Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain
New Haven: Yale University Press, for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2005, 392 pp.; 33 color ills., 113 b/w. $65.00
Orange signs emblazoned "Men at Work" are familiar sights along American highways; only recently has "Drive slowly/My Mommy works here" cropped up. The image of the male laboring body is the central subject of Tim Barringer's Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain. By focusing on the male body, he brings his study into the orbit of manual, factory, industrial, and harvesting labor, as this was the traditional purview of men (with the exception of the last, as Barringer notes in chapter 2). Nineteenth-century female employment, including domestic servants, teachers, seamstresses, and governesses, is not discussed here--appropriately so, since scenes of female labor and the conditions that produced them have been well addressed by scholars such as Susan Casteras, Deborah Cherry, and Kristina Huneault. (1) Barringer's subtitle, with its connotations of industry and drudgery, is necessary, for the book is not concerned with all aspects of work. We do not encounter, for example, office clerks discharging professional duties. Instead, we discover physical labor, with mental labor relegated, metaphorically and literally, to the periphery, not to emerge center stage until later in the century, with portraits by George F. Watts and Julia Margaret Cameron. (2) Physical labor, in Barringer's account, is not limited to visual representation but also includes the effort, revealed or disguised, necessary to produce the work of art.
Great Britain was arguably the first nation-state to industrialize. Whereas historians have repeatedly tackled this broad phenomenon, art historians have been reluctant to do so, with the exception of Francis D. Klingender. (3) More typical have been studies of individual artists, such as Joseph Wright of Derby, whose estate portraits, such as Ark-wright's Mills by Night, ca. 1782-83, monumentalized and glorified the mills and whose nocturnal forge scenes (briefly revisited by Barringer) likewise celebrated the smiths, (4) or J. M. W. Turner, whose Rain, Steam, and Speed--the Great Western Railway, 1844, and other images of industrial power have been repeatedly read as commentaries on the Industrial Revolution. (5) Instead of concentrating on artistic oeuvres, Klingender "constructed a heroic scientific and industrial heritage for the nation" by assembling a vast range of visual materials, many never before published. (6) Barringer acknowledges Klingender's accomplishment but also recognizes the author's embeddedness in the rising socialist movement that resulted in an absolutist treatment of class, "incapable of mapping the overlapping and conflicting allegiances and the complex, contested identities of the period" (p. 12). Rather than attempt another broad sweep, Barringer has elected to offer case studies that tackle the problem of art and labor from different, and sometimes unexpected, points of view and also present much previously unstudied material.
In his introduction, Barringer briefly considers the Great Exhibition of 1851, which anticipated the issue of how the laboring classes and their acts of labor, concretized by the displayed exhibits, should be visualized: Should they be erased, implied, mocked, or allegorized? Furthermore, should empire be acknowledged, and if so, how? These questions course through the subsequent narrative. The first chapter takes up Ford Madox Brown's pivotal painting Work and offers a valuable interpretation regarding its articulation of masculinity. The second chapter examines harvest paintings by George Vicat Cole and John Linnell, which Barringer reveals to be crucial indexes of the contested meanings of rural labor in the mid-Victorian period. The title of this chapter, "The Harvest Field in the Railway Age," registers effectively the peculiar frisson generated by the twinned ascendancy of rural nostalgia and machine technology. In the third chapter, "Blacksmith and Artist," Barringer introduces us to James Sharples, a skilled laborer and amateur artist whose visual imagery occupies an unusual position "in the interstices not only between constructions of working and middle classes but also between art and labour, high and low, and left and right [politically]" (p. 184). The fourth chapter investigates another overlooked artist, Godfrey Sykes, whose artistic work was both the result and articulation of the ideology of improvement at the core of many Victorian social visions. Sykes was employed at the South Kensington Museum, later renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum, and we are returned to this structure in the fifth chapter, where Barringer develops his concept of the colonial Gothic, a "hybrid form" produced by the Victorian adoration of the Gothic combined with "an increasingly politicised defence of traditional Indian craft skills," both of which shared an...