Redgrave, The Governess (1844, V&A)

Chapter Three, A Much Neglected Class of Persons, commences slightly tangentially, and is a little outside of my own niche interests. This section will therefore be a little briefer in its discussion. Errington’s objective for this chapter is to provide analysis of painters approach to social and urban distress in the 1840s, a theme which, in 1973, had not been given due attention (although there is still much room for discussion in this area).

The cartoons within Punch are given as one example where one can see such realities being treated within art: Punch even held its own imaginary competition. ‘Substance and Shadow’ was the first of their series. ‘There are many silly dissatisfied people in this country, who are continually urging upon Ministers the propriety of considering the wants of the pauper population, under the impression that it is as laudable to feed men as to shelter horses…The poor asked for bread, and the philanthropy of the state accorded – an exhibition.[1] It is worth saying that it was neither Errington’s nor my objective to discuss the merits or morals of art and the money which funds its production (which Errington describes as the ‘opulent realm of the arts’), but it interesting to record the growing satirical voice in Punch alongside the growing reportage of the poor and their circumstances.[2]

Referring to the fresco cartoons being produced for the Houses of Parliament competition in 1843, Errington describes the heroic, historical and ‘just’ themes presented. She uses this to introduce the works of Richard Redgrave as the focus of the chapter, which she presents as ‘clichés and mockeries’ albeit with a caveat that it may only appear so to the writers of Punch.[3]

Redgrave, and his daughter, both declared his interest in presenting images of the oppressed was a conscious and heartfelt one.[4] Whilst he could be considered someone who was interested in recording their plight, and who was a ‘crusading painter of modern life’ Errington is not convinced, neither by the contemporary reports of viewers being moved, nor by the critical response. In fact, Errington’s argument is so clear cut and so appealing to a twenty first century readership that you would be forgiven for concluding Redgrave’s work to be sentimental, clichéd and contrived. Whilst popular, Redgrave’s works do lack the clear edged realism of Courbet, more so to our eye today. Errington uses The Governess (1844, V&A) and The Poor Teacher (1845, Shipley Museum) as examples of Redgrave’s work and her analysis around this area of representation (in fact she spends so much time juxtaposing Redgrave’s works with Dickens writing, that we almost wonder if Errington forgets her text is an art historical one. She even acknowledges this at one point).[5]

Decoding Redgrave’s works seems to have been easy enough, certainly the works are self-evident. Simplistic enough in structure and narrative (e.g. The Outcast (1851, Royal Academy), they allow the viewer to engage with the central figure which in the case of the works Errington first focuses upon is often that of a single female: a teacher, a sempstress, a governess.

The Governess is described as being an illustration which lacks a text.[6] This picture was exhibited with the quotation: ‘She sees no kind domestic visage here’ and suggests Redgrave wished to create a framework for the paintings reception. Errington suggests the work emphasises ‘the notion of her unhappiness’: replicating a scenario not uncommon to the often difficult role of a teacher or governess who has to adopt a new home, a new family, and new students, whilst often remaining singularly isolated and removed from normal social interaction. Redgrave claimed a politically driven ambition for the painting but, like Errington, I find it hard to buy this declaration. There is no evidence to suggest Redgrave was producing imagery on first-hand experience or knowledge, and his works should not be considered ‘documentaries’ (Errington suggests we consider these works as propaganda but I also think this too generous a term). When describing The Sempstress (1846, Tate) Thackeray describes Redgrave as only painting ‘the tender good natured part’ of the story.[7] Errington even describes his The Poor Teacher as being ‘in the style of a doll’s house’ and she is not far wrong.[8] Redgrave’s aim was not feeble sentiment although to our eye it does seem that is what he created (we should be mindful of our viewing context though). He is keen to press home the ‘poor’ in case we are unsure how to categorise or perceive the woman (‘poor’ here acts as both pitying and financially) but he is also determined that we have a pretty unhappy young lady to look upon. This is where the mismatch between Redgrave’s aim and the final product/s is felt: there is no real grubbiness to the images, instead they are rather soft scenes of imagination. We cannot deny Redgrave’s ambition, if, of course, we accept his point that he intended to create a more defined commentary upon the social degradation in relation to these women’s roles. The Governess / Teacher was certainly a role in society which was incredibly difficult to endure, ‘the low social position of the governess is…determined by the coldness and neglect of her employers…Parents have no right to bring a cultivated and sensitive female under their roof to mortify and degrade her…let us pity her condition in the banishment of the nursery and school room, debarred from all intellectual associations, and condemned, from morning to night, to reduce her own powers to the level of those of her pupils: the solitary system is a punishment less severe.’[9]

