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The potboy in history, literature and art

I was born, in what Carl Jung would have insisted was no coincidence, on the site of an old pub, the Upper Flask in Hampstead, near the Heath. The pub closed in the second half of the 18th century, and the building that housed it was replaced in the early years of the 20th by Queen Mary’s Maternity Home. Today it’s nursing accommodation for the Royal Free Hospital, but over the decades tens of thousands of babies must have been born there. I wonder if we all like beer.

If you walk down Heath Street from the site of the Upper Flask towards Hampstead Tube Station you come to the side-road called The Mount. In 1852 the painter Ford Madox Brown, who was lodging in Heath Street, spotted a gang of workmen digging up the road here to lay drains and decided what a marvellous picture these heroes of labour would make. It took him 11 years to complete the painting, which he called, simply, “Work”. But it is an allegorical masterpiece typical of the pre-Raphaelite period (though Madox Brown was not, strictly, a member of the pre-Raphaelites), where every character of the more than two dozen portrayed, from the gentleman earning £15,000 a year to the effeminate flower seller, has a back-story. It’s also still recognisably the same scene today, 155 years later, as you will see if you stand by the high brick wall on the left of the painting and look north: except the upper middle classes now go past in BMW X5s rather than on horseback.

Madox Brown wanted his painting to illustrate the nobility of honest toil, but labour needs sustenance and refreshment, and one of the navvies is draining a pewter pot of something uplifting and alcoholic – porter, probably, given the era. In front of the drinker, and shouting “beer ho!”, according to Madox Brown, who wrote notes about all the people in the painting, is the fellow who brought the navvy the beer, the potman from one of the nearby pubs. He is fancily dressed in bowtie and waistcoat, and wearing the apron of his calling, and in his left hand he carries the potboy’s beer tray or pot-board, rather like a carpenter’s wooden toolbox, which bore eight or ten beer pots and, on the top, clay pipes for those who wanted a smoke with their beer.

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