This essay is reprinted, with minor editorial changes, an the addition of links and more illustrations, from The PRS Review, Special Issue in celebration of Ford Madox Brown's centenary (2021). The essay is reproduced with permission of the author and editor. — Simon Cooke

Decorated initial T he girl in the remarkable red dress at the very front of Ford Madox Brown’s Work is a highly evocative, but ambiguous figure, a public spectacle at a time when the presence of women and destitute children on the streets made them subjects of acute social anxiety (Wilson 28–9; Walvin 150). As Lynda Nead has explained, the myths of female sexuality gave rise to a repertoire of representation in which respectable femininity and motherhood were linked to the physical and moral health of the nation (6-9) and deviant female sexuality was understood in terms of moral and social chaos, contagion and disease (105-06). The signifying power of this girl, neither child nor woman, can be interpreted in the light of these interests and concerns.

Ford Madox Brown, Work. 1863. Oil on canvas. Manchester City Art Gallery version; there is another in Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery (BMAG).

Work was a major public intervention, the result of eleven years of artistic toil (1852-63) as evident in obsessive detail, and in a minute level of realism that cannot be fully understood in reproduction. Brown augmented his visual rhetoric with text, publishing a five-page catalogue essay embellished with a sonnet for his solo exhibition in 1865 to ensure his key characters and themes were clearly understood (The Exhibition 27-31). A painting of modern life, the preliminary drawings were produced ‘on the spot’ in Mount Street, Hampstead, in a hut mounted on a trolley specially adapted for the purpose.

The painting elicits multiple readings, but applying a Feminist methodology is a particularly useful mode of interpretation. Elizabeth Grosz argues that the city is a social and psychological process that writes meanings on the body’s surface (383). This essay will explore how cultural discourses at this moment, around children, gender and the London street, write meaning onto the diminutive body of the girl in the striking red dress and what her signification tells us about the representation of femininity in mid-Victorian art.

Reading the Body

Brown’s call to action employs an analogy between the multiplicity of bodies on this crowded London street and the state of the nation. His symbolism is directly drawn from contemporary polemics, the social philosophy of Thomas Carlyle and the Christian socialism of men like Frederick Denison Maurice, with both men standing on the far right (Barringer 25). ‘These days of universal death’, so Carlyle noted, ‘must be days of universal rebirth, if the ruin is not to be total and final’ (Carlyle xii). Carlyle’s apocalyptic prose diagnosed a sickness at the heart of the body politic. Sin, degradation, disease, Chartism, and Irish immigration at home; revolution, and the Indian mutinies abroad; all threatened the social order and connected the physical and spiritual condition of the working classes and the urban poor to the health of nation and empire (White 83–6).

In Brown’s design, the navvies are purposefully engaged in manual labour to demonstrate the providential nature of work. Tim Barringer suggests that the brilliant light that shines on these working-class heroes ‘casts the rest of society into shade’ (23). It is significant then that the girl in the red dress, while placed at the lowest co-ordinate of Brown’s pictorial pyramid, also stands in full sunlight, centre stage and closest to the picture frame. This is a compositional tactic that implies not only a central role in Brown’s allegory, but also the ability of this small figure to attract a viewer’s attention: ‘Are ragged, wayside babes not lovesome too?’ Brown’s text encourages viewers’ sympathy for such ‘motherless … dirty, brats’ (Exhibition 27–30). The other children are conventionally childish, her brother is a cheeky ‘bohemian’ and the sweet innocence of the baby, first modelled on Brown’s son Arthur shortly before he died, appeals in the way all babies’ bodies do – his eyes directly petition a viewer (Diary 188). However, the charm of his ‘vixenish’ oldest sister, who holds him close, is quite different (Exhibition, 30). In what Brown tells us is a hand-me-down dress, the cinched-in waist of this young girl’s silhouette is far from childlike.

An Iron Forge by Joseph Wright of Derby, one of several of his on the subject — this one from 1772. [Click on the image for more information.]