The Poor Teacher
Redgrave, The Poor Teacher (1845, Shipley Museum)

Errington describes Redgrave’s works as exhibiting a ‘mildness’ which Courbet could easily ‘have blown away’ and proclaims them as being ‘consummated examples of this artistic pre-occupation with gentility’.[10] Quoting The Times, The Illustrated London News etc., Errington makes plain the language used to describe The Poor Teacher employed emotional adjectives: ‘sad’, ‘heart breaking’, ‘mournful’ etc which suggests contemporary responses were mostly supportive of the mood and narrative of Redgrave’s paintings. They certainly proved popular: perhaps a sanitised view was an equally valid way of communicating real issues to a class of people whose life view was generally sanitised? ‘Who is there can look upon this touching picture without listening to a tender appeal?’[11] The tender conscience of the social reformer was at stake, and Redgrave managed to tap into this sensitivity, albeit through the use of sentiment (something which Thackeray continued to attack).[12] Both The Governess and The Poor Teacher are figures of sentimental pity, but none the less, the women portrayed request (not demand) that the viewer confronts the conditions of their social position and function.

There is little between this two images and after much useful contextualisation and analysis, Errington moves on to discuss Redgrave’s The Reduced Gentleman’s Daughter (1840, V&A), ‘a piece of careful research as regards the details of costume, furniture, and interior decoration’ to further illuminate this reading.[13] The Daughter, like The Governess or The Poor Teacher, is evidently Redgrave’s ‘conception of the afflicted female, refined, ladylike, and insipidly beautiful’ but Errington’s key consideration is to understood why he felt it necessary to move the subject into his own times.[14] In answering this question, she moves on to discuss the sources of inspiration for such themes, and inevitably returns to Goldsmith’s ‘The Vicar of Wakefield’ (1766) (which she also referred to in Chapter Two).

Whilst reminding the reader of Cope’s works, Errington places Redgrave in this eighteenth century trajectory. As with Holman Hunt’s later works, The Reduced Gentleman’s Daughter shows a heritage not just of eighteenth century romanticism, but also the biting satire and cynicism of Hogarthian symbolism.[15] Cope’s Board of Guardians may have impressed Redgrave and perhaps, alongside that and Goldsmith’s novel, there were other catalysts, e.g. the 1839 novel ‘The Governess’ by the Countess of Blessington. Blessington’s novel received much attention from the ‘Athenaeum’ and is in keeping with the points Punch later took up; Errington describes this interest as evidence of ‘the same wave of agitation’.[16]

More accurately and informatively, Blessington’s novel describes a night scene as a distressing one for her governess: the silence, the solitude, the dim light, the memory of her lost father weighing down upon her, and the work that is still to be completed. Redgrave’s governess and his teacher wear a mourning dress, and we have to assume that poverty has, in similar circumstances, obliged the woman to accept her post out of need and not choice. Errington says Redgrave’s patron Mr. Sheepshanks’s requested certain other figures be included in the scene, thereby removing the possibility of a lonely night scene (although The Poor Teacher goes a little more toward this).[17] None the less, Redgrave does produce a night scene in The Sempstress which is an extension of these ideas.

