Case Study

Gathering Evidence for Specimen and Symbol

Iain France

Q. What is the significance of the flowers in the street hawker’s basket in Ford Madox Brown’s Work?

Special thanks to Martin Beek, Amanda Davey, Katie Palmer Heathman, Mike Freeman, and Glenda Youde for joining in the Conversation.

Thanks, Iain, for the question. As luck would have it this is a good opportunity to put the first two stages of the five-part Flower Characterisation process to the test!

Ford Madox Brown
Work (1865)
Oil on canvas, 137 x 198 cm
Manchester Art Gallery

Let’s look at the evidence:

Stage One: Specimen (See my article: The Devil is in the Detail)


Ford Madox Brown
Work (1865) detail

Having studied the flower seller at length, Jacqui, a keen-eyed botanist, and good friend, concluded that:

It looks like chickweed in his hand with its tiny white flowers. There are also Aspleniumferns, the thick waxy ones, and the feathery fronds of Dryopteris.  You can eat the unfurled fronds.  They are called Fiddleheads. There is ivy in there, too.  The little flowers at the front do look like forget-me-nots mixed with chickweed. These all grow wild. The chickweed, as the name suggests, is destined for inner city chickens; they love foraging for these plants.

So, it is a mixed bag of wild things? I questioned her further to ask if I was right in thinking that he could scoop up what was growing there with his bare hands … or would he need a tool of some kind – ie:  work for them? Her reply:

The weed guy would’ve been able to just pull at the plants and they would easily come out.  There is a sticky chickweed that does exactly that, sticking to your gloves and trouser legs so there is little effort involved.  There is also a water chickweed. Ferns are easy to pick, along with the grasses in his hat.  He’s pottered around the wilder places gathering, and then headed into town.

According to the Royal Horticultural Society:

Chickweed is a familiar sight in many gardens. With large quantities of seed produced throughout the year, this common annual weed can become a real nuisance …. it is adaptable to a range of growing conditions. Plants produce large quantities of quickly germinating seed throughout the year and can easily smother beds and borders if not promptly controlled … Seed buried in soil can remain viable for up to 25 years and will germinate quickly if brought to the surface by cultivation … Although individual plants are relatively easy to control, the sheer number of seeds produced every year mean the task of controlling the weed inevitably needs to be carried out regularly. accessed 25 February 2021


In his one-man exhibition of 1865, Brown explained his narrative regarding “the ragged wretch who has never been taught to work”:

with his restless gleaming eyes, he doubts and despairs of every one. But for a certain effeminate gentleness of disposition and a love of nature, he might have been a burglar! He lives in Flower and Dean Street, where the policemen walk two and two, and the worst cutthroats surround him, but he is harmless; and before the dawn you may see him miles out in the country, collecting his wild weeds and singular plants to awaken interest, and perhaps find a purchaser in some sprouting botanist. When exhausted he will return to his den, his creel of flowers then rests in an open court-yard, the thoroughfare for the crowded inmates of this haunt of vice, and played in by mischievous boys, yet the baskets rarely gets interfered with, unless through the unconscious lurch of some drunkard. The bread winning implements are sacred with the very poor.

In Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1861-2) there are various accounts of the condition of “Street-Sellers of Green Stuff”.   One such entry gives a vivid first-hand picture of the life this “ragged wretch” might have lived:

I sell chickweed and grunsell, and turfs for larks.  That’s all I sell, unless it’s a few nettles that’s ordered  … I gets the chickweed at Chalk Farm.  I pay nothing for it.  I gets it out of the public fields.  Every morning about seven I goes for it …After I have got my chickweed, I generally gathers enough of each to make up a dozen halfpenny bunches …I’m out in usual till about five in the evening.  I never stop to eat.  I’m walking all the time … I generally sell the chickweed … all to the houses, not to the shops … They’re tradespeople and gentlefolks’ houses together that I sells to – such as keeps canaries, or goldfinches, or linnets.  I charge a halfpenny a bunch for chickweed and grunsell together.  It’s the regular charge … In the summer I does much better than in winter.  They gives it more to the birds then, and changes it oftener. I’ve seed a matter of eight or nine people that sell chickweed and grunsell like myself in the fields where I goes to gather it. They mostly all goes to where I do to get mine.

