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Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
|A Group of Visitors Watching a Workman Raking Out a Furnace, 1895
Soft black crayon on white wove paper, laid down on board faced with blue paper
35.6 x 53.0 cm
Presented by Charles Emanuel, 1950
The Graphic, an illustrated weekly news magazine, was founded by William Luson Thomas in London, 1869. One of a large number of illustrated magazines, The Graphic had two goals: to promote a high standard of artistry by allowing artists almost full freedom of style and subject matter and to depict a variety of subjects in which working class life was predominant.[i] Unlike other periodicals, which avoided subjects that might offend and never exhibited “vulgar poverty,” The Graphic made a point of representing the dispossessed on its pages. Moreover, as a general interest magazine, The Graphic also depicted the amusements of the monied classes--balls, new town halls, royal visits, and celebrity sightings--alongside London’s less fortunate inhabitants, making the unequal division of wealth and the affliction of poverty all the more poignantly apparent.[ii]
Beginning in the 1860s, Britain as a whole became more concerned with the plight of the poor, destitute, and homeless; the poor were studied, analyzed, classified, written up, and legislated for. But, despite the public’s concern, the poor continued to be treated for most of the nineteenth century as an alien population.[iii] Some more fortunate Britons even viewed the poor as tourist attractions: in the 1870s visitors flocked to Lancashire to observe the factory and colliery girls whom they viewed as “types” of the industrial north.[iv] The public’s misguided sympathies and misplaced distaste for England’s urban poor generated a group of artists, known as the Victorian Social Realists, who sought to document and promote a genuine concern for the difficulties of lower-class life.[v] Hoping to counter the general public’s intentional ignorance of and voyeuristic curiosity for the decidedly un-picturesque problem of poverty, the Social Realists brought the poor to life on the pages of The Graphic without sanitization or apology.
Although both The Graphic and Social Realism were begun in the 1870s, both were still in full swing twenty years later when the French artist (Charles-) Paul Renouard (1845-1924) arrived in London to document the happenings of London society. A society artist if ever there was one, Renouard was fascinated by social types and events. He sketched theater-goers and performers at the Paris Opera and London’s Theater Royal in Drury Lane, publishing a luxury album of etchingsL’Opéramade in Paris and exhibiting his pen and ink sketches of actors at Paris’ 1877 Salon.[vi] Renouard also sketched policemen and defendants at one of London’s many police courts.[vii] Above all, however, Renouard was drawn to depicting members of the working class: “perhaps the realm he preferred above all others...was that of the poor and the oppressed, whether it be the working poor...or the scrofulous inhabitants of the bas-fonds.”[viii] Renouard’s genuine sympathy for human suffering and frailty is clearly illustrated in his drawings for The Graphic, which present misfortune and poverty not as a novelty but, rather, as a tragedy deserving of the attention of those with the means to remedy it.
A Group of Visitors Watching a Workman Raking Out a Furnace was drawn with black crayon on paper in 1895 for the July 27th issue of The Graphic. Accompanying a short piece on London tourist attractions, the drawing illustrated a visit to the Mint. Specifically, it depicts the visitors observing a worker raking out bushels of silver blanks from one of the Mint’s many furnaces.[ix] According to the article, the Mint was one of London’s most popular sites for visitors, second only to the Tower. Only respectable people were admitted, and then only after a thorough inspection by the police officer at the door.[x] Although the caption states that the visitors have come to gawk at the coins being made and not at the Mint’s workers, Renouard, by making the pitiable furnace raker the composition’s focal point, refers to and comments on the tendency of the upper classes to view the poor as spectacles to be seen instead of people to be aided. The visitors stand clustered to the left and some of them are cut off by the paper’s border. The worker, though not placed in the center, is depicted in full and in greater detail than any of the others. The faces of the visitors are hastily drawn, thus depriving them of any individuality and identity. The Mint is similarly obscured, it is not immediately apparent where the scene is situated. The worker, on the other hand, is rendered in exquisite detail. The lines of his face communicate an individual shaped and hardened by a life of labor and hardship. We see the noble travail of Jean Valjean or the man Tiny Tim might have grown up to become. He is also the only figure in the drawing to make eye contact with the viewer. Moreover, the four visitorstwo well-dressed women, a be-monacled man, and a small girlclearly “respectable people,” show no empathy for him. They either observe him with unruffled curiosity or, in the case of the girl, stare bug-eyed at the mounds of silver at his feet. The passivity of the visitors is surprising and alarming to the viewer, whose eye is immediately drawn to worker’s distress. We are shocked, perhaps even outraged, that his suffering has not evoked pity but mere touristical interest.
