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Painters of Everyday Life
George Eliot loved Dutch paintings. In Adam Bede (1859) she describes why she found 'a source of delicious sympathy in these faithful pictures of a monotonous, homely existence...I turn...to an old woman bending over her pot, or eating her solitary dinner while the noonday light...just touches the rim of her spinning-wheel, and her stone jug. Do not impose on us any aesthetic rules which shall banish...those old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands...let Art always remind us of them...'
These words remind us that our delight in tales or paintings of everyday life lies deep in human nature. Today, radio and television 'soap operas' and 'situation comedies' present 'everyday stories of country folk' or 'tales of the city' and suburb. There is nothing new about this, for since Egyptian times artists have painted pictures showing universally understood relationships, such as an idle servant and a stern master or young lovers being disturbed by intruders. The ever-enthralling battle of the sexes was a main preoccupation both of Victorian genre painters and novelists such as Thackeray and Dickens. Novels often appeared in illustrated serial form, thus helping to create a climate ideal for genre painters, enjoined since the time of Hogarth and Henry Fielding, to make their paintings 'novels in paint.'
Paintings which 'told a story' via the medium of engravings found their way into many thousands of homes, just as today videos of such films as Four Weddings and a Funeral reach an audience of millions. Several paintings from this part of the Forbes Collection create interesting parallels between the Victorian age and today. We can see, for example, how the difficulties of getting your partner to the altar have changed, from the exciting exchange of vows recorded in Rebecca Solomon's A Love Letter (lot 322) to the arrival of the wedding dress and elaborate trousseau, laid out for the envy and admiration of family and friends, shown in Jessica Hayllar's A Coming Event (lot 267). Such prodigies of embroidery sadly recall the darker side of the dressmaking industry notorious for sweated labour, activities denounced by Thomas Hood in The Song of the Shirt published in Punch in 1843:
Oh! men with sisters dear,
Oh! men with mothers and wives,
It is not linen you're wearing out
But human creatures' lives.
The poem inspired Richard Redgrave's The Sempstress exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1844 (for a slightly later version, see lot 110).
The time on the clock shows half-past-two in the morning, yet the sempstress, emaciated, hopeless and worn-out, with red-rimmed eyes, is still plying her needle to finish an order. The artist Paul Falconer Poole wrote an encouraging letter to Redgrave concerning The Sempstress: 'Who can help exclaiming "Poor soul! God help her?" If any circumstance could make us...go down shirtless to our graves, it is the contemplation of this truthful and wonderful picture.'
The Pre-Raphaelite artist James Collinson excelled at genre scenes. He had a love affair with Christina Rossetti which went sadly wrong, and she broke off the engagement owing to religious differences. In 1854 he resumed painting genre subjects, notably two oval paintings For Sale (lot 98) and To Let (lot 97), both exhibited in 1857 bearing their enigmatic titles. Collinson painted several different versions of these paintings right up to his death in 1881. Each features an attractive woman, the younger with an empty purse at a church bazaar, the older a plump beauty placing a 'To Let' sign in a window above flower-pots containing a lily and a 'Bleeding Heart'. Victorian eyes alert to the 'language of flowers' would surely have noted the lady's dark costume and wedding ring, and interpreted the subject as a variation on the theme of the amorous widow, made famous by Mr Pickwick's landlady Mrs Bardell, who sued him for breach of promise of marriage.
In William Powell Frith's sketch for his painting of a wedding ambiguously entitled 'For Better, For Worse' (lot 335), a shower of old slippers are thrown at the happy couple to bring them luck. In the final version (lot 10) the slippers are less conspicuous, but much more in evidence are the family of beggars contrasted with the affluent newly-weds, and the meaningful glance exchanged by the bridegroom with a young woman on the balcony of a house from which the wedding party is debouching across the pavement. The bridegroom lifts his hat while the girl indicates with the fan she holds that she is still interested in him.
Inside the church things could also go wrong, as Edward Blair Leighton's 'Till Death do Us part' (lot 336) demonstrates. The title, like Frith's, is taken from the marriage service, but is given a sardonic interpretation by the painter. The bride is shown on the arm of the elderly bridegroom whom she has just married. She exchanges rueful glances with a young man in one of the pews. She has become the 'bird in a gilded cage' whose 'beauty is sold for an old man's gold' in a popular song of the period.