Mayhew notes that:

Chickweed is only sold in the summer, and is most generally mixed with groundsel and plantain … Many of the groundsel and chickweed-sellers … are aged men … formerly brimstone-match sellers, who “didn’t like to take to the lucifers.”

There are no “pitches,” or stands, for the sale of groundsel in the streets; but, from the best information I could acquire, there are now 1,000 itinerants selling groundsel, each person selling, as an average, 18 bunches a day.  We thus have 5,616,000 bunches a year, which, at a halfpenny each, realise about 4 shillings and twopence per week per head of sellers of groundsel.

The capital required for groundsel-selling is four pence for a brown wicker-basket; leather strap to sling it from the shoulder, sixpence; in all, ten pence. No knife is necessary; they pluck the groundsel.

Stage Two: Symbol (See my article: Taming the Symbolic Urge)

2.1 Bible

Weeds, according to Christianity, are representative of sin; they are the opposite of the pure, white, chaste, immaculate lily:

And the “Beloved” is the “Well Beloved” Son of God, Jesus Christ, who comes into the garden to gather weeds! No! no! not weeds but lilies! And the lilies are the blessed of God, the “pure in heart.”

John Bruster, “The Beautiful Valley and the Lilies: A Flower Sermon”

2.2 Classics

No evidence found.

2.3 Medieval Verse

No evidence found, although, interestingly:

Our medieval ancestors actively encouraged weeds in their vegetable plots. The Fromond List, compiled by Surrey landowner Thomas Fromond in about 1525, is a list of “herbys necessary for a gardyn”. He recommends many of today’s weeds for sauces, salads, soups and so on. As Sylvia Landsberg explains in The Medieval Garden (British Museum Press), “many weeds and self-seeding crops which today we would destroy were added to the cooking pot”. Our ancestors harvested chickweed (Stellaria media), fat hen (Chenopodium album), langdebeef or ox tongue (Picris echioides) and sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus). 

Val Bourne, “Weeds and Wisdom in the Middle Ages,” Telegraph, 27 April 2014, accessed 25 February 2021.

2.3. I Other

Cordelia, describes King Lear at the height of his madness as wearing a crown:

with rank fumiter and furrow weeds,

With warlocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,

Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow

in our sustaining corn.

William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act IV, Scene IV. The French Camp. A Tent

2.4 Gerard’s Herball

According to Gerard’s Herball (1636), there are numerous different examples of chickweed, but generically it

lieth upon the ground: the stalks are small, slender, long and round, and also jointed from which slender branches doe spring leaves resembling the precedent, but much lesser … the floures are in like sort little and white: the knops or seed-heads are like the former: the root is also full of little strings.

Fine Chickweed, Gerard’s Herball 1636

Comparing the illustrations to the plants in the basket, fine chickweed, or perhaps river chickweed are the most likely specimens, given that the latter:

hath also weake and tender creeping branches, lying upon the ground, set with two narrow sharp pointed leaves at each joynt, green above and of a whitish colour below: at the setting on these leaves grow small vessels parted as it were into two with a little crest on each side, and in these is contained a very small seed … may be found in waterie places in July and August, as between Clapham heath and Tooting, and between Kentish towne and Hampstead. (Perhaps relevant as the setting of this painting is Hampstead “halfway up Heath Street by The Mount, looking north.”

We also learn that all chickweeds have a “temperature” which is “cold and moist”. Some “grow among bushes and briers, old walls, gutters of houses, and shadowie places”.  As well as being a staple food for chickens, “little birds in cages (especially Linnets) are refreshed with the lesser chickweed when they loath their meat”.

2.5 Flower-Lore

When the flower expands boldly and fully, no rain will happen for four hours or upwards; if it continues in that open state, no rain will disturb the summer’s day; but if it entirely shuts up or veils the white flower with its green mantle, let the traveller put on his great-coat, and the plough-man, with his beast of draught, expect rest from their labour.

Hilderic Friend, Flowers and Flower Lore, 1886, 339.

/ to be continued