September 21, 2012 8:10 pm

Work 2.0

What does making a living mean in 2012? Recreating Madox Brown’s 19th-century painting, FT Weekend Magazine brings together 17 working men and women to find out
Photograph of 17 British workers©Dan Burn-Forti

Last time “Work”, Ford Madox Brown’s vibrant, populous street scene of navvies laying water pipes in Hampstead, was shown at London’s Tate gallery, it was 1984. Margaret Thatcher, not known as a connoisseur of fine art, attended the opening. Then, as now, politicians were talking about the importance of “Victorian values”, and the consequences of unemployment and inequality. Now the canvas, which usually hangs in Manchester, is back in the city where it was painted. Brown’s radical aim – to ennoble and glorify hard work – has a renewed relevance at a time of economic downturn and high levels of joblessness.

In the new Tate Britain exhibition, the curators have hung “Work” – in its altarpiece-shaped frame – alongside paintings on more overtly religious subjects. The room is provocatively titled “Salvation”.

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So what does work mean to 21st-century engineers, financiers, shopkeepers, clergymen and jobseekers – the counterparts of the characters in Brown’s picture? Pride, mixed with a sense of purpose, physical achievement and, of course, money. That is how 17 people responded when the FT brought them together to create a photographic version inspired by “Work”.

By 1865, when “Work” was first exhibited publicly, debate about the moral purpose of work was well under way, led by intellectuals such as Thomas Carlyle (whom Brown depicted on the right of the painting) and John Ruskin. But while the artist’s description in the exhibition catalogue was sympathetic to the characters he depicted, it makes a distinction between workers and non-workers. As the art historian John Walker has written, the dazzling lighting scheme helps explain the scene: “While the vigorous hard-working navvies are bathed in strong sunlight, the idle and anachronistic aristocrat and his daughter are cast in deep shadow.”

Explore our interactive ‘Work’ graphic. Feature continues below...

Brown was echoing categories laid down by Henry Mayhew in his research “London Labour and the London Poor”, published just before he started the painting: “Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot Work and Those That Will Not Work.”

The people in our modern reconstruction all put themselves in the first category. Bean Stocks, The Big Issue vendor, says some people see what he does as no better than begging (an echo of Brown’s characterisation of the flower-seller as a “pariah”), but he is clear that his is a job, “like working in a shoe shop”. Technology entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley now spends her days researching good causes and distributing her wealth, but she rejects the idea she is retired: “I reckon I’ve been working now for 60 years, because I started at 18 and I’m still going strong.”

What made Brown’s painting stand out in the 1860s was that he painted the labourers as heroes. As Tim Barringer, professor of art history at Yale University and co-curator of the Tate exhibition, points out, the artist borrowed the pose for the central figure in his painting from the Apollo Belvedere sculpture in the Vatican, “yet he gave this to a man digging holes!”

It is a sign of how much work has evolved away from the physical in the past century-and-a-half that none of those in the modern reconstruction engages in hard labour as Brown would have defined it. Even our central trio of “navvies” – one from Openreach, part of BT, the telecoms company, and two from Thames Water – mainly supervise contractors, who employ the counterparts of Brown’s navvies. They represent a new, managerial tier of worker that barely existed when Brown was painting – more likely to be found in meetings about financial targets or at the computer tracking “key performance indicators” than digging up the streets themselves.

Yet all the 21st-century workers identify their work in physical terms. Russell Harvey from Thames Water, which is repairing and rebuilding the sort of pipework being laid in Brown’s picture, says he feels “proud to be part of this new infrastructure [that] will be here in 100 years-plus”. BT’s David Wilson, who came to the interview fresh from helping install the optical fibre network for London’s Olympic Village, is visibly excited about having helped build a system that connects “the rest of the planet within hundredths of a millisecond”.

The self-made men and women in the modern picture all claim the satisfaction of having “created something from nothing”, to quote Byron Knight, founder of the Beavertown microbrewery (who stands where Brown’s entrepreneurial beerseller stood in the original canvas). “Hard work” is still a badge of honour, whether it is Abdullah Solak’s 20-year construction of a loyal clientele for his convenience store in east London, or Dupsy Abiola’s commitment to building an online intern directory “on three or four hours’ sleep”.