This wave of agitation is once again felt in the formation of The Governesses’ Benevolent Society, an organisation still in existence, which started in 1843, the same year Redgrave exhibited his The Poor Teacher (presumably Errington is not referring to the Shipley Museum version but it is not easy to consolidate the sources and I have chosen to keep that image in here as illustration of the theme).

Dickens’ writing played a ‘positive role in the agitation for better conditions for teachers’ e.g. through his character Ruth Pinch in Martin Chuzzlewit (published between January 1842 and July 1844), as did Jane Eyre (published in 1847).[18] Teachers at this time were virtually untrained, however, a study was commissioned in 1838 to inspect state schools, and further depressing reports on inefficiency appearing in 1846, contributed to a recognised need for training colleges and teaching apprenticeships. Not that this resolved or improved the working lives of those within private households. Errington reminds us that the time-frame for these concerns, literary, artistic, social, and practical, all occurred between 1839 and 1847. ‘Redgrave’s pictures, then, must be seen as contributing to, but by no means leading, a well understood and defined cause’.[19]

The final section of the chapter discusses Thomas Hood’s poem ‘The Song of the Shirt’ which first appeared in the 1843 Christmas number of Punch. The concentration upon the single needlewoman ‘gave the theme the shape, pathos and authority it needed for memorability. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘The Cry of the Children’ also uses the first person (plural) voice and makes identification and the personal more impressive and the horror of life more impactive.

Redgrave, The Sempstress (1846, Tate)

Redgrave produced The Sempstress in an almost identical pattern to The Poor Teacher¸ which was exhibited the year prior[20]. Seemingly Redgrave approved of winning formulas. Thackeray, never one to sit on the fence, was critical of Redgrave’s disappointing portrayal. Generously saying that ‘It is impossible to quarrel with the philanthropy of the painter’, Thackeray found the work lacking in poetry, unlike Hood’s successful and respected poem. Errington suggests Thackeray thought Redgrave was trying to trump Hood’s poem, but failing. ‘This of course, was not necessary nor really even possible as long as Redgrave remained an illustrator in debt to some literary text for dictating the terms of his picture’.[21] The response was positive though, and Redgrave judged well. ‘Thereafter, Redgrave seemed to falter’ though.[22] In fact in 1845 and 1847 Redgrave seemed to merely try and repeat the success rather than continue to amplify the theme or push himself artistically or politically speaking. Regardless of this thematic disappointments, Redgrave’s high finish and craftsmanship was not criticised.

Once again, Redgrave’s The Sempstress captured some of the ‘wave’ of social feeling and concern for this class of working woman; in 1844, five days after The Sempstress was exhibited at the R.A. the Association for the Aid and Benefit of Dress-Makers and Milliners was announced.[23] Working hours, ventilation and medical / financial assistance were all part of the ‘manifesto’ as supported by numerous titled women, also included Miss Burdett Coutts of Urania Cottage fame.[24]

The Outcast
Redgrave, The Outcast (1851, R.A.)

This ‘fallen woman’ was the third category of women which Redgrave explored. Although the prostitute is not a figure that appears in his R.A. submissions, it is a subject that is touched upon in two paintings and one etching.[25] Once again ‘The Vicar of Wakefield’ is a source for these images. Olivia’s Return to her Parents (1839) deals with a narrative that at first makes one think the woman is fallen, but then it is revealed that she was legally married all along, thereby making the subject a more palatable one for Redgrave to illustrate. Inevitably at this stage, Errington introduces The Outcast (1851, RA) as her next subject for analysis, although she does not labour on the painting. The poor girl here is cast out by her stern father. The young girl cuddles a small baby who is mostly hidden from view, aside from the shape of the head and a raised chubby hand. The family are emotionally stricken, but her father remains firm. Out. She is cast out. A letter on the floor is the silent object of her fate: perhaps the unwitting proof her father needed, perhaps it even names the father? Errington describes this work as ‘old fashioned and unoriginal, not only in comparison with the novelty of Pre-Raphaelite modern scenes, but even judged by the standards of Redgrave’s own earlier compositions, the Teacher of the Sempstress’.[26] I find her judgement as unrelenting as the father’s. The work is finely executed and the composed sentimentality of Redgrave’s earlier works is, for me, replaced by a more callous brutality. Yes, it is a staged brutality reality but the girls barely covered feet are soon about to step out into the cold, snowy night. The baby’s small hand is raised against the blackness of the night they are about to enter into. Interestingly, the story of Hagar and Ishmael is depicted in the scene on the wall. The girl is cast out into the wilderness, as Hagar was, carrying with her the future of the nation. However, in Redgrave’s scene we are left wondering where the girl’s angelic saviour is. Surely our Christian conscience must be pricked?

