Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 11, 2007
Tim Barringer Men At Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in association with Yale University Press, 2005. 392 pp.; 33 color ills.; 113 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (0300103808)
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Recent years have witnessed a transformation of the field of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British art, as scholars have rejected a definition of the modern derived from French art, and investigated the specific contours of a British modernity and its visual modes. Tim Barringer has already played a significant role in this reappraisal , and his recent book, Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain, continues this conversation, making an important contribution both to the study of mid-Victorian visual culture and to the larger theoretical questions raised by recent scholars of Victorian art.

The subject of Men at Work is a “critical iconography” of the laboring male body, which Barringer argues “provided the most powerful and significant formulation of work as the nexus of ethical and aesthetic value” (1–2) in the mid-Victorian period. Barringer’s work thus usefully complements the work of scholars like Kristina Huneault on the visual representation of working women and Michael Hatt on images of the homoeroticized male laborer by focusing on the figure of the normative male body and the “persistence of the identification of masculinity with labour” (15). The five detailed case studies that compose Barringer’s argument are drawn from the period of 1851 to 1878, and the specific dates bracketing this historical moment are significant. The starting date of 1851 is, of course, a reference to the Great Exhibition, which Barringer uses as a framework for introducing his case studies. But it is also the date of John Ruskin’s famous letter to The Times in support of the Pre-Raphaelites, in which the critic defended the detailed realism of their paintings through the language of labor, establishing the visible signs of artistic work as a “central tenet of realism and . . . a fundamental index of value” (19). The concluding date is provided by the Ruskin-Whistler trial in which artistic value and work were publicly divorced, an episode briefly addressed in Barringer’s epilogue. These choices draw attention to the fact that Ruskin is, perhaps, the single most powerful intellectual and moral influence on this work, appearing as the subject of analysis in many chapters, serving as an important model for “reading” images, and providing a moral foundation for the value assigned to labor throughout the text.

Barringer’s substantial introduction sets out the major themes and topics of his book, and elucidates the author’s theoretical commitments and ambitions. Barringer recognizes that his work will be perceived by some as “a contribution to the ‘social history of art,’” but insists that “it is, above all, a contribution to the history of art” (17). There are obvious political battles underlying this distinction, but Barringer wants to “reject a polarity in which contextual readings and formal analysis are seen as mutually exclusive” (17), an aim shared by many—though certainly not all—art historians. Class, masculinity, and empire are the three primary categories of his historical investigation, and he calls forcefully both for renewed art-historical attention to class, and for placing empire at the center of the history of British art. These three themes wax and wane throughout the case studies that follow, but in general they do provide a map of his concerns, locating his interpretations of individual objects within a larger historical and methodological argument.

Barringer’s first chapter is a far-ranging and compelling reading of Ford Madox Brown’s great painting Work (1852–65) as a “secular altarpiece” enshrining labor as the signifier of political, sexual, religious, and artistic value, substantiated in the laboring male body. The author builds his case on close visual readings; and if at times the context—including the conventions of history painting, Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, Christian Socialism, and the religious beliefs of Work’s patron Thomas Edward Plint—threatens to overwhelm the image, Barringer’s attentive reading and the sheer visual power of Brown’s masterpiece ultimately prevail. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the painting as Brown’s own performance of artistic identity granted value by the visible labor of his painstaking detail, an argument that demonstrates an attentiveness to the meanings of artistic labor for its practitioners that is one of the major strengths of the book.

The question of masculinity is at the heart of this chapter’s argument, which draws on Judith Butler’s theory of gender as performative to read the different kinds of represented work as constitutive of different modes of masculinity, resulting in a taxonomy and hierarchy of labor. This is a rich and persuasive reading of Brown’s painting, and one that opens the door to further investigations of Victorian gender. Barringer is rightly wary of a strict adherence to the idea of “separate spheres” as a model for understanding Victorian genders, but his interpretation of Work is nonetheless premised on reading the painting as reliant on “an antithesis between gender characteristics construed as masculine and feminine” (50), with work assigned to the masculine and domesticity and child-rearing assigned to the feminine. However, the material won’t always let him maintain this strict separation; rather, it insists upon the interdependence of masculinity and femininity—and specifically the realm of masculine labor and the work performed in the domestic sphere—in ways that have the potential to expand his interpretation of masculine labor. In Work, for example, the interruption of the central scene of the heroicized laboring navvies by a small “family” grouping of urchin children seems to put the social reproduction of labor at the heart of Brown’s opus. Barringer reads the group as a sign of the failure of masculinity: the father’s unemployment has left them to fend for themselves, making the young girl vulnerable to a future life of prostitution. But the centrality of the work of nurturing in the image—the young girl who holds a baby to her shoulder, shelters a younger child in her skirts, and chastises a mischievous young boy is the closest human figure to the viewer, and the group partially shares the strong light that Barringer reads as conferring the “divine grace” of labor on the trio of navvies—seems to call for an expansion of the meanings of work on offer. The possibilities of such a reading lurk in small details, such as the family of unemployed agricultural workers at right, in which it is the father’s hand, rather than the mother’s, that wraps around to spoon “cold pap” into the baby’s mouth. The “sacred bond” (53) of which Barringer speaks is thus established between father and child, not mother and child, opening up new meanings for masculine work.

Brown’s earlier painting The Last of England (1852–55) seems to suggest similar possibilities. Barringer interprets the picture as an unstable image of separate spheres, as the division of the canvas into masculine and feminine realms is undermined by the “sorry catalogue of masculine identities” (33) that fill the space behind the middle-class emigrant, and the failure of the umbrella—representing the protections of the domestic sphere—to protect the woman and child from the outside world. But the picture also suggests a more positive breaching of the boundaries. The emigrant’s exposed hand—which Barringer identifies as emblematic of physical labor, here unemployed—is not entirely idle. It is gripped tightly by the gloved hand of his wife and cradles an object that seems to be the small, red-stockinged foot of their child, who lies in the lap of its mother. Such visible masculine engagement in the physical and emotional work of the “domestic” realm in Brown’s paintings has the potential to enrich the meanings of masculine labor and to complicate our understanding of the ideology of separate spheres.

