The purpose of this artwork appears to be to display many different types of occupations across society, all within one composition. A quite browse will immediately spot a young mother holding her baby, several carpenters and a florist. Several wealthy looking individuals look on, as if to suggest that it is the poorer elements of society who essentially were 'putting their back into it', with the richer ones potentially taking the financial benefits of their hard work. This would certainly have been the case during the Victorian era, and some would argue that it remains pretty much the case today too.
The artist completed two versions of this complex piece, with the artwork displayed on this page being the version now held at the Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, England. That was finished in 1865 and is believed to have been his preferred version against the other which arrived two years earlier and can now be found at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Most historians distinguish the two by their locations in the present day as their style, content and layout are rear identical. It is the colour schemes that vary the most, with a slightly darker tone with more use of cream and less of red in the Manchester version. The artist may have taken more than a decade to complete these paintings, due to the amount of detail included in each, but he clearly would have been working on a large number of other projects during this time too.
Ford Madox Brown's combined inspirations and influences which few others had put together in quite the same way. His artistic style was Pre-Raphaelite, but the content found in paintings such as Work was more in line with the satirical oeuvre of William Hogarth. Beer Street and Gin Lane are two of the best examples of how Hogarth aimed to influence public opinion through his politically themed artworks, both of which feature huge activity with a large number of figures right across the piece. They would attempt to portray normal life, but from the perspective of his desire to promote various opinions of his own - in this case regarding the Gin Act legislation. With regards his colour schemes and precise detail, perhaps we can compare his artistic style to the work of William Holman Hunt.