'Work' (1852-1865), a painting by Ford Madox Brown©Manchester City Art Galleries

'Work' (1852-1865), by Ford Madox Brown. From left: flowerseller; affluent lady; lady with tracts; pastrycook; wealthy man and daughter; navvies with shovels; orphaned children; navvy drinking; beerseller; unemployed haymakers; brainworkers Thomas Carlyle and Reverend Frederick Denison Maurice

Brown depicted two “brainworkers” in his painting: Carlyle and the Anglican cleric Frederick Denison Maurice. He wrote that they were people who, “seeming to be idle, work”. Clues in what modern workers say about their jobs suggest a persistent, subliminal doubt about whether “brainwork” has the same value as manual labour. Ken Costa, the financial adviser, talks about the “gritty” and “hands-on” nature of his work. Corin Taylor, a senior economic adviser at the Institute of Directors, sets his job, forming policy about energy and transport, in the context of the “absolutely massive challenge [we have] on our hands to create a new energy system”. Parish priest Giles Fraser, who stands in the position occupied by Maurice in the original canvas, says sometimes it is hard to “grasp the benefit” of what he does. “If you are a brainworker,” he adds, “you don’t quite have the same nobility of labour ... Sometimes I’m very envious of straightforward work.”

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Another group in the original scene, including the affluent ladies with parasols on the left, was well enough off not to have to work. Brown noted that the “only business in life” of one of them was “to dress and look beautiful for our benefit”. In the modern version, their place is taken by fund management chief executive Helena Morrissey and health visitor and community nurse Monica Hirst, among a number of working women whose inclusion reflects the most dramatic change in the workforce since the 19th century.

What the modern group shares is a desire to assign meaning to their labour. Ken Costa, a committed Christian, says “service and the fulfilment of putting together transactions, raising capital” is important to him. Dame Stephanie Shirley – who came to Britain as a child refugee from Austria in 1939 – says she works to “justify why I was saved when so many died”. Philosophy graduate and jobseeker Ellese Elliott is wrestling with how to achieve her life aims without having to accept work she sees as demeaning. Monica Hirst says her work involves changing lives and “there’s nothing more rewarding”.

These days, it is fashionable to say, as some of this group do, that “money is irrelevant” compared with the fulfilment of a job well done. But outside our picture, the two extremes of wealth and poverty still exist. Brown captured a world in which some – the unemployed agricultural workers lying on the bank to the right, for instance, or the urchins in the foreground – were on the brink of destitution. For many people, work is still the key to survival, despite safety nets provided by organisations that existed, if at all, only in embryo in the 1850s and 1860s: the welfare state, unions, charities.

Being jobless can still be “very difficult, mentally, physically, emotionally”, says Micah McDonald, a 16-year-old student who works with a Big Lottery Fund project to tackle youth unemployment. Emma Melvin, a BBC technician and single mother, was able to rely on the charity Gingerbread for support when her relationship broke up, but she says: “My work is really important to me, not only because I get satisfaction; it’s also because I have to provide for my child.” Bean Stocks, whose work provides a path away from homelessness, is blunter still: “You need money to live, don’t you?”

In other words, if you dig down, work’s primary purpose remains unchanged: to earn money. But it is no exaggeration to say that for most, work is also, as Brown’s masterpiece suggested nearly 150 years ago, a form of salvation.

Andrew Hill is the FT’s management editor. “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde” is at Tate Britain, London, until January 13 2013

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Meet the 21st-century workers

Our interviewees – from parish priests to nurses, financiers to students – share their views

Dupsy Abiola

Founder and CEO, Internavenue.com

My job is not just one role, it’s a series of roles. There’s the brilliantly creative part of what I do and then there’s the logistical part, making sure the [online intern directory] business works. I’m trying to do all that on three or four hours of sleep.

I was earning a lot of money doing what I was doing before – way more money. But if I just wanted to be rich and go home there are loads of much easier ways to be relatively well-off and be comfortable. [Working] is about fulfilment and it’s about doing something that when you’re old and you look back, you ask “Did I really wring every single drop out of the life that I’ve got?” and you think “Yes, I did it”.

Bean Stocks

The Big Issue vendor

Before, I wasn’t doing anything. I was just homeless. This gets you back into society from being alienated. You start selling The Big Issue and you’re dealing with normal members of society; it adjusts your attitude for the better. It’s a way back, but it’s a job in itself as well.

I sell in Victoria and Dulwich and I’d say the people in Dulwich see me as someone working, the people in Victoria see me as someone begging. People’s attitudes are different. In the centre of town, people are quite jaded about The Big Issue, aren’t they? I enjoy talking to people. I think it’s a sales job, like working in a shoe shop. Is the money important? You need money to live, don’t you, so, yes, it’s important.