The question of masculinity recedes slightly in the second chapter, which looks at the scenes of rural labor painted by George Vicat Cole and John Linnell. Barringer aims to redeem the “unjustly maligned genre of Victorian landscape painting” (88) by focusing attention on these works’ engagement with the realities of contemporary rural life through an analysis of their representation of labor. Accordingly, he interprets works such as Cole’s Harvest Time (1860) as carefully idealized scenes of rural labor created at a moment of agricultural mechanization and the transformation of the peasant into rural proletariat, and argues that such images were particularly attractive to an urban middle-class audience most familiar with the agrarian landscape as seen from the windows of a railway car. While, as Barringer acknowledges, “it would be easy to dismiss this as simply a reactionary nostalgic gesture” (88), he argues that the paintings’ responsiveness to contemporary urban modernity and—in the hands of at least some artists—their theological undertones position them within a discourse on the nature and moral value of pre-industrial labor. One of the strengths of this chapter is his deft portrayal of the artists’ stake in these meanings of rural life for urban audiences, as artists such as Linnell positioned themselves within artistic and urban class hierarchies through their performance of the role of “landscape painter-cum-landowner” (108).

In chapters 3 and 4, Barringer turns to the challenges the realities of industrial labor as experienced in the foundries and factories of Blackburn and Sheffield posed to Victorian ideas about and representations of art and labor. These chapters focus on the work and careers of two less studied artists, James Sharples and Godfrey Sykes, both of whom worked from outside the traditional boundaries of the high arts, and whose work thus offers different perspectives on the meanings of labor. Chapter 3 offers a fascinating account of Sharples, an industrial blacksmith whose representation of a modern forge in oil paint and steel engraving Barringer convincingly interprets as a “utopian fantasy of craft autonomy produced at precisely the historical moment when the last vestiges of that autonomy were being demolished” (177). Barringer focuses on the engraved version of The Forge (1859) because the medium “provides a perfect metaphor for the combination of aesthetic creation and manual manipulation that his dual role as artist and smith involved” (135). But the question he raises concerning the relationship of Sharples’ working-class identity to the meaning of the image would be usefully amplified by more attention to the historical circumstances of the circulation and reception of both painting and engraving. Barringer notes that Sharples sent review copies of the engraving to periodical editors, including those, it seems, of the Art Journal and the Athenaeum, an act that suggests the artist was quite deliberately inserting his work into the context of high art. Did he attempt to exhibit his oil painting? Where was the engraving sold, and in what contexts was it promoted and reviewed?

The discussion also raises an interesting question for future research: clearly Sharples was unusual, but how widely were his artistic ambitions shared by other members of the working class? Certainly by the first years of the twentieth century the contributions of “workmen artists” to the Royal Academy were noticed in the press, particularly in newspapers aimed at working-class readers. Indeed, Barringer’s discussion of the “geography of social improvement” in the following chapter suggests that the increasingly respectable and remunerative career path of the Victorian artist made it an attractive aspirational model for upward mobility, albeit not one followed by Sharples. This theme is discussed at length in chapter 4’s treatment of Sykes, an artist and designer whose career trajectory moved from apprentice engraver in Sheffield to chief designer of the South Kensington Museum in London, tracing a path laid out by philanthropic institutions aimed at uniting art and labor through design education.

Chapter 5 extends the discussion of the political and ethical critiques potentially implicit in expressive theories of labor to the subject of empire. Barringer identifies a discourse of “colonial Gothic” that linked conceptually the “creative labour of the medieval stonemason and that of the Indian craftsman” in order to mount a critique of the “tragic debasement of work itself that characterised the industrial era” (249). The chapter traces the historical development of this strand of thought from its inception in the disturbing recognition of the aesthetic superiority of hand-produced Indian crafts over the machine-produced British products at the 1851 Exhibition, to its widespread power as a model for understanding the value of Indian art by the 1880s. Barringer then turns his attention to two later deployments of the colonial Gothic at opposite ends of the political spectrum: the “neo-feudal” meanings he finds in the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 and Queen Victoria’s decoration of Osborne House, and the radical political impact of Gandhi’s reading of Ruskin and his embrace of colonial Gothic as “a critique both of capitalism and imperialism” (311).

This doubleness is at the heart of Victorian representations of labor as discussed throughout the book, as they could be employed within a political context of reactionary nostalgia as easily as they allowed for a radical, even utopian, political vision. Barringer offers a multi-faceted view of the various political uses to which representations of labor were put in the Victorian period, while consistently maintaining a focus on the ways specific images of labor signified as artistic self-representations for the individuals who made them. The value of work is enacted in its pages, which are filled with rewarding close readings of a wide range of visual sources and a wealth of detail about mid-Victorian religious beliefs, industrial machinery, agricultural practices, and much more. The book is beautifully designed and lavishly illustrated, with thirty-three well-chosen color illustrations usefully integrated within the text, and one hundred and thirteen black-and-white illustrations. In a text with such rich and extensive source material, the decision—presumably the publisher’s—not to include a bibliography is deeply unfortunate. Overall, however, Barringer’s book is a valuable contribution to the study of Victorian art and visual culture, and it is to be hoped that this beautifully produced and illustrated book will raise the profile of Victorian art in the United States, where it remains a relatively neglected field.

Pamela Fletcher
Pamela Fletcher, Bowdoin College, caa.reviews field editor, Digital Humanities and Art History

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.