Renouard thus emphasizes and decries the middle class’s willful indifference towards poverty. Susan Casteras elaborates on the mixture of apprehensiveness and antagonism that the bourgeoisie and aristocracy felt towards the poor: “beneath this increasing awareness of urban blight loomed a latent fear of pauperism and anxiety about one’s social situation.”[xi] She further remarks that in many Victorian images, the “haves” appear extremely apathetic to the less fortunate, as if they were simply “refuse to be avoided.”[xii] Even when not seen or portrayed as threatening per se, the pauper in Victorian society was a reminder of the downside of Industrialization and of the transience of wealth, and thus an element of life to be looked over or else treated as a statistic rather than an individual. The compositional divide between the worker and the visitors in Renouard’s drawing highlights this gulf between the “haves” and the “have nots” and the willful separation made by the more fortunate between the study of--and attempts to remedy--pauperism and the actual people affected by it. Even as they observe him, they remove themselves from him, keeping their distance and treating him as part of the site rather than as a person.
By emphasizing the visitors’ pronounced and deliberate oblivion to the worker’s plight, Renouard also alludes to another sub-genre of Victorian Social Realism: depictions of charitable intervention. Casteras writes of the abundance of charitable images, where benevolent members of the middle and upper classes extend a helping hand to their poverty-ridden compatriots. Such images, she says, frequently accompanied advertisements for social missionary work.[xiii] In Victorian England, philanthropy was both a Christian duty and a social imperative.[xiv] The heroic, charitable intervener is, however, missing from Renouard’s composition; the reaction of the visitors to the worker is again disaffected interest, not pity or even guilt. By making eye contact with the viewer, however, Renouard’s furnace worker suggests that we take the role of the philanthropic missionary. It is to us, not to the drawn visitors, that his expression of weariness and woe is directed and therefore it is to us that the responsibility for helping him is given. It is in this way that A Group of Visitors Watching a Workman Raking Out a Furnace most clearly articulates The Graphic’s spirit of social consciousness, presenting “vulgar poverty” not as a picturesque spectacle but as a harsh reality deserving of the public’s attention, pity, and help.
[i] Julian Treuherz, “The Graphic,” Hard Times, ed. Treuherz, (London: Lund Humphries, 1987), pp. 53-55.
[ii] Ibid, p. 54.
[iii]Peter Keating “Words and Pictures: Changing Images of the Poor in Victorian Britain” Hard Times, p. 126.
[iv] Treuherz, “Late Victorian Social Subjects” Hard Times p. 105.
[v] Treuherz, p. 9.
[vi] “Paul Renouard” The Grove Dictionary of Art
[vii] “Charles-Paul Renouard” The Nineteenth Century ed. Jon Whiteley (Oxford: The Ashmolean Museum) p. 412.
[viii] Linda Nochlin, “Van Gogh, Renouard, and the Weavers’ Crisis in Lyons” The Politics of Vision (New York: Harper and Row, 1989) pp. 97-98.
[ix] “Charles-Paul Renouard” The Nineteenth Century, p. 412.
[x] Ibid, p. 412.
[xi] Susan P. Casteras, “‘The Gulf of Destitution on Whose Brink They Hang’: Images of Life on the Streets in Victorian Art” Hard Times, p. 131.
[xii] Ibid, p. 131.
[xiii] Casteras, “The Gulf of Destitution” p. 131.
[xiv] Treuherz, p. 13.