The Song of the Shirt
William Daniels (1813-1881)
Oil on canvas
43.5 x 34.5 cm (17 1/8 x 13 9/16 inches)
Signed lower left: illegible.
Inscribed v lower centre: "Song of the Shirt, by W. Daniels, of Liverpool, painted for Mr. Somerville. His eldest daughter sat for this picture."
Provenance: bought as Lot 486 at Capes and Dunn, Manchester, 24th September 2013.
[Click on image to enlarge it.]
You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art and and the National Gallery of Slovenia and the Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, Galway (2) and link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.
Commentary by Paul Crowther
Shortly after Daniels' death, the Liverpool Lantern newspaper published—in serial form—an extended obituary [see full text at external link]. The obituary was written sympathetically by the Lantern's editor, and provides a comprehensive account of Daniels’ career and most important works.1 The obituary records the year in which the present work was done as 1875, and notes that Daniels and William Somerville first met in 1857. Somerville was one of Daniels' regular clients and the two became personal friends.
The picture illustrates a poem of the same name by Thomas Hood (1799−1845), written in 1843 and published—in the first place anonymously—in the weekly magazine Punch, in 1843. The poem is based on a previous account by Punch's editor Douglas Jerrold (1803−1857) of a woman called Mrs. Biddle living in Lambeth (London). She was a seamstress employed under the "putting-out" system where a central agent gives work to subcontractors operating from their own homes or from workshops. Mrs. Biddle was widowed and had two children to feed. She made the mistake of selling some clothes she had made to a pawnbroker rather than returning them to the central agent when the job was complete. For this, she was tried, convicted, and sent to the Workhouse.
Hood's poem made the case into a cause celebre in terms of awareness of working-class suffering. It was reprinted in The Times, and translated into French, German, Italian, and Russian. A year after the poem's first publication, Richard Redgrave exhibited a work inspired by it—The Sempstress—at the Royal Academy exhibition. The poem went on to inspire paintings entitled The Song of the Shirt by, amongst others, G. F. Watts (1850), Charles Rossiter (1854), Anna Blunden (1854), Frank Holl (1874), J. E. Millais (1876, in this case the picture is called Stitch, Stitch, Stich), Edward Radford (1887) and Albert Rutherston (1902).
To see what is special about William Daniels's picture, it is worth looking at some extracts from the poem.
The Song of the Shirt With fingers weary and worn, With eyelids heavy and red, A woman sat, in unwomanly rags, Plying her needle and thread— Stitch! stitch! stitch! In poverty, hunger, and dirt, And still with a voice of dolorous pitch She sang the "Song of the Shirt." "Work—work—work, Till the brain begins to swim; Work—work—work, Till the eyes are heavy and dim! Seam, and gusset, and band, Band, and gusset, and seam, Till over the buttons I fall asleep, And sew them on in a dream! "Oh, Men, with Sisters dear! Oh, men, with Mothers and Wives! It is not linen you're wearing out, But human creatures' lives! Stitch—stitch—stitch, In poverty, hunger and dirt, Sewing at once, with a double thread, A Shroud as well as a Shirt. "But why do I talk of Death? That Phantom of grisly bone, I hardly fear its terrible shape, It seems so like my own— It seems so like my own, Because of the fasts I keep; Oh, God! that bread should be so dear And flesh and blood so cheap! (436-47)
Daniels centres his chiaroscuro on the effects of the flickering candle, and its highlighting of the woman's haggard face and psychological desolation. There is a clear suggestion of "the skull beneath the skin." The restricted colour range emphasizes the drabness and poverty of her surroundings. The painting's special strength is its focus on how the woman is attending to the candle. Her usual monotonous labour demands attentiveness, but here the work process has been interrupted. Her attentiveness has slipped from work to the flickering light, and her facial expression is creased by bleak introspection. Even if this is a momentary "break" from her labour, it is not a release. The symbolic meaning of the flickering flame hints only at redemption through eventual extinction.
It is remarkable how other pictures inspired by the poem tend to sanitize or sentimentalize its content. Admittedly, the paintings by Redgrave and Watts (especially the latter) have appropriate levels of visual sparsity, but they lack the complex nuances of insight into the woman's experience that Daniels achieves through his distinctive technique. In the vernacular, he "pulls no punches." Rightly, the obituary writer for the Liverpool Lantern judged "The Song of the Shirt" to be "A painting of rare excellence."
1. Although the editor's name is not provided in the obituary, he is K. C. Spier. Spier founded the politically liberal Liverpool Lantern in 1877, and edited and wrote art reviews for it until its collapse in the same year as Daniels' death. He worked for other newspapers in the Liverpool area, and died in October 1901.
- Anna Elizabeth Blunden’s The Seamstress (A Song of the Shirt)
- Frank Holl’s Seamstresses
- "Slaves of the Needle:" The Seamstress in the 1840s
- Thomas Hood
Crowther, Paul. Awakening Beauty: The Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art. Exhibition catalogue. Ljubljana: National Gallery of Slovenia; Galway: Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, 2014. No. 22.
Hood, Thomas. "The Song of the Shirt." In R. B. Inglis, et al., Adventures in English Literature. Toronto: W. J. Gage, 1952. 436–37.
Last modified 8 December 2014