
- hidden autobiographical elements
Brown in turn anticipated Hunt's political view of labor, and both Work and Christ Washing Peter's Feet almost certainly influenced Hunt. The two men have so much in common that we cannot attribute Tom Taylor's negative review of Work to the fact that he "was a close friend of the academician Frith" (96), since Taylor supported Hunt, who was even more notoriously anti-academy than Brown; in fact, Taylor was among the subscribers to the engraving of Hunt's The Shadow of Death, as were the two important academicians, Landseer and Ward. The lives of Hunt and Brown reveal other similarities: both artists sought to groom beautiful lower-class women to be their wives; Brown married his, Hunt did not, presumably because Rossetti seduced her while he was in the middle east (not to worry, she ended up a very wealthy widow). Sadly, both men became widowers, but both later remarried.
Gage, John. Turner: "Rain, Steam and Speed". Art in Context Series. New York: Viking, 1972.
Hunt, William Holman. Mr. Hunt's Picture, "The Shadow of Death." London: Thomas Agnew, 1873.
Landow, George P., with Ruth M. Landow. "The Exhibition Pamphlet for W. Holman Hunt's The Shadow of Death." The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies. (Autumn 2007): 1-22 [Forthcoming].
Nicholson, Benedict. Courbet: "The Studio of the Painter". Art in Context Series. New York: Viking, 1973.
Walker, John A. "Work": Ford Madox Brown's Painting and Victorian Life. London: Francis Boutle, 2006. Pp. 132, including 6 pp. of notes and 7 pp. of bibliography.
Last modified 17 April 2007