Beer in Art #3: Ford Madox Brown’s Work

Today’s masterpiece of art — and beer — is in one of my favorite styles of art: Pre-Raphaelite. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of English painters “who aimed to revive the style and spirit of the Italian artists before the time of Raphael.” According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, they were a “group of young British painters who banded together in 1848 in reaction against what they conceived to be the unimaginative and artificial historical painting of the Royal Academy and who purportedly sought to express a new moral seriousness and sincerity in their works.”

While today’s artist, Ford Madox Brown, was not formally a member of the Brotherhood, he was friends with several of the other artists and tended to paint in a style strikingly similar, so much so that his is often considered alongside of the Pre-Raphaelites.

The painting is titled “Work,” and is one of his most famous works, as it attempts to depict all of Victorian English society.

Click on the image above for a larger view. There’s an interesting interactive display at the Manchester City Galleries — which is where the original painting hangs — that discusses the symbolism of the sailor drinking a beer in the center of the painting.

This beer represents attitudes towards drinking alcohol.

Beer was often drunk by navvies during the day to quench their thirst. While some people campaigned against drinking alcohol, it was often considered to be safer to drink beer than drink dirty water and risk death.

You can then click on six different character within the painting to hear their thoughts about drinking beer.

Brown himself wrote about the drinking sailor. “‘Here are Presented……the strong fully developed navvy who does his work and loves his beer; the selfish old bachelor navvy, stout of limb, and perhaps a trifle tough in those regions where compassion is said to reside; the navvy of strong animal nature, who, but that he was, when young, taught to work at useful work, might even now be working at the useless crank.”

From Wikipedia:

Brown’s most important painting was Work (1852–1865), which he showed at a special exhibition. It attempted to depict the totality of the mid-Victorian social experience in a single image, depicting ‘navvies’ digging up a road, Heath Street in Hampstead, London, and disrupting the old social hierarchies as they did so. The image erupts into proliferating details from the dynamic centre of the action, as the workers tear a hole in the road – and, symbolically, in the social fabric. Each character represents a particular social class and role in the modern urban environment. Brown wrote a catalogue to accompany the special exhibition of Work. This publication included an extensive explanation of Work that nevertheless leaves many questions unanswered.

For more about Ford Madox Brown, the ArtCyclopedia has some good links and the Art Archive has a good biography.



  1. Mike says

    In Richard Thompson’s song “Cooksferry Queen,” the lyric goes, “Pre-Rafaelite curls in her hair.” I am somewhat closer to understanding this after reading your post.

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