The painting also portrays an election campaign, evidenced by posters and people carrying sandwich boards with the name of the candidate "Bobus". A poster also draws attention to the potential presence of a burglar.
Brown's principal artistic model was the work of William Hogarth, in particular his paintings Humours of an Election and his prints Beer Street and Gin Lane. The Election paintings depicted both the vitality and the corruption of British society, while the prints set up a contrast between poverty and prosperity. While working on the painting Brown founded the Hogarth club to link artists who saw themselves as Hogarth's admirers and followers.
The rustic aspects of the composition draw on the established tradition of the picturesque, epitomised by the work of artists such as John Constable and William Collins. The satirical and critical aspects of Hogarth's style work in tandem with Brown's Pre-Raphaelitism, with its intense concentration on the complication of the pictorial surface in conflicting details. This image of potentially violent and jarring confrontation is set in opposition to the social harmony and deference epitomised by the picturesque tradition.
The lime is to be used to make mortar which is being mixed by other navvies at the right of the composition. A hodcarrier, visible behind the main navvy, is transporting bricks down into the hole. The sheet floating in front of him is a copy of a religious tract handed to him by the lady in the blue bonnet at the left, who is attempting to evangelise the navvies. She is carrying copies of a tract called The Hodman's Haven or Drink for Thirsty Souls. The reference to "drink" in the title reflects the emergence of the temperance movement. A navvy on right, swigging beer, emphasises their rejection of teetotalism. The woman in front of the evangelist represents genteel glamour - a fashionable lady whose only "job" is to look beautiful. The figure beyond her epitomises the opposite end of the social scale, a ragged itinerant who lives in a flophouse in Flower and Dean Street, Whitechapel, the most notoriously criminalised part of London at the time. He is a plant and animal seller, a form of urban worker who obtained flowers, reeds and small animals from the country to sell in the centre of the city. These characters had been described in Henry Mayhew's book London Labour and the London Poor. All these figures are passing by the workers through a narrow pathway which brings them up against the sifted lime powder, a corrossive which symbolises the cleansing assault on their complacent rejection of useful work.
In the centre of the composition is a countryman who has recently moved to the town, identifiable by his rural smock. He is holding a brick-hod and drinking beer supplied by the man in the red waistcoat who is supposed to be a "bouncer" employed in a local pub. The beer seller's costume includes examples of cheap brummagem jewellery. His persona — including a copy of The Times under his arm — is a pastiche of a gentleman-flaneur. The two men behind him are imported Irish labourers, recognisable by their costume. This aspect of the painting is directly influenced by Hogarth's Beer Street.
In the foreground are a group of ragged children who have recently suffered a bereavement, evidenced by the black band on the baby's arm. As Brown says in his description, their ragamuffin status suggests that it was their mother who died. The oldest child, wearing borrowed clothing too old for her, tries to control her wayward brother, who is playing with the navvies' wheelbarrow. The younger girl sucks a carrot in lieu of a dummy and looks into the hole created by the workers. Their mongrel pet dog challenges the fashionable lady's pet dog, because, writes Brown, he hates "minions of aristocracy in jackets". The baby, who looks challengingly out at the viewer, is in the exact centre of the composition. Brown's description emphasises this challenge by suddenly moving from a first-person narrative to the second person - speaking to his fictional fashionable lady about the perilous situation of the impoverished children.
On the embankment between the upper and the lower road a group of unemployed rural labourers are sleeping in uneasy postures. A scythe wrapped in protective rope hangs over the railing that separates the productive from the unproductive figures in the composition. The Irish couple by the tree are feeding their baby with gruel, while an older man stands by the tree looking resentful. This aspect of the painting recalls Carlyle's discussion of unemployed Irish migrants in his book Past and Present.
Beneath these figures on the road children can be seen playing, while genteel couples and sandwich-board carriers wander through the sun-dappled lower street. At the extreme right a policeman pushes a female orange seller who is resting her basket on a bollard (technically illegal, because she is setting up shop).
It has been written, 'an endless significance lies in Work;' a man perfects himself by working. Foul jungles are cleared away, fair seedfields rise instead, and stately cities; and withal the man himself first ceases to be a jungle and foul unwholesome desert thereby. Consider how, even in the meanest sorts of Labour, the whole soul of a man is composed into a kind of real harmony, the instant he sets himself to work! Doubt, Desire, Sorrow, Remorse, Indignation, Despair itself, all these like helldogs lie beleaguering the soul of the poor dayworker, as of every man: but he bends himself with free valour against his task, and all these are stilled, all these shrink murmuring far off into their caves. The man is now a man. The blessed glow of Labour in him, is it not as purifying fire, wherein all poison is burnt up, and of sour smoke itself there is made bright blessed flame!
In the same book Carlyle creates the character of Bobus Higgins, a corrupt sausage maker who uses horsemeat in his product to undercut competitors. In Latter-Day Pamphlets Bobus is portrayed as a populist manipulator who is going into politics. In the painting his agent appears behind Carlyle's head, prodding local "idlers" to walk through the streets carrying signs with his name on them. At the left a "Vote for Bobus" poster has been hit by a ball of mud or faeces and has "don't" chalked onto it.
As with most Pre-Raphaelite paintings the composition minimises chiaroscuro and accummulates motifs in deliberately confusing abundance, containing numerous Hogarthian sub-episodes within the main image (a man washing windows; a dog worrying horses leading a carriage etc). The composition is also used to dramatically crop figures and motifs which complicates the legibility of space (the hand emerging from the hole; the cropped figures behind the intellectuals' head). Carlyle's smile links the viewer in a paradoxical engagement with the re-working process depicted.