Dame Stephanie Shirley

Philanthropist, Shirley Foundation

I was an IT entrepreneur and made a small fortune, which I’m now enjoying giving away. I’ve given £65m in the past 20 years in two areas, some to information technology, which is my professional discipline, but most to autism – that was my late son’s disorder.

I reckon I’ve been working for 60 years because I started at 18 and I’m still going strong at 79. The whole point about work is that it’s this purposeful activity. It’s a basic need for many people: to define themselves in terms of what they do. I came to this country as an unaccompanied child refugee and that traumatic experience has really made me determined to make each day worth living.

Steve Chapman

Senior contract manager, Thames Water

I’m in front of the computer and in meetings a lot, and generally managing the performance of the contractors. They do more of the physical work on the ground; my job is at a strategic level. It’s a question of how we can work in the best possible way to minimise any disruption.

I get more of a kick out of the meetings where we’ve got a problem and we’ve got to sort it out than the ones where we talk about our financial numbers for the end of the month; they’re the ones I don’t like.

The Olympics were great for us. I didn’t have a day off in five-and-a-half weeks: I worked every weekend, just to try and get everything going.

Corin Taylor

Senior economic adviser, Institute of Directors

I look at policy. I write reports. We survey our members to get their views on different things and make the case for good infrastructure in Britain. The kick I get out of it is being involved in something that is really important – being part of that debate.

Day to day, you’re busy with emails and calls. I divide my week up, so I have days with lots of meetings and then I spend one or two days working at home, which is useful because you can focus.

Earning a decent living is important, but earning riches isn’t. I think because it’s a useful area to be in I feel I’m contributing something. Working ridiculous hours has never appealed.

Reverend Giles Fraser

Priest-in-charge, St Mary’s, Newington; columnist, The Guardian

I’m extremely lucky to have one of those jobs which grows out of my convictions and my passions. The great thing is that it’s all-consuming; the terrible thing is that it’s all-consuming. One of the things about being a clergyman is there is no clear boundary between what is work and what is not work.

You don’t get paid a salary; you get paid a stipend to enable you to do what it is you do as a Christian priest. The work’s not measurable. It’s very difficult to grasp the benefit. You can do that when you’re very clearly helping people in practical ways but that’s not always what you’re doing. Sometimes I’m very envious of straightforward work.

Byron Knight

Entrepreneur, Off Broadway, Beavertown Brewery and Duke’s Brew & Que

My work is about people enjoying themselves. At the end of the day, everything I do is about people coming by and feeling they had a good time, that they had a good experience. I am working all the time; four days a week at Off Broadway and seven days a week at Duke’s. I haven’t had a day off since May.

Now that I’m getting a little bit older – I’m 43 – money has become more important because I’ve got family and responsibilities I didn’t have 10 years ago. But it’s still not the motivating factor; it’s all about quality and creating something I’m proud of. That’s always what drives me.

Monica Hirst

NHS health visitor and practice educator, on secondment to Unison

At Unison, my work involves health visiting, healthcare assistance and lots of different areas within nursing. I’ve been a community nurse since 1987, which is where my heart is. It’s about being able to give people better outcomes on health and wellbeing. There’s nothing more rewarding; it’s a bit more than a job.

I’m a trade unionist so that’s part of my work as well, representing [union] members and making sure we are all there to look after the patients and the clients. There are redundancies happening in community nursing and you go through it in your mind: could you do something else? And I think, no, I don’t want to do anything else.

Abdullah Solak

Shopkeeper, Palm 2

I saw this small unit available for rent and I asked next door. They said, “Go to the landlord”, and I went and I started. Then there were some more units next to them, which I took over. The business has gone well since. Of course, in 20 years, there’s a lot of hard work. For me, it’s about meeting people – local people and also people from around the world.

Others I know who ran shops, they retired and got out of the business. But it seems I’m going to be always in this business because I like the area, I like the people. It’s more [about] socialising than making money. I feel now money is less important than what we have achieved. Once, Tesco wanted to buy us out but I couldn’t take the money.

Ellese Elliott

Between jobs

I do various things. I started bar training last week but after two days I quit because I thought it unethical. I’ve just got a job at a marketing company and currently I’m a volunteer setting up a charity about the advancement of education in philosophy. So how would I describe myself? I’m not sure: in between jobs. I do work but it’s not necessarily always paid employment. I’m also writing a book but until I find a publisher, it’s not paid.

