Scene Unseen II 9th May - 1st
The Artist in Britain and the Workplace
The industrial revolution brought cataclysmic change to British society: a traditional agricultural world was turned upside down; a generally ugly landscape took grip of much of the land; and an almost infinite series of new work skills were spawned, generating new social classes. How successfully the artistic class captured this ferment remains a moot question. It is a legacy at best patchy.
There was a promising start. Joseph Wright of Derby, enthralled by the scientific revolution, produced memorable studies of an iron forge. George Stubbs conjured up a striking pair of harvest scenes hinting at the dignity of labour. The industrial chaos of Coalbrookdale was a popular subject among artists, at once aghast and fascinated.
As industry became commonplace, however, a reaction developed among patrons, whose distaste for reminders of the systemic ugliness which lay at the basis of their fabulous wealth was pronounced. Victorian art chokes on an excess of pastoral views featuring agricultural workers unthreateningly tending sheep or harvesting; scenes of industry are conspicuous by their rarity. The Pre-Raphaelites, oozing towards radicalism in their politics, have – with the exception of Ford Madox Brown and James Collinson – left little on the subject of labour.
Only towards the end of the 19th century do we encounter substantial artist’s such as George Clausen and Luke Fildes engaging seriously with the theme of labour. In the Sheffield district, Godfrey Sykes produced remarkable images of the industrial process. And in Frank Brangwyn we find a graphic artist of some genius applying himself doggedly to the world of work.
The advent of radical-socialist politics, which William Morris provided with a conscious aesthetic, proved a two edged sword regarding labour. The hugely popular posters of Walter Crane, whose influence can be traced for several decades, convey an idealized, allegorical view of labour – shirk a realistic critique of the work process. With Joseph Southall, the late Pre-Raphaelite and a leading member of the Independent Labour Party, labour seems prettified and charming rather than back breaking, the attitude of someone swept up in the Morrisian vision of medieval craftsmen happily engaged in a creative activity. This was the ethic, of course, of the Arts & Crafts movement, which has persisted in Britain right down to the present day. But it was not a vision particularly meaningful in the direct experiences of miners, railwaymen or factory production workers undergoing the hellish joys of assembly lines. The suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, in contrast to the medievalists, depicts women at work rather more objectively.
Institutional patronage has been a key determinant in the willingness of artists to concentrate on work based subjects. The Communist Party has had a chequered history in Britain as regards the depiction of the condition of the workers. The researches of Martin Perks have revealed the Party leadership in the 1920s to have been resolutely philistine, completely uninterested in the arts. It was only when the Comintern shifted to a Popular Front line in the mid-30s that encouragement of the arts become a Party necessity.
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