Manchester Art Gallery

Ford Madox Brown interactive

Ford Madox Brown's painting Work, is brought to life in this interactive aimed at KS2 pupils.

Please note that in order to use the interactive, you will need to have Flash 8 or above installed. As the interactive is Flash based it won't play on iOS devices like iPads and iPhones.

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Teachers' guide

To make best use of this interactive, there is an extensive teachers' guide containing worksheets, activity ideas and background information about Ford Madox Brown's Work. The 'Teachers' Guide to using the Work Interactive' can be downloaded in PDF format here. 

Interactive sections

Introduction - this offers an audio-visual introduction to the site and takes you on a journey from the present back to Victorian times.  Download Introduction notes here.

Meet the people - this highlights six characters from the painting who literally come to life out of the painting as actors in video pieces. Download Meet the people notes and a glossary here.

Investigate the painting - here, pupils are encouraged to look really closely at the painting and make discoveries about items within it by following a series of clues. Download Investigate the painting notes here.

Explore the objects - this section looks at the different responses people have to objects and their meanings, encouraging pupils to empathise with different characters. Download Explore the objects notes here.

Take the quiz - this takes the form of audio clips and facts about different characters with a multiple choice quiz and scoreboard. Download Take the quiz notes here.

Background to the painting

Find out more about the life and times of Ford Madox Brown and why he painted Work.

Early years

Ford Madox Brown Sketchbook detailFord Madox Brown was born to British parents, Ford Brown (d.1842) and Caroline Madox (d.1839), on 16 April 1821 in Calais, France. His father had retired after the Napoleonic wars, having been a ship’s purser.

Ford Madox Brown spent much of his youth in France and Belgium, and he also visited England. The family was not wealthy, and because of the amount of travelling between countries, Brown’s early education was erratic, although he was exposed to many artistic influences.

He trained to be an artist at the academies of Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp between 1835 and 1839, where he enjoyed studying European painting in the museums. He was particularly interested in portrait and history paintings, and this stayed with him throughout his career, culminating in historical murals commissioned for Manchester Town Hall in 1878.

Ford Madox Brown Sketchbook detailIn 1840, Ford Madox Brown’s cousin, Elisabeth Bromley (1818 – 1846) joined him in Antwerp where she modelled for his painting The Execution. They fell in love and were married on 3 April 1841. Tragedy followed: Brown’s father died in 1842, shortly followed by the death of his first daughter. His wife Elisabeth died of consumption in 1846, leaving Brown to look after their baby daughter Emma Lucy Madox Brown, who was born in 1843. Emma later became an artist and married William Michael Rossetti in 1874.

Studies for Work, Ford Madox Brown, 1855 © Tate, London 2006

Artistic influences

Ford Madox Brown, Work, DetailFord Madox Brown moved to Paris for three years in 1841. It was here that he first engaged with the Realist movement, whilst continuing with his penchant for historical painting. In the following years, he entered several design competitions but was unsuccessful.

During 1845-6, Brown went to Italy via Basel where he came across the work of Hans Holbein (1497/8 – 1543). He also came into contact with the Nazerenes, a group of German painters based in the city. The Nazarenes pre-dated the Pre-Raphaelites and the two movements had much in common.

He returned to England in 1846, where he settled in London and became friends with several younger artists. Amongst these were Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 1892) and William Holman Hunt (1827 – 1910) who were to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. Brown was also a friend of William Morris (1834 – 1896), the poet, artist, designer and socialist. Brown spent some time working for Morris designing stained glass, and it was Morris who inspired some of Brown’s socialist ideals.

As an artist, Brown was considered to be anti-establishment. Although he never joined the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, they were closely linked and he often exhibited with them.

Detail from Work, Ford Madox Brown, 1852 – 1865 © Manchester Art Gallery

Second marriage

Ford Madox Brown, sketch of a childIn 1848 Emma Hill became one of Ford Madox Brown’s models. She soon became his mistress, and they moved in together. At first, the relationship was kept secret due to the difference in their social standing: she was a domestic servant, illiterate and the daughter of a bricklayer. Emma was not always well: she suffered from fits and eventually became an alcoholic.

In 1850, Emma had their first daughter, Catherine Emily. His painting, The Pretty Baa-Lambs shows them together. Brown taught Emma to read and write, and they were married on 5 April 1853.

