Classics and class in painting

But by the mid-19th century, at any rate, just one or two painters began to use classical material to think about class-related issues. We discuss here the handful of such images we have identified amongst the collection of more than 200,000 paintings in museums, universities, galleries, town halls, and other institutional buildings all over Britain on the website of Art UK.11” A moving example is Henry Wallis’ tragic Stonebreaker (1857) in Birmingham City Art Gallery. The painting was inspired by the chapter in Thomas Carlyle’s satirical novel Sartor

Resartus (1836) entitled ‘Helotage’, the ancient Spartan system of state slavery. The exhibition catalogue when the picture was first put on display at the Royal Academy in London quoted the passage of Carlyle which laments the intellectual starvation of the worker who lives and dies without acquiring knowledge of anything but physical deprivation and toil.1,0 Wallis’ manual labourer seems asleep, but he has actually been forced by poverty to work until he dies. In the novel, Carlyle ironically proposes a revival of the ancient Spartan custom of murdering helots arbitrarily to keep them intimidated:

now after the invention of fire-arms, and standing armies, how much easier were such a hunt! Perhaps in the most thickly peopled country, some three days annually might suffice to shoot all the able-bodied Paupers that had accumulated within the year. Let Governments think of this. The expense were trifling: nay the very carcasses would pay it. Have them salted and barrelled; could not you victual therewith, if not Army and Navy, yet richly such infirm Paupers, in workhouses and elsewhere, as enlightened Charity, dreading no evil of them, might see good to keep alive?111

George James Howard painted ancient Mediterranean farm labourers being brought water to quench their thirst. Refreshing the Reapers (c. 1870), now in Tullie House Gallery in Carlisle.112 It is in the style of the ‘Etruscan School’ of painting, emotive landscapes of Etruria in central Italy. But Howard’s picture imagines ancient Etruscan society in its beauty and sensual physicality. Another painting by Howard portrays peasant women reclining in the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla.113 In both scenes it is the working people and their social community, rather than the landscape, which count.

Howard, who was friends with the socialists William Morris and Walter Crane, as well as Burne-Jones, was anything but lower-class himself. He was educated at Eton and Cambridge (where he was influenced by the lectures of Charles Kingsley) and inherited his title Earl of Carlisle, along with the 78,000-acred Howard Estate, in 1889. His aim in life, besides painting, was to make fine art available to everyone. Howard was a trustee and then chairman of the National Gallery, helped found the Tate Gallery, and was a member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.114

His political views were, if not radical, then philanthropic and progressive. His wife was an ardent supporter of women’s suffrage and the temperance movement, and ensured that the dreamy George, who would have been happy to paint all day, was kept up-to-date on political issues. As Liberal MP for East Cumberland 1879-1880 and 1881-1885, and subsequently in the House of Lords, he argued patiently for the provision of artworks in provincial museums, and for the opening of museums and art galleries on Sundays. On 19th May 1882 he argued in parliament that British people of all classes ‘had a right to see the treasures of which they were joint owners on the only day it was convenient for them to go there’. Moreover, since ‘Trade Unions had secured great advantages’ in securing half-days and holidays for their members, they needed places to visit where they could enjoy high culture.11’ He also campaigned to keep children out of public houses, for the pension rights of policemen and for the employment of ex-servicemen in the nation’s galleries.

Victor Rainbird’s ‘Greek Builders’, probably painted around 1920, is now to be seen at the Old Low Light gallery in North Shields.116 Rainbird was a working-class painter and stained glass artist from this borough of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where the economy was based on fishing and coal. He lived his whole life in North Shields. A blue plaque on the exterior wall of 71, West Percy Street commemorates the years he lived in this small terraced house (1917-1933). Although under-appreciated in his own lifetime, Rainbird’s reputation has been growing recently. In 2013 a new primary school in Newcastle was opened. Its name is Rainbird Primary School. In April 2018, a stage play by Peter Mortimer, Rainbird: The Tragedy of an Artist, was performed by the Cloud Nine Theatre Company at the Exchange Theatre, North Shields.117

Rainbird served in World War I at non-officer rank, in both the Northumberland Fusiliers and the Durham Light Infantry, and suffered psychological trauma. He then made his living from his paintings, but died of alcohol-related problems in 1936, aged only 47, and was buried in a pauper’s grave. He was fascinated by scenes of work, and his favourite subject-matter was the fishermen and fishwives on the local wharves and sea-shores, as in ‘Fish Market’. Like the visiting American artist Winslow Homer before him, Rainbird was a leading member of the Artists’ Colony at the fishing village of Cullercoats. His only surviving work in stained glass commemorates six men, all from the Shetland island of Papa Stour, who died in World War I. It is in Papa Stour Kirk.118

Nothing is known of the genesis of ‘Greek Builders’. But it is striking that when Rainbird, unusually for him, chose to depict a scene from the ancient world—indeed a beautiful temple with a columned portico—he focuses on the labourers rather than the classical edifice. Realistic, muscular but in no way ‘classically’ handsome or idealised, against a cloudy rather than sunlit sky, his serious-minded ancient Greek labourers are exerting themselves in physical tasks: digging, cutting down a tree, stone-working or carrying supplies.

It is female labour that is celebrated by Cliff Rowe, a British painter whose conscious mission was to put working people at the centre of the visual arts. A working-class boy from Wimbledon, he left school at 14 and managed to get into the Wimbledon Art School. Five years later he was working as a commercial illustrator, but the economic crisis and the growing threat of Fascism persuaded him to join the Communist Party. After 18 months in Russia absorbing Soviet innovations in design, he returned to England and set up the Artists’ International Association.119 This organisation, at its height with a membership of nearly a thousand, aided German refugees and sent medical assistance to the British International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Most of Rowe’s paintings lend beauty and grandeur to scenes of people working in industry, for example ‘Woman cleaning a loco boiler’.120 But in ‘Three Graces’, the power of

‘The Three Graces’ by Clifford Hooper‘Cliff’ Rowe (1904—1989), reproduced by courtesy of the People’s History Museum, Manchester

FIGURE 6.7 ‘The Three Graces’ by Clifford Hooper‘Cliff’ Rowe (1904—1989), reproduced by courtesy of the People’s History Museum, Manchester.

the image derives from Rowe’s recasting of three women working at a factory conveyor belt in the unmistakable postures of the three Graces—the one in the centre with her back to the viewer (Figure 6.7).

This design concept goes all the way back to antiquity, and features in a famous mural at Pompeii and mosaic in the Shahba Museum, Syria. This arrangement of a beautiful trio of women is recurrent in Western art from at least as early as Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ (1486); its most famous instantiation is probably in Canova’s neoclassical statue group of around 1816. But the very idea that such a vision of classical perfection could be located in an industrial setting embodied by low-income women in the roles of Grecian goddesses, calmly in control of the complicated machinery they are operating, illustrates the profundity of Rowe’s revolutionary political aesthetic.

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