Music played an important role at weddings, and for early Victorians it was often supplied by an amateur band and choir who played in the galleries of churches. Such a group inspired Thomas Webster's most famous painting The Village Choir (lot 45). For it he made individual drawings of all the members of the band of Bow Brickhill Church, including the blacksmith, 'Old Tooth', playing the clarinet. The painting looks back to the Dutch school and Sir David Wilkie, but also anticipates Thomas Hardy's novel Under The Greenwood Tree (1872). This deals with rivalry between musicians with old-fashioned instruments and those converting to the new-fangled church organs and harmoniums.
Life after marriage could also present difficult dilemmas, one being whether to emigrate. Between 1840 and 1860 over four million emigrated from a population of 26 million - one in six people, a truly staggering statistic. Family farewells proved irresistible to artists such as Paul Falconer Poole, whose Emigrant's Departure (lot 346) is one of the earliest portrayals of this poignant subject.
Funerals were a frequent subject for Frank Holl, who in 1871 began to work for The Graphic, an illustrated magazine with a great social conscience. Some of Holl's work for this journal was later reworked for Royal Academy paintings. The subject of maternal grief and infant death was the theme of Doubtful Hope (lot 114), in which a chemist concocts medicine for a dying child held by its young mother. The woman clutches a coin, her last resource.
Only slightly less harrowing than the death of a child was the departure of an infant to a home such as the Foundling Hospital. This was almost the only institution to support illegitimate children, over 42,000 of which were born in England and Wales in 1851 alone. While housed at the Foundling Hospital, girls were tutored in domestic skills to fit them for work as maids, and boys apprenticed to a trade or encouraged to join the army. George Adolphus Storey's painting Orphans (lot 271) has a distinctly Dutch mood, reminiscent of the work of Pieter de Hooch in its view of a garden seen through open doors. Storey, like William Frederick Yeames, belonged to the St John's Wood Clique, a group of artists who shared a preference for British Civil War subjects, playing engaging variations on the theme of Cavalier boys, Puritan girls and King Charles spaniels. Yeames's most famous painting, 'And when did You last see your Father?' (study, lot 243), was inspired by his outspoken nephew who posed for the principal figure. After the work's first exhibition in 1878 it steadily became famous, its title making it a useful analogy for cartoonists. It finally achieved the ultimate accolade of being turned into a waxwork tableau at Madame Tussauds.
When it comes to producing skeletons from cupboards, the Victorians win hands down. People sometimes came back from emigration, which may explain George Smith's The Rightful Heir (lot 333), showing a little boy and his mother, both in deep mourning, confronting a villainous usurper. Similar themes were used again and again, not only by painters but by writers ranging from Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins to Florence Hodgson Burnett, the author of Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886).
Some of the most popular genre subjects were the pleasures and pains of childhood. William Mulready's painting Train up a Child the Way He should go (lot 5) shows a child being taught how to give charity to beggars, a difficult problem, then as now. Mulready was also interested in children's games and boxing as a pastime for boys. Both John Faed's Boyhood (lot 7) and John Morgan's The Fight (lot 16) depict a scene familiar in many school playgrounds when a teacher breaks up a fight just when it gets exciting.
Paired subjects often provided a useful narrative device. John Watson Nicol's Cause and Effect (lot 246) depicts a small boy devouring green, unripe apples and experiencing a resultant tummy-ache. But the 'before' and 'after' formula was also used by Victorian genre painters for very different subjects, for example the famous Waiting for the Verdict and Acquitted by Abraham Solomon (Tate Gallery). What actually goes on behind the closed door of the juryroom always intrigues the public. George Bernard O'Neill's painting The Jury (lot 315) forms part of a continuing process which can be seen almost exactly a century later with the film Twelve Angry Men (1957), starring Henry Fonda as the obstinate juror. One of the crimes which might lead to the dock is shown in A Vestry Meeting - Something Wrong with the Accounts (lot 117) by John Ritchie.
Itinerant showmen provided good subjects for 'modern-life' painters, and The Peepshow by John Burr (lot 255) shows a form of street entertainment which appealed to that most deep-seated human instinct, curiosity, the urge to peer through a hole. The attraction advertised, The Babes in the Wood, is directed at a child audience, but that adults also enjoyed scenes of horrific fantasy was vividly expressed by a showman to Henry Mayhew in one of his interviews: 'People is werry fond of the battles in the country, but a murder wot is well known is worth more than all the fights...'. Such a conclusion is still valid when we glance at the tabloid press on any Sunday morning. The sub-title of The News of the World was for many years 'All Human Life is Here'. Perhaps the title is better applied to Victorian genre painting.