The couple had three children. Brown’s first son, Oliver, was born in 1855, and a second son, Arthur, was born in 1856. In 1857, their son Arthur died tragically of a brain infection. His daughter Cathy became an artist, and married the music scholar and critic, Dr. Franz Hueffer.

Oliver, known as Nolly, became a talented artist and poet, exhibiting and publishing his work. However, in 1874 Oliver died of blood poisoning. As a result of this, Brown became a depressive recluse, keeping a shrine to Oliver in his home.

Brown was never financially successful, which led him to become even more despondent, stating, “Every unlucky man is my brother.” However, he did secure a number of patrons in the late 1850s, and exhibited his works in Liverpool.

During the 1860s he moved towards an integrated approach to fine and decorative arts, and began to design furniture and stained glass.

Image A Study of Arthur Madox Brown, age nine months, Ford Madox Brown, 1857 © Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool

Social conscience

Ford Madox Brown, Work, DetailBrown’s social conscience is evident throughout his life and work. He taught drawing at a working men’s college in the late 1850s, and also designed a badge for a boys’ orphanage. He was said to have disliked all obvious signs of luxury and privilege.

In 1859, he established a soup kitchen with his wife Emma. He was also concerned with the plight of those involved in the cotton famine that devastated trade in Lancashire during 1862, and he donated money to charities supporting the workers.

In 1886, Brown went to a meeting in Manchester for unemployed people and tried to set up an office to help them find work.

Despite being agnostic, Brown attended church and he often used Biblical quotations and imagery in his work. He agreed with the Reverend Maurice’s desires to improve the lives of the working classes. He also read works such as Past and Present by the socialist writer Thomas Carlyle.


Emma died on 11 October 1890 and Ford Madox Brown died of gout on 6 October 1893. He was buried in the St Pancras and Islington cemetery in London.

Image Detail from Work, Ford Madox Brown, 1852-1865 © Manchester Art Gallery

The characters

The characters in Work were deliberately chosen by Ford Madox Brown to represent different aspects of work in Victorian times. Many of the characters were described by the artist in his own introduction to the painting.

The navvy

Navvy's head, detail from Ford Madox Brown's Work, 1852-1865

The word 'navvy' was first used to describe people who improved the waterways or 'navigations'. The word derives from 'navigators', the people who originally built the canals. Navvies built other types of navigation as well, such as railways, roads, and in this case, clean water or sewage pipes.

Navvies had to be very strong as they would move up to 20 tons of earth in a day. They worked in groups and were very loyal to one another. Navvies were better paid than ordinary labourers, but they also faced greater risks. Accidents or even death were commonplace.

Beer-drinking was also common among navvies. This was often due to a lack of clean water, but it gave cause for concern to some well-meaning middle class women who campaigned against the drinking of alcohol. People had differing views about navvies: some understood the necessity of their hard work, whilst others saw that they were often left suffering and forgotten.

Ford Madox Brown was one who recognised the importance of the navvies’ manual labour. He paints the navvies to reflect his his thoughts: the hero of this painting is the central navvy, in the prime of youth and beauty. There is also an Irish navvy (who would have emigrated to escape the potato famine), a selfish old bachelor navvy, a strong navvy who loves beer, and a young navvy who has been spared a life behind bars because he has been taught the virtues of hard work.

Urchin baby

Baby, detail from Ford Madox Brown's Work, 1852-1865

This urchin baby was based on a sketch of Ford Madox Brown's own son, Arthur, who died whilst the painting was being created.

The black ribbon worn by the baby is a symbol of mourning. In the painting, this would be mourning for the mother of the urchin children who is said to have died, although it also could represent Brown's own mourning for his son.

Brown states in his diary: "drew poor little Arthur's head for the baby, and began painting it the day he was taken ill, and had to rub out what I had done."

Reverend Maurice

Reverend J.F.D. Maurice (1805-1872), detail from Ford Madox Brown's Work, 1852-1865Reverend Frederick Dennison Maurice was born on 29 August 1805 and died on 1 April 1872. He was an intelligent writer and teacher, and was a Church of England vicar.

He believed that all people were equal under the eyes of God. Because of his religious views, he had a deep interest in the lives of the working classes. Ford Madox Brown describes Maurice as a 'brain worker' because he used his intelligence to think about how he could improve the lives of others.

Maurice believed that through learning to read and write, people could better themselves. He opened a Working Men's College in London in 1854 so that the working classes could be educated. Admission to the college was one shilling, and all the teachers gave their services for free.

