George Frederic Watts ‘Life’s Illusions’, 1849
Watts, Life’s Illusion (1849, Tate)

Chapter V is entitled Outcasts and begins with an extension of the themes set out in previous chapters. Errington tackles ‘The Poor’ through the works of Arthur Elmore, G.F. Watts and Frederick Goodall. She commences with an analysis of Watts The Irish Famine (probably 1849 or 1850, Watts Gallery) which she considers to be one of the most important works in this theme, the other paintings she discusses are The Sempstress, Found Drowned and Under the Dry Arch all of which are at the Watts Gallery, Guildford.[1] Errington points out that the four Watts works she discusses are irregular in his oeuvre, and she assess them as part of Watts’ artistic exploration. ‘They seem results of a period of uncertainty, tentative efforts, soon discarded, to discover whether the distresses of modern life could not furnish the painter with subject matter at once moral, high minded, and immediately relevant’.[2]

Watts’ Life’s Illusion (1849, Tate) is one of the earliest to employ this ‘new language’: it incorporates ‘emotionally charged personifications of Love, Life, Death, etc.’[3] Errington equates this type of symbolism as being found, not in painting, but in Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ (1850). The four Watts images in hand share the pessimism of ‘In Memoriam’ ‘but fix the source of this in remediable injuries rather than the nature of life itself.’[4] Errington quotes Mrs. Watts book Annals of an Artist’s Life (1912) stating that ‘It was at this time, perhaps under an impulse to make an effort to conquer his own depression, by going beyond self into the sufferings of others, that Mr. Watts painted three or four pictures of such sorrowful sort as Found DrownedThe Irish Famine…also Under a Dry Arch and perhaps The Sempstress.’[5] None of these works were publicly exhibited, nor were they followed by anything else of a similar nature.

The Sempstress appeared in 1843 at a point when the subject was no longer de rigueur. The Irish Famine started in 1845 when the potato crop failed. Watts’ friendship with poet Aubrey de Vere seems to have dated from 1849 when ‘according to Mrs. Watts, de Vere would pace up and down the Charles Street studio in the first throes of his conversion to Rome’.[6] Watts’ image seems to reflect some of the experiences de Vere conjures up in his writing: at this time at least four of his poems were on the theme of the consequences and devastating effects of the Irish Famine. ‘The Year of Sorrow’ (1849) his most compelling. Errington suggests de Vere’s writing heavily influenced Watts’ own painting, The Irish Famine, not through a specific image but through a ‘poeticising in paint which characterises Watts’ composition’.[7]

Watts, The Irish Famine (1849 – 1859, Watts Gallery)

Errington refreshes our minds about Redgrave’s painting style (and his ‘insignificant detail’) and illuminates Watts’ more modern style.[8] Watts’ figures are not identifiable, they do not belong to any specific era or famine: they become emblematic. Errington proclaims Watts made the figures ‘a monument to the suffering of dispossessed persons in any country or age’; this is in keeping with Reynolds’ view that history painting should transcend the individual situation, being ‘either some eminent instance of heroic action, or heroic suffering’.[9] Errington also suggests the subject is not so much attending to the famine, but to the evictions the Irish victims faced. Why else are these people stranded upon an open moor? ‘Within two years 20,000 human beings at least have been turned out of their homes, and their houses for the most part, levelled. Of these so evicted the greater number are DEAD’[10].

Another example of the same theme can be found in Goodall’s An Irish Eviction (1850, Leicester)

An Irish Eviction
Goodall, An Irish Eviction (1850, Leicester)

Unlike Watts, Goodall had personal experience of Ireland having been on a sketching tour there. His scene is ‘anecdotal but authentic’.[11] None the less, it has a far less emotional effect than Watts’ work which Errington perceives as ‘its inability to create tragedy, or indeed suggest much beyond a petty domestic squabble’; if Watts’ peasants bore scarcely a hint of their nationality they were at least in pain as patent as Laocoon’s.’ [12] Critics such as the ever vocal Thackeray were opposed to the prettification that was sometimes applied to this theme e.g. that encountered in Goodall’s Connemara Girls going to Market (1845).

