How can you have a shadow without the subject? The picture (right) is the shadow of a Japanese guard taken by Matsumoto Eichii only a few weeks after the bombing of Nagasaki. The image is the burned-in imprint of the man with his ladder and sword at his side. We have just marked the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, and it is images such as these that remind us of such horrors.
The photograph of the soldier was part of an amazing exhibition, Conflict, Time, Photography at the Tate Modern in London last year. I was fortunate enough to be on a poetry course run by Pascale Petit at the gallery that used the images from the exhibition, to write poems. Many great poets have drawn on classic paintings for their poetry; Pascale herself drew on the life and work of Frida Kahlo in her TS Eliot shortlisted collection, What the Water Gave Me.
Anthony Costello has taken this approach in his poem Work, which is inspired by Ford Maddox Brown’s painting. The pre-Raphaelite Brown was fascinated by the social make up of Victorian London, with the noble ‘navvies’ (“like my labouring Irish ancestors/amongst the soil, shovels and lime”), the orphaned children and poorest (“flophouse inmates, bouncers, ragamuffin children”), and upper classes (“the gentlemen-flaneurs,/the yellow waistcoats and red bonnet Gentry”). In a single painting, a single poem, we have the Victorian system of work and hierarchy – ‘a place for everyone, and everyone in their place’.
Here Anthony gives his thoughts on the painting:
“My normal instinct or tactic for viewing a gallery’s paintings is to walk around the room quickly and trust my sense impressions and gut instinct as to which paintings I go back to to observe at length. I started my rapid tour of one of the rooms at Manchester Art Gallery last year and broke my own rule by being soon drawn to Madox Brown’s painting. At first glance it resembled a film still of a scene from a Victorian novel, a Dickens or Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. I stood in front of this detailed painting for a long time, making notes. I then looked at the information plaque (another rule broken!) and understood more about the genesis and message in the work. The whole social scene is there, but the ruling classes are placed in the margins. In this sense, the painting is political and socialist. I was moved by the ennobling of the ‘navvies’ at the painting’s centre, how they occupy a place in the frame normally reserved for angels in renaissance art. I have written more than thirty versions of this poem and needed objective editorial feedback to complete it. Perhaps this is to do with the amount of information in the painting that had to be disseminated, or that every bricklayer needs a good hod. (A nod from the poet to the editor).”
A former sheet-metal worker, teacher, bookseller and gardener, Anthony Costello currently lives in the calder valley, West Yorkshire where he co-organises a monthly poetry event – ‘Kultura’ – at Kava cafe, Todmorden. He began writing in 2011 and has been published widely in magazines since. His first poetry collection, The Mask, was published in October 2014 by Lapwing Publications, Belfast. He is a poetry reviewer for Sabotage and a blogger on poetry matters at – luddpoet.blogspot.co.uk
‘The man is now a man. The blessed glow of labour in him’
Thomas Carlyle (Past and Present)
Blessed are the hands that build and create,
Argentine and Thai, Dane and Aborigine.
Labour equal in Brazil and Spain.
Christ, Gandhi and Marx magnifying work, humanity
Ford Madox Brown preaching the Gospel in Work –
painting labour at the centre of a Victorian social scene:
genteel glamour of the privileged, the gentlemen-flaneurs,
the yellow waistcoats and red bonnet Gentry
subordinated to the Hodman’s Heaven at the painting’s core
Surrounded by flower sellers, and flophouse inmates,
bouncers, ragamuffin children and workers’ wives,
are ‘navvies’ like my labouring Irish ancestors
among the soil, shovels and lime, ascending
with each step of mortar, each swing of the glittering spade,
to a Mount on Heath Street, Hampstead – a seat of Angels.
* There are two versions of Ford Madox Brown’s Work, painted between 1852 and 1865. One hangs in Manchester Art Gallery and the other in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.