Ford Madox Brown taught there alongside the artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Ruskin. It was whilst listening to Maurice and Ruskin speaking at the college that Brown decided to ask Maurice to sit for the painting.

Temperance campaigner

Female campaigner for Temperance Movement, detail from Ford Madox Brown's Work, 1852-1865

Many people, especially women, campaigned to try and stop the working classes and navvies from drinking alcohol. They saw it as unhealthy and believed that drinking beer led to drunkenness, violence and crime. However, many of these women did not realise was that beer was the safest from of refreshment for the workers, as there was often no clean water supply.

The campaigners' movement against drinking alcohol was called the 'Temperance Society'. Campaigners such as this one, gave out leaflets, tracts or pamphlets to tell people about 'the evils of alcohol'. Sometimes they tried to get people to sign a pledge stating that they would never drink alcohol again.


MP, detail from Ford Madox Brown's Work, 1852-1865This man was described by Ford Madox Brown as a Member of Parliament who is also a rich army colonel. of Parliament. His income was £15,000 per year, which was a vast sum of money at the time. Despite his wealth, Ford Madox Brown believed that he was 'honest and true-hearted'.

In the painting the MP is riding into town with his young daughter, but their way has been blocked by the navvies digging up the road. Brown explains that this is rather like the MP himself: his mind is as blocked as the path. Subsequently, he is unable to hear the message of Reverend Maurice and Thomas Carlyle.

The painting is actually a portrait of one of Brown's friends, Robert Braithwaite Martineau, who sat for him on horseback.

Chickweed seller

Chickweed Seller, detail from Ford Madox Brown's Work, 1852-1865The chickweed seller would have earned his keep by gathering plants and weeds from the countryside to sell in the town. These plants might be for wealthier people to feed their pet birds on, or for posies to give to loved ones. Another name used to describe people like this was 'Botany Ben'.

The chickweed seller has collected groundsel, ivy, forget-me-nots and ferns. Ferns were often pressed and used in people's decorative collections.

Work such as this was often regarded as 'the lowest of the low', but Ford Madox Brown regarded the chickweed seller as having a place next to the navvies: he has not been taught to work, but is keeping himself busy and earning money, rather than turning to crime.

Orange seller

Orange seller, detail from Ford Madox Brown's Work, 1852-1865This orange seller is being moved on by a policeman for resting her basket of oranges on a post, and in doing so, has dropped all her stock.

Although some richer people may have found this amusing, Ford Madox Brown points out that it is not a joke as the oranges are her livelihood.

At the time, there were believed to be up to 30,000 people selling fruit on the streets. The work may have appealed to immigrant workers such as Irish escaping the potato famine, as it required no place of business and very little capital.

Urchin girl

Urchin girl and baby, detail from Ford Madox Brown's Work, 1852-1865Ford Madox Brown has invented a whole story around this family at the centre of his painting. The mother has died and the father neglects the children in favour of drinking beer.

The urchin girl is dressed in hand-me-down clothes and has to act as a mother to her younger, potentially mischievous, siblings.

There were thousands of poor children living on the streets at this time, or in squalid conditions. Many of these were orphans who had to look after their siblings. Street children, or urchins, may have worked to afford food. They sold flowers, matches or lace, or cleaned shoes and swept the streets for rich people. Some, however, would have turned to pick-pocketing to find money for their next meal.

Many urchin children died at a very young age, often from diseases spread through dirty water, such as cholera.

Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), detail from Ford Madox Brown's Work, 1852-1865Thomas Carlyle was born on 4 December 1795 and died on 5 February 1881. He was an author, biographer and historian.

One of the issues about which he wrote was work. In his book Past and Present, he contrasts the past (where work was a rewarding experience and the worker was well respected) with the present (where money is all that matters).

He thought that the employers should concern themselves with the welfare of their employees, not simply paying them. He believed work was almost sacred, providing for the people engaged in it, whereas idleness brought despair.

Two Perspectives on Work

Self-Portrait, Ford Madox Brown, 1877Download and read Ford Madox Brown's own catalogue entry for his painting Work. Compare this with an essay by one of the curators at Manchester Art Gallery to hear why Work is considered to be such an important painting.

Image: Self-Portrait, Ford Madox Brown, 1877 Harvard University Art Museums, Fogg Art Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.185, © President and Fellows of Harvard College