Although Brown met Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), the essayist was too busy to sit for 'Work' in person and instead posed for this photograph. It appears to have been taken in 1859 at 'Mr Thompson's Photographic Establishment'. Mr. Thompson is likely to have been the photographer Charles Thurston Thompson (1816-1868). Brown was deeply impressed with the works of Carlyle and several of them influenced his choice of subject matter. Carlyle's writings were known for their lively rhetoric which comes across in the letter he wrote to Brown agreeing to pose for the photograph:
'I think it a pity you had not put (or should not still put) some other man than me in your Great Picture. It is certain you could hardly have found among the sons of Adam, at present, any individual who is less in a condition to help you forward with it ... I very well remember your amiable request, and the promise I made to you, to 'sit for some photographs.' That promise I will keep; and to that we must restrict ourselves, hand of Necessity compelling. Any afternoon I will attend here, at your studio, or where you appoint me, and give your man one hour to get what photographs he will or can of me. If here, the hour must be 3½ pm (my usual hour of quitting work, or to speak justly, the chamber of work); if at any other place, attainable by horseback, it will be altogether equally convenient to me; and the hour may such as enables me to arrive (at a rate of 5 miles per hour we will say!)' (F. M. Hueffer, 'Ford Madox Brown: A Record of his Life and Work, p. 163)
The National Portrait Gallery holds another photograph of Carlyle sitting in a chair, which was owned by the sculptor Thomas Woolner (1825-1892), a friend of the artist. It appears to have been taken in the same studio session as the sitter as the same clothes, props and backdrop can be seen in the photograph. It is a smaller portrait of Carlyle from the waist up, and is likely to have been taken as the sitter seems to have moved his head in the Birmingham photograph, producing a blurred effect which may not have contained enough detail for Brown to work from. The Birmingham photograph has pin holes in the corners suggesting that Brown tacked it up to use as a guide to Carlye's pose, which is the same as in the finished picture, but may have relied on the clearer half-length study for his likeness.