Goodall’s works, whilst drawing on personal experience, seem to have something of the Wilkie-esque genre scene about them. The works are not brutal nor can they be considered as exemplar of high intellectual Art (despite what the Art Union declared).[13] In fact it is likely the Art Union responded positively because of Goodall’s softening of turbulent and tragic scenes (Errington is a little more generous in her reading of Goodall’s works). That being said, his 1848 work Watching the Departure of the Emigrant Ship delivers a sense of melancholy ‘directly related to Ireland’s calamities’.[14] Both P. F. Poole and R. Farrier had previously exhibited related works. Farrier had exhibited his Emigrants (1838) at the R.A. with the accompanying verse:

‘Self banished? No! It is their much loved land

Banishes them. Alas! They leave not it;

But cast from out its bosom, other climes

With heavy hearts and steps they seek.

The theme was not particular to the nineteenth century though; Oliver Goldsmith had written ‘The Deserted Village’ in 1770, which acts as a commentary on the horrors awaiting the emigrant abroad. Goodall’s Emigrant Ship was criticised by the Athenaeum in a manner which seems fairly consistent across the board. They wrote how ‘the subject, though painful, is a fine one, – but one requiring very high powers to redeem it from the melodramatic and give it the true character of unaffected pathos’.[15] Errington accuses the language of the critics as not one being useful or even levied at artists, merely for their own readership: their writing was designed for their readers.

Answering the Emigrant's Letter
Collinson, Answering the Emigrant’s Letter (1850, Manchester)

Goodall’s was preceded by Chester Earles A Letter from Australia – A Family Group (1848) and Underhill’s Irish Emigrants. Post becomes an important means of communication and connection in such images, and is further picked up by Collinson’s Answering the Emigrant’s Letter (1850, Manchester) in a manner that again reflects that of genre works and those by Wilkie. Whilst these images were sometimes sentimental, sometimes rather pathetic in their depictions, the newspapers preferred to seek out the realities of emigration. The Illustrated London News even sent correspondents out on outward bound ships so they could report back images of nothing more than vicarious curiosity. Punch encouraged the concept of emigration images such as Here and there; or, emigration a remedy (London, 8 July 1848) which notices about vagrancy, lectures on socialism and the illegality of Chartist meetings: a method used by Ford Madox Brown in Work (1852 – 1863, Manchester). Errington suggests that Punch and Carlyle were in sync with their positive view of emigration for both economic / employment reasons. The newspapers seem to celebrate the new world, whereas painters seem to mourn for those left behind (and there were strict rules to emigration, particularly regarding the number and the ages of children who could go. This often meant some were left behind).

Digitised Image
Punch, Here and there; or, emigration a remedy (London, 8 July 1848)

Sharply returning to the theme of ‘The Song of the Shirt’, Errington discusses Watts’ image of the same subject, Sempstress (1849 – 1850, Watts Gallery). During this same period, Carlyle’s voice can also be found protecting the needlewoman: ‘thirty-thousand wretched women; sunk in that putrefying well of abominations…British charity is smitten to the heart at the laying bare of such a scene’.[16] ‘Carlyle despaired of any remedy short of a universal change of heart’.[17] The Morning Chronicle, amongst other papers, wrote repeatedly about the conditions of the poor. Henry Mayhew inevitably makes an appearance as Errington seeks to create a climate of social conscious and desire for social reform. Mayhew’s writings (which later evolved into ‘London Labour and the London Poor’) describe a room belonging to a shirtmaker which although apparently of a better class than other seamstresses makes clear that her working hours are long and her wages are low. Sometimes the woman worked from two am in the morning ‘and carries on tlil the evening of the following day, merely lying down in my clothes to take a nap of five or ten minutes. The agitation of mind never lets one lie longer…I find it very hard times (she said) Oh, very hard indeed’.[18] Watts must have seen either some of these letters by Mayhew, or some of the reports in other papers, or even the Punch cartoons.

Watts, Found Drowned (1850, Watts Gallery)

The Sempstress has a ‘spectral quality’ in it and is not indicative of a finished picture, but then none of the four pictures Errington concentrates on are of a high finish.[19] Errington seems to suggest Watts’ attraction to these themes was in the possibility of creating pathos, of concentrating on gesture, and reducing the scenes to the bare essentials. In Sempstress it seems he responded to Hood’s poem ‘The Song of the Shirt’, and perhaps with Found Drowned the influence or trigger may have been either another poem by Hood, ‘The Bridge of Sighs’, or prints by Cruikshank who produced a series of Hogarthian style scenes in 1847 and 1848. Cruikshank’s scenes depict slums, drunkards, crime, prostitution, and inevitably, gin palaces. The Poor Girl Homeless, Friendless, Deserted, Destitute, & Gin-Mad Commits Self-Murder (1848, V & A) is a fine example. Cruikshank himself was probably responding to literary sources, e.g. Dickens’ The Drunkard’s Death which appeared in Sketches by Boz.[20] Hood’s words are bleak:

Glad to death’s mystery,

Swift to be hurl’d

Any where, any where

Out of the world!