I want to go into ethics and mental health. So do I accept something like a bar job which I find is not consistent with my ethics in order to earn money to study and achieve a greater end? Or do I try and stay ethical? It’s very difficult.

David Wilson

Optical fibre field engineer, Openreach

We don’t dig up streets ourselves. Generally we pay a contractor to dig the street up, put in some empty tubing and our cable gang will go along, pull a cable between; then I come along and connect that up. We work in underground boxes in the street every single day. I take pride in my job and my objective is to get it sorted for the customer. Some days I work late making sure that happens.

For me, engineering is really interesting. If I saw your watch wasn’t working or you’d broken your phone, I’d repair it. If something can be made it can be fixed. What we installed [for the Olympic Village] is the most powerful infrastructure on the planet.

Helena Morrissey

Chief executive, Newton Investment Management; founder, 30% Club

My work blurs with other aspects of my life. I have my paid employment as a CEO, and I have more of a campaigning role leading the 30% Club [committed to bringing more women on to UK boards]. Then, as the mother of nine, there’s a lot to do at home.

I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I can influence things. I find the intellectual stimulation and challenges fulfilling. I hope I’m creating a better environment, whether it’s within Newton or the 30% Club, and, last but by no means least, seeing the family develop. Most people have an element of self-doubt and a good day’s work is a way of overcoming that.

Harry Davies

Owner, The De Beauvoir Deli

I set the deli up on a minuscule budget; I suppose my proudest accomplishment is what I’ve achieved with such a small starting pot. My strength is improving things and spotting problems and solving them and that keeps me interested and fulfilled. It’s a very nice environment to work in: you’re meeting people all day.

It’s not an office job. There’s a fair amount of computer-staring but when you’re on the shop floor it’s incredibly varied; you can be slicing meat or cheese one minute, making coffee the next. But increasingly, the busier it gets, the more admin there is for me to do. I’ve got other projects as well now, so I’m on the shop floor less and less often, which is a shame.

Ken Costa

Financial adviser

My fulfilment comes from being able to use principally intellectual skills to assess and to advise on courses of action. It’s not the work of an academic – it’s hands-on and pragmatic. It deals with the gritty issues of the raising of capital.

It’s foolish to suggest money isn’t important. However, it is not the main driver for me: service and the fulfilment of putting together transactions, raising capital, are as important. I’ve written a book called God at Work, and I believe the original prospectus given to people in the Old and New Testaments makes it clear that hard work and fulfilment, service and reward, all go together. You can work in a not-for-profit, but you can’t work in a not-for-purpose organisation.

Emma Melvin

Single parent and technical operator, BBC Persian; and her son Oliver, 3

I’m a single working mother and I work full-time; I work long hours, weekends, bank holidays. I feel like I have two jobs. Being a mother is my number one job and then my profession is obviously my work too. It’s difficult to find a balance.

My work is really important to me, not only because I get satisfaction, it’s also because I have to provide for my child. I feel fortunate to have a career that I can be proud of, and that my son will be proud of as he grows up. The money I earn just about breaks even with what I spend to get to work – to pay the au pair, to pay my train fare – and that is difficult. It’s almost when I get to work I can relax and just do my job.

Micah McDonald

Student; member of Young People Investment Team, Big Lottery Fund

We have a £100m pot of money and we have two main initiatives, which are youth unemployment [Talent Match] and mental health. We are designing projects that help to tackle such issues. It’s a voluntary job but it may become full-time, I’m not sure yet. I know young people who are unemployed and it can be very difficult – mentally, physically, emotionally – so being part of a solution is very uplifting.

I’ve done my GCSEs, so it’s sixth form next year. There’s the trouble of the lack of jobs and the amount of people producing very high grades. That will be a big challenge: how do you determine who is fit for the job and who isn’t?

Russell Harvey

Construction assurance engineer, Thames Water

My role is liaising with our contractor on site and monitoring their performance. I feel proud to be part of this new infrastructure and hopefully this will be here in 100 years-plus. It will be nice for my children to think “My dad contributed to that”.

Highlighting problems, that’s one of the good things. It’s rewarding looking at our KPIs – key performance indicators – and seeing how we can get the contractor to improve upon those. The fulfilment is more important than the pay, almost. It’s being involved in something productive and seeing an end result. We’re not maintaining something, we are building something to last.

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