Whilst Brown’s composition draws from the genre of history painting and previous epic depictions of manual labour, such as Joseph Wright of Derby’s The Forge (1771) – painting which employs the artistic device of a woman’s back to the viewer, with a child’s face seen over her shoulder (Bennet 1: 152) – his comic vignettes most recall the satirical street scenes of his artistic hero, William Hogarth and employ a type of humour that Freud was later to call tendentious (Bennett 1:138).

Detail from Work: the juxtaposition of the girl with 'vigorous manhood.'

These are the kind of salacious jokes that enable the enjoyment of sexual or cruel instincts in spite of social and moral codes of propriety. The appeal of the girl in the red dress is to be found precisely in this slippery psychic space of partially concealed adult meanings. Lewd details instruct the viewer, through the representation of difference. The juxtaposition of this girl’s body, her back bare, with the sinuous muscle of vigorous manhood, is a witty point of contrast. The red of her dress connects her to the beer man’s red waistcoat and the red rose, held between the teeth of the young navvy. This can only be described as highly sexualised, visual banter. Squeezed between the picture plane and the large muscular buttocks of the navvy shovelling lime, this girl’s unseen face is obscenely close to the beer man’s reddened, veiny hands - one pushed suggestively into the front pocket of his apron perhaps, as has been proposed without irony, ‘jangling his coins’ (Newman & Watkinson 117). The split at the back of her dress, chimes with the bottom bared by a child (also in a red dress in the Manchester Art Gallery version of the painting) hanging upside down on a railing. Colour and form thus build meaning and provide amusement and pleasure to viewers ‘in the know’.

The girl can be linked to other contexts too, and can be read in relation to the countless iterations of the enigmatic child acrobat of the period. Carolyn Steedman has tracked the character of Mignon from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister across nineteenth-century literature to explore the ‘strange dislocations’, between representation and meaning, produced by the projection of adult desires and fantasies onto the child of the Victorian imagination (5, 18). Mignon was the word for ‘little girls on the street in the general sense’, but also ‘the word for little girls you fancy,’ signalling adult desire (Steedman 38–9).

The girl in Workcan be read in these terms. She has boyishly cropped hair which casts a masklike shadow on her face, a visual masquerade dressed up to put on a role for adult spectators. ‘No more than ten’ in Brown’s text, an early reviewer thought she was fourteen (qtd. in Bennett 1: 147). Barringer says she is ‘only a child’ but acknowledges she has the attributes of a ‘mature female’ (54).

Ambiguous like Mignon, she is not obviously represented as a child, but like an adolescent or older woman, and is painted in persuasive realism as if she were sexually mature. The graceful curve of her neck, her classically lowered shoulders, and miniscule waist suggest the deportment of a trained ballet dancer; each vertebra of her cervical spine is painstakingly realised, as are her curling eyelashes, details that are the indices of female desirability. The sensuous materiality of tiers of ruched velvet on her dress evokes the sense of touch, as does her arm that lovingly cradles the baby, her body that shelters her sister and her hand disciplining her brother. ‘When I drew the poor little vixen girl (…) I quite growled with delight,’ Brown records in his diary, ‘a bon mot of (Thomas) Woolner’s was that it should be a point of honour with women to stand smoke (Brown’s italics) as with men to stand fire’ Diary 135). In a representational power relationship in which gender and age problematise meaning, this young girl is a sign of masculine sexual enjoyment (Pointon 188).

Detail from Work: the girl and her siblings.