Egg, Past and Present (1858, Tate)

The Outcast is a lighter, more palatable version of Egg’s Past and Present (1858, Tate) but without works such as Redgrave’s, I wonder whether Egg’s would have been possible? The ‘novelty of Pre-Raphaelite modern scenes’ should not be assumed to be more honest or less sentimental. Rossetti’s unfinished Found (1859 -, Walker) is brighter and more luminous in colour, but the pose of the fallen woman is equally strained and dramatic. These images of fallen women are painted by men for men. I imagine Josephine Butler could have painted a more honest version of the reality encountered by so called ‘fallen women’. I repeat Errington’s statement: Redgrave’s pictures, then, must be seen as contributing to, but by no means leading, a well understood and defined cause’.[27]

Errington suggests ‘Redgrave’s true subject is loss of status’ which she bears out with quotes by contemporary critics (e.g. Illustrated London News, The Art Union etc.)[28] It does appear that the loss of female status is a more accurate reading, which Errington herself notes also manifests itself in Dickens’ different treatment of his characters Nicholas Nickleby and his sister. Redgrave, like Dickens and many others, were all responding to the social issues around them. However, it is important to acknowledge Redgrave contributed something to these issues, not least because he placed them upon the walls of the Royal Academy.

A man lifting a fallen woman from the ground
Rossetti, Found (Unfinished 1859 -, Walker)

[1] Punch (July, 1843), p. 22

[2] Lindsay Errington, Social and Religious Themes in English Art 1840 – 1860 (London: Garland Publishing, 1984), p. 90

[3] Errington, p. 90

[4] F.M. Redgrave, Richard Redgrave A Memoir Compiled from his Diary (London: Cassell & Co., 1891), p. 43

[5] It is worth noting that these two images often get mixed up in both Errington’s text and in images and references on the internet. However, the themes are so similar and the look of The Poor Teacher is itself a formulaic repeat of the earlier The Governes.

[6] Errington, p. 91

[7] May Gambols, Fraser’s Magazine, June 1844, pp. 703 – 704

[8] Errington, p. 95

[9] Athenaeum, December 14th, 1839, pp. 942 – 943

[10] Errington, p. 94 – 95

[11] Errington, p. 97

[12] Errington, p. 98

[13] Errington, p. 101

[14] Errington, p. 102

[15] Landow discusses Holman Hunt’s use of Hogarthian symbolism: George Landow, William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism (London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 1979) See also: https://madeleineemeraldthiele.wordpress.com/2014/07/17/william-holman-hunt-and-typological-symbolism-by-george-p-landow-part-3/

[16] Errington, p. 103

[17] Errington quotes F.M. Redgrave, Richard Redgrave A Memoir Compiled from his Diary (London: Cassell & Co., 1891), p. 43 as saying that Redgrave made four versions of the scene in total.

[18] Errington, p. 110 – 111

[19] Errington, p. 113

[20] The dates Errington quotes here match the Shipley museum version as well as the exhibition dates quoted by the V&A catalogue entry.

[21] Errington, p. 118

[22] Errington, p. 119

[23] Errington, p. 121

[24] Urania Cottage was a fallen home for women, established by Dickens.

[25] Errington, p. 121

[26] Errington, 124

[27] Errington, p. 113

[28] Errington, p. 127

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