A World of Work is an exhibition on the subject of work, timed to celebrate the completion of the Ruskin comic trilogy, Bloke’s Progress, with How to Work.
A World of Work explores the response of artists and designers to the realm of human labour against the background of John Ruskin’s social writings. Ruskin wrote at a time of bitter conflict between the barons of laissez faire capitalism and working people. His writings address the dehumanisation of workers by the forces of mass production and made a central contribution to giving capitalism a degree of conscience. In the field of art these ideas fuelled a growth of social awareness, inspiring many artists to look at the world of work with new eyes and generating interest in alternative approaches such as the growth of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Brantwood’s exhibition ranges across an almost impossibly wide field. Ruskin recognised that hard labour is necessary to life but believed passionately that it had to be life giving to labourer and consumer alike if it was to be of true service to mankind. Works on show explore the romanticised view of rural life from the Idyllic School, represented by Macbeth’s etching of The Harvest Moon by George Heming Mason and set it against the harsh reality of James Pelham’s Peasant Woman with a pitchfork. The brutal power of industry to reduce the worker to a cog in a machine is represented by Graham Sutherland’s dramatic wartime painting Press for making shells. By contrast, the idealism inherent in the idea of the nobility of labour is explored in John Cassidy’s sculpture of The Ship Canal Digger. A.S. Finlayson’s painting of an Aero-Engine production line is prophetic of the optimism felt by society after the war of the ‘white heat of technology’.
Our own age is far more ambivalent. Our factories are sterile environments from which physical labour and craftsmanship is gradually disappearing, but so too the worker. Maggie Berkowitz’s Riving Slate at Elterwater Quarry is a contemporary paean to the timeless value of traditional craft where hand, heart and head are in relationship. It survives in a world where the designer has become all powerful. Design has entered the intelligent machine which is both the agent and the product of the worker. It is represented in the exhibition by Jonathan Ives’ design, the iphone.
Embracing all these themes in one is the central image of the exhibition, a re-working by comic-artist Hunt Emerson of the famous Pre-Raphaelite painting ‘Work’ by Ford Madox Brown. Presented alongside Madox Brown’s original preparatory study for the painting, Emerson’s ‘update’ reveals that for all the changes in technology and social structure, little has really changed. The constants of human nature are all the more vivid the closer we study the passage of time.