The ‘perpetual spirals of power and pleasure’ identified by Foucault in the Victorian discourse of sexuality are produced, it could be argued, by Brown’s allegory (44–5), and a series of contrasts gives support to this idea. The ‘business in life’ of the lady with the blue parasol, modelled on the artist’s wife, ‘is to dress and look beautiful for our benefit’ and bears interesting comparison with the girl. The matching red of their dresses establishes the sex and gender of woman and girl, but their social difference is marked out by fashion and conduct to unequivocally differentiate their moral value (Nead 179–81). The respectable woman’s red dress is significantly covered by a white cloak, her modestly lowered gaze emphasised by the shadow thrown by her hat. Even so, Brown feels the need to warn her of ‘the greater calamities to which the flesh is heir’ (Exhibition 129). If this woman’s virtue is imperilled on a London street, the younger girl, her charms openly displayed, is infinitely more vulnerable by reason of her class and lack of visible adult support. Her red dress precariously held together at the waist with a pin, intimates danger, even violation, metal hooks and eyes, that should be fastened are left undone. Look closely, and in a quite extraordinary detail, the end of a whalebone stay presses sharply into her skin on the right of her back whilst other stays are revealed by the rip on her dress below her waist – this young girl is wearing a corset. A length of lace hangs loose, highlighted against the red of her dress – a visual invitation to tug it, just as she tugs her brother’s hair. Violence is foreshadowed in the beer man’s black eye, the sharp point of the trowel, blood-red like her dress, lying in wait in the wheelbarrow with a cut length of lace-like cord, the sharp upright of the phallic tail of her dog below her arm, and the assault on the orange seller on the far right that sends oranges flying.

‘Untrained their state reflects on thy desserts’(Exhibition 19). Brown’s sonnet connects the state of this girl and her siblings directly to a viewer’s salvation. In the face of visceral reality, it is evident that the idealised representation of poor children in Victorian painting aestheticised unpalatable social truths to exploit public sympathies (Marshall 153 –7). Realism masks reality to appeal to a viewer. This girl’s dark hair romanticises the ‘matted hair which looks as if it would defy sponge or comb’ of Henry Mayhew’s child prostitutes, her dress is a melodramatic version of their foul rags (1: 467). Barringer suggests this girl’s young body prefigures a life of poverty and prostitution, but in a parable that links the new freshwater system to the purification of the body politic, she also personifies pollution and corruption (54).

Slightly right of centre, this girl’s body is the ideal perspective from which to view both streets, the subject-position and point of contrast from where Brown’s symbolism makes the most sense. Her form, face in profile and the sharp horizontal of her arm, mimics that of the upright navvy holding his spade at a right angle, in a pose modelled on the Apollo Belvedere (Barringer 37). His idealised physique and unlikely whiteness signify classical beauty, physical health and spiritual virtue, the girl in the red dress represents his mirror image. Whilst sunlight ‘spotlights, cleanses and canonises’ the navvies, the white daisies clasped in the baby’s tiny, innocent hand provide a radical contrast to her darkened skin (Barringer 38). Her meagre body, and the accretion of city dirt on her dress and skin, are evidence of the city’s degenerative, even deracinating force, signs of the material condition of life on the street. She is the navvy’s dark feminine antithesis, the Other that confirms his moral value.

Ford Madox Brown, The Irish Girl, 1860. Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.

Brown saw at first-hand the conditions of the poor. The model for this figure is unknown, but he routinely undertook research on the street, using the type of fieldwork pioneered by Mayhew in his sociological explorations of the ‘vice, ignorance and want’ on the London streets (1: 6). His model for The Irish Girl was an orange seller he met while out looking for red-haired Irish models for Work (Bennett 195). Dirty, hungry, stunted by starvation, street children often looked prematurely aged; the Little Watercress Girl is ‘cruelly pathetic’, her ‘little face pale and wrinkled with privation’. Mayhew goes on ‘although only eight she had entirely lost all childish ways and was (…) in thoughts and manner a woman’ (Mayhew 1: 164).

Without being able to see Brown’s girl’s face, it is impossible to confirm whether she is aged or stunted by hardship, but her early sexualisation would have been understood to represent reality. At a time when the age of consent was just 12, the poor lived in conditions in which innocence of the adult world was not possible (Walvin 141–5). ‘The most remarkable characteristic of these children is their licentiousness,’ Mayhew observed, together with an ‘animal fondness for the opposite sex,’ - a propensity that he believed led to early puberty (1: 164). In 1858 Brown’s wife bought clothes for a girl who was freezing ‘in spite of prostitution’ (Brown’s italics, Diary 200). In these circumstances, the middle classes often did not recognise the children of the poor to be children at all (Walvin 15). Kristeva’s concept of the abject is employed by Nancy Rose Marshall, in exactly this context to argue persuasively that bourgeois identity was constructed through the ‘rejection and exclusion of abject elements associated with the masses’ (121–23). In a capital city where exponential population growth and urban development was sustained by the labour of the working-class and the profits of an empire of over ‘400 million souls’, this is a process of concealment, that consolidates the dominant constituencies (Porter 2). In this process of fetishisation and disavowal, the girl is made 'other' by reason of her age, class, sex and colour. Her difference licences this girl’s voyeuristic visual consumption. Knowledge, pleasure, and power combine in a regime of truth that both assuages the fears and confirms the privilege of a middle-class audience (Hall 266–69).

Meanings accumulate on this body like London dirt. A fabrication of the city, the girl in the red dress stands amidst the rubble and the detritus of construction, her dress the colour of brick-dust; bricks like those carried by the navvy descending below ground and in the wall to her left, here being used to fashion a modern city. Meanings slip and slide between sign and referent. Female sexuality is infantilised in her small form and a girl identified as a child has been sexualised for visual pleasure. The colour red activates her multiple significations. Like a red rag to a bull, or the red pelt of a vixen to hunting dogs, her dress is a provocation, a sign of abjection and sexual excitement. A disquieting fusion of fact and misogynistic fantasy whatever her age, this figure is not an honest portrayal of a real girl, let alone a real child. She represents the epistemology of femininity at this moment - her subjectivity formed in the ideological crosscurrents of mid-Victorian anxieties and sympathies. The extraordinary connotative power of this figure provides insight into the mid-Victorian mind and ensures this girl in the unforgettable red dress remains a hugely compelling figure right into the present. The ambivalence of her age shines a light onto the work of representation and the social construction of childhood and gender: both conceptions that shift across time but that are always, as here, subject to the intersectional effects of power and difference – of age, class, sex, and race.

Related Material


Primary Sources

Brown, Ford Madox. The Diary of Ford Madox Brown, 1821–93. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

Brown, Ford Madox. The Exhibition of WORK, and other Paintings by F.M.B. at the Gallery, 191 Piccadilly. London: McCorquadale,1865.

Carlyle, Thomas. ‘Later Day Pamphlets, No 1’ in Thomas Carlyle Selected Writings. Ed. Alan Shelston. London: Penguin, 1971.

Mayhew, Charles. London Labour and the London Poor. 3 Vols. London: Griffin, Bohn,1861.

Secondary Sources

Barringer, Tim. Men at Work; Art and Labour in Victorian Britain. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Bennett, Mary. Ford Madox Brown: A Catalogue Raisonne. Vol 1. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Foucault, Michel. The Will to Knowledge; The History of Sexuality: 1. London: Allen Lane, 1979.

Green, Anna. French Paintings of Childhood and Adolescence 1848–1886. Abingdon: Routledge, 2007.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Space, Time, and Perversion; Essays on the Politics of Bodies. London: Routledge, 1995.

Hall, Stuart, ‘The Spectacle of the Other.’ Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Ed. Stuart Hall. London: Sage, 1997. 223–290.

Heywood, Colin, A History of Childhood. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001.

Nead, Linda. Myths of Sexuality; Representations of Women in Victorian Britain. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988.

Newman, Teresa and Watkinson Ray. Ford Madox Brown, and the Pre-Raphaelite Circle. London: Chatto & Windus, 1991.

Marshall, Nancy Rose, City of Gold and Mud: Painting Victorian London. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

Pointon, Marcia. Hanging the Head; Portraiture and the Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1993.

Porter, Roy. London, a Social History. London: Penguin, 1994.

Steedman, Caroline. Strange Dislocations; Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority. London: Virago, 1995.

Storr, Anthony. Freud a Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Walvin, James. A Child’s World; A Social History of English Childhood 1800–1914 . London: Penguin, 1982.

Wilson, Elizabeth. The Sphinx in the City; Urban Life, the Control of Disorder and Women . Los Angeles: California University Press, 1991.

White, Jerry. London in the 19th Century. Oxford: Bodley Head, 2016.

Created 22 January 2022