Cruikshank, The Poor Girl Homeless, Friendless, Deserted, Destitute, & Gin-Mad Commits Self-Murder (1848, V & A)

The dark arch passes from Hood to Cruikshank and on to Watts. Both Found Drowned and Under the Dry Arch depict sorrowful humanity against the cold stone of an immoveable bridge. Augustus Egg’s third panel from the later triptych Past and Present (1858, Tate) suggests the theme was still of significant interest both socially and artistically. Mayhew viewed the Egg like progress as indicative of a Hogarthian progress. He was satisfied by the inevitably decline for such a lifel Kingsley seemed to hold a similar view. Found Drowned is not an emotional nor poetic title, it is a legal one. The victim was ‘Found Drowned’ although Errington informs us that drowning may not have been the cause of death, it was often the case the victims skull was fractured during the fall. If this outcome were evaded, perhaps Under the Dry Arch was the alternative. A wizened, manly, awkward figure appears in this work, shuddering and shivering in the archway. Errington suggests the figures are so individual that Watts could have used a real tramp as a model. I’m not sure that this seems entirely convincing, and Errington does not really give any facts or evidence to support this (she suggests that homelessness was less of an issue and although tramps were common enough, they did not arouse any special concern or outcry).[21]

The chapter concludes a little abruptly and it is not entirely clear what we have gained, aside from an analysis of Watts. The detail, whilst fascinating, seems tangential to the earlier chapters. The concluding line suggests that Watts remained external to the realist interests of French painters like Court or Millet, preferring to focus upon urbanity and degradation instead. The conclusion is rather brief and this chapter wavers a little in focus. However, the next chapter reintroduces the Pre-Raphaelites and draws back toward more solid concepts of religion and tyranny.

Hunt, Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions (1849, Private Collection of Mrs. E.M. Clarke)

Chapter VI: An Appeal against Tyranny. This chapter concentrates on Hunt’s Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions (1849, Private Collection of Mrs. E.M. Clarke) whilst maintaining the focus on the years 1848 and 1849. Hunt’s work is discussed as an example of social conscience, but one that is in opposition to the other works Errington has presented in previous chapters. Errington suggests Rienzi may be the bridge between the victims in works by Redgrave, Cope and Watts etc. and the heroic self-sufficient navvies of Millais and Brown.[22]

Hunt’s work is medieval in style, blended with natural observations that are typical of early Pre-Raphaelite pieces. His historical commentary is considered ‘ambivalent’ by Errington but I’m not sure Hunt ever intended the piece to be didactic. Hunt’s emphasis is more charitable in tone than retributory, ‘it is justice and not revenge, that Hunt’s Rienzi demanded.[23]

The next section of this chapter seems a rather involved and disconnected view of the historical reception and recurrence of the figure Rienzi. Discussing both Bulwer Lytton’s novel, ‘Rienzi’ (1835) and Mary Russell Mitford’s drama ‘Rienzi’ (circa 1828) Errington unpacks the various traits found to be in or lacking within him: nobility, chivalry, virtuousness, jealously, humble, ambitious, liberty etc. ‘Each of the above mentioned writers influenced the next’: from Mitford to Lytton, and even to Wagner.[24]

Lytton’s novel was born from his desire to commit to reform: he was a radical thinker (comparatively speaking). In some ways, although Errington admits it is a little spurious a reading, the novel is associated with the Chartist Movement (the Charter was drawn up in 1838). ‘Rienzi’s interest in aiding the people to obtain justice, human rights, and, more specifically, a representative parliament, has a very loose resemblance to the Chartist demands for universal suffrage’ although the levels were inevitably different to nineteenth century standards.[25] The strongest parallel comes from the dialogues between the nobility and the people’s representatives. In order to further illuminate this point, Errington compares passes of Lytton’s text to Disraeli’s ‘Sybil’ (published ten years on from Lytton). The difference she claims, is around ‘intention’: ‘Disraeli planned his novel as a party political apology, while Lytton’s political message was submerged in historical research and historical romance’.[26] The effects of the French Revolution were still being felt, and further revolutions in 1848 added to the sense of anxiety, both historically speaking and contemporaneously.

Rienzi appears to have been a suitable figure to negotiate these anxieties and he appeared on the walls of the R.A. no less than three times during the 1840s: Elmore, Jones and Hunt.[27] Errington suggests the painting has been hampered by readings based on the contents of the picture backed up by ‘suitably selected quotations from his Pre-Raphaelitism’ (Hunt’s memoirs).[28] The subject matter really requires previous literary and pictorial history of the hero – whether the figure in question is medieval reformer, or sempstress or emigrant. The change of Rienzi’s reception was down to ‘a change of emotional attitude caused by external conditions in the political field’.

Hunt’s memoirs have encouraged people to suggest his painting of Rienzi is, in different ways, connected with the political development of 1848. Rossetti and Millais both modelled and can be seen as representative of a reflection of their real life revolts. Hunt and Millais attended the Chartist gathering on Kennington Common, although it appears this was more from curiosity than genuine interest.

Seeking the impetus for Rienzi, Errington turns to Hunt’s memoirs which declare a Pre-Raphaelite principle was agreed upon in February 1848. In the spring of 1848 I began Rienzi’.[29] Errington’s argument (specifically in this chapter) becomes a little lost, as she moves between literature and art, reform and politics. Chartism became ‘a phenomenon to be ridiculed’ as England sought to maintain its’ politically stability (which was strong when compared with the rest of Europe). Neither Carlyle nor Kingsley were sympathetic toward the Chartists. The topicality of Hunt’s image also compares to Goodall’s Paris in 1848 which was shown at the British Institution the same year two of the Rienzi pictures were at the R.A.). Goodall’s work has a certain reportage quality to it. Like Redgrave’s paintings, or indeed Watts’, Goodall’s appears to lack personal experience or eye witness account. Instead, Paris in 1848 ‘astutely and most inoffensively presents a chatty little character piece just when interest in foreign news was at a height’.[30] Goodall’s picture was ‘produced to catch a buyer’ but Hunt’s was a more timid and hesitant modern life image. Errington suggests the mediation of medievalism was the Pre-Raphaelite way of playing safe.[31] ‘The mid-Victorian was probably more sympathetic towards the middle ages’.[32]

Hunt’s declaration that he was ‘Like most young men…stirred by the spirit of the passing revolutionary time’ is a complex statement which raises more questions and accusations than it answers. Artistic rebellion, against the ‘debased academic formulas of painting’ was one objective, but Errington also claims it is possible to consider the subtle remodelling of constitutions was another.[33] This claim is not certain, explicit, or evidenced enough in my opinion. What is curious to note, and how Errington concludes the chapter, is her observation that prior to Hunt’s interest in guilt and sin, his major figures of this period do reflect upon the outsider and class division. These themes are born out in Hunt’s male characters: Lorenzo, Porphyro, and, of course, Rienzi.

Hunt, detail from The flight of Madeline and Porphyro during the Drunkenness attending the Revelry Eve of Saint Agnes (1848, Guildhall)

[1] I have quoted this title as per The Watts Gallery, whereas Errington refers to the painting as Under a Dry Arch. See here: http://www.wattsgallery.org.uk/support-us/adopt-watts/under-dry-arch

[2] Errington, p. 180

[3] Errington, p. 181

[4] Errington, p. 181

[5] Mary Watts, Annals of an Artist’s Life Vol. 1 ( (London: 1912) p. 108- 109

[6] Mary Watts, Annals of an Artist’s Life Vol. 1 (London: 1912) p. 126

[7] Errington, p. 185

[8] Errington, p. 185

[9] Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourses, No. IV

[10] The Morning Chronicle (October 18th, 1849)

[11] Errington, p. 189

[12] Errington, p. 189

[13] Art Union, March 1846, p 75

[14] Errington, p. 193

[15] Athenaeum (1848), p. 513

[16] Thomas Carlyle, The Latter Day Pamphlets No. 1 The Present Time (London: Chapman and Hall, 1850), p. 32 and 33

[17] Errington, p. 199

[18] The Morning Chronicle, Letter No. VI (November 6th, 1849)

[19] Errington, p. 203 – 204

[20] Dickens, Sketches by Boz The Drunkard’s Death Part II.

[21] Errington, p. 208

[22] Errington, p. 210

[23] Errington, p. 211

[24] Errington, p. 214

[25] Errington, p 215

[26] Errington, p. 219

[27] Errington, p. 223

[28] Errington, p. 223

[29] W.H. Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1905), vol. 1, p. 114

[30] Errington, p. 233

[31] Errington, p. 235

[32] Errington, p. 237

[33] Errington, p. 240

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