Introduction: The People of the Abyss

‘Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.’

‘You speak of —" said Egremont, hesitantly. ‘THE RICH AND THE POOR.’ [66]

So writes Benjamin Disraeli in Sybil, his much quoted judgment of social divisions in Britain in the mid-point (1845) of the infamous ‘Hungry Forties.’ Documentary evidence of the period vividly attests to the accuracy of his proclamation: the gap between the rich and the poor was undeniable, with poverty becoming ever damaging and wide-spread as the Industrial Revolution transformed Britain from a rural into an urban nation and capitalism flourished.

It is not quite correct, however, to insist that there was no ‘intercourse’ or ‘sympathy’ between the classes. Despite the impact of laissez-faire economics and the apparent indifference of many of those who benefitted from the new social arrangements, the problem of deprivation, and how it might be ameliorated, was addressed by numerous commentators and reformers. In the early part of the century, the fragmentation of British society was examined by Thomas Carlyle in Signs of the Times (1829; text), and Friederich Engels in his Die Lage der Arbeitenden Klasse in England, which was published in English as The Condition of the Working Class in 1844 at the end of the 1880s. William Booth’s In Darkest England (1890) and Jack London’s People of the Abyss (1903) continued these investigations in the latter part of the century. Each is grim reading, driven forward by an urgent demand for reform.

The condition of working people and the poor was a key theme, moreover, in Victorian art and literature. Whereas social reformers worked to report to the government, writers and artists engaged with the larger project of facilitating change by raising awareness of the conditions of poverty, essentially by educating the middle-classes as to how those ‘dwellers in different zones’ lived their lives. Charles Dickens’s fictions of the forties and fifties address his problem, especially in Hard Times (1854). The polemics of George William MacArthur Reynolds (1814-79), one of the most popular Victorian novelists, attack the poor laws and “the results of the more atrocious Game-Laws,” the lives of young girls in London slums, and the sharp contrast between London’s rich and poor.

The relationship between political unrest and poverty is explored in detail in the ‘Condition of England’ novels of the mid-century, notably Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1854), Disraeli’s Sybil (1845), Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849) and Charles Kingsley’s Yeast (1848) and Alton Locke (1850). These authors focus on the travails of the urban experience, although rural deprivation features in Thomas Hardy’s fictions of the 80s and 90s; Tess of the d’Urbervilles which first appeared in the radical Graphic in 1891, exemplifies his approach. Produced against a background of political agitation in the form of the Chartist Movement in the forties and rural unionization in the 70s and 80s, these texts analyse hard realities at some length, sometimes offering paternalistic solutions at odds with modern notions of equality and social justice, and sometimes (as in the case of Hardy and George Moore) offering nothing more than journalistic observation.

Visual art is perhaps more complicated in that its immediate impact was diminished by the demands of the sales-room. Unpalatably honest paintings would not sell, and although pictures with social themes appeared throughout the middle of the century, it was not until the seventies and eighties, when images of the poor were acquired by public galleries for educational purposes, that ‘social realism’ became a major theme. Frank Holl, Hubert Herkomer, J Stanhope Forbes, George Clausen, Walter Langley and others inspired by the French artist Jules Bastien-Lepage created a large body of documentary paintings, a raw imagery of exhausted workers, urban squalor and starving peasants both realistic and emotionally-charged.

But book and magazine designers, drawing on wood or etching on steel, had much greater impact than painters in oil – although there was an overlap between them, with some artists practising in both fields. Working in varying contexts – as illustrators serving a novel or collection of poetry, or as journalists commissioned to provide a visual record – these draughtsmen were able to produce a hard-hitting critique aimed at a large bourgeois audience and designed to be seen in the comfort of the parlour. Intended to unsettle in a domestic context which by-passed the