Sunday, September 12, 2010

Portraying Poverty

More news from the art world...

Four paintings by Augustus Edwin Mulready (1844-1904) are to be sold at Bonhams' Nineteenth-Century Paintings sale on 29 September in London.

Mulready's works frequently highlighted the social issues of the Victorian era -- particularly the poverty experienced by homeless street children, whom he often depicted gazing despairingly out at the viewer. The artist returned again and again to this subject in an attempt to draw official and public attention to the condition of these children.

Mulready (Wiki bio here) was a member of the Cranbrook Colony, a small group of painters who lived and worked in the picturesque town of Cranbrook, Kent. They were influenced by Dutch and Flemish genre painting and shared a sustained interest in child subjects. (Other members of the group included Frederick Daniel Hardy, Thomas Webster, John Callcott Horsley, and George Bernard O’Neill.)

Although the quality of Mulready's works as paintings leaves much to be desired, they are important social documents. As art reviewer Keith Roberts has noted, "Children could be used to publicize the iniquities of the social justice system without seeming to attack the social structure; reform might well be achieved by appeals to the conscience through sentiment rather than by reasoned argument and criticism of an overtly political character." This was an approach that Charles Dickens knew well and deployed to devastating effect in his novels.

In Uncared For (1871, shown above), one of the works that will be sold by Bonhams (estimate: £10,000-15,000), a pale, barefooted waif stares miserably at the viewer and a young boy buries his head in his hands. Their desolation contrasts powerfully with the more privileged group in the background. Above their heads is a torn street poster ironically proclaiming "The Triumph of Christianity." The juxtaposition would have been considered more provoking and subversive by Victorian viewers had the subjects been adults.

In Fatigued Minstrels (1883), also to be sold by Bonhams (estimate: £4,000-6,000), a pair of exhaused young street musicians slump against a stone pillar as a well-dressed family and couple walk along the brightly lit street opposite. 

"This is a fascinating group of pictures, and it is particularly poignant to be selling them at a time when the plight of the urban poor is so much in the public eye," says Charles O'Brien, head of Bonhams' Nineteenth-Century Paintings Department.

Such paintings were soon eclipsed by documentary photography, which could induce an even more profound shock in viewers through their harrowing realism.


Poverty and Families in the Victorian Era (part of the superb "Hidden Lives Revealed" website)

Childhood -- Children -- Street Arabs (part of Lee Jackson's "Victorian London" website)

Pamela Horn, The Victorian Town Child (Sutton, 1997)


Hermes said...

Slightly strange man, but I share your liking his pictures (though they are a bit sentimental perhaps).

Dr Kristan Tetens said...

I don't care for them as works of art, but I appreciate the role they played in raising the visibility of vulnerable children among the philanthropic middle and upper classes.

Rubi said...

Congratulations for this blog!

Andrea Kaston Tange said...

I came across this post as I'm researching images of Victorian children for a conference paper that's part of a larger project on children and empire. I see from your profile that you are located in East Lansing -- but then your Facebook profile says London. I'm wondering which is accurate right now, as I'm a Victorianist in SE Michigan too and would love to talk more with you if you are local. This site is fantastic!

Kristan Tetens said...

Hi Andrea, thanks for your kind comment! I'm in Michigan at the moment; send me a note at and I'd be happy to talk with you at your convenience.

Bearded Lady said...

Oh I love this art. I guess some might think it is melodramatic but I love the way the two children are sitting in a V pattern. It is like they share the same fate but can't even comfort each other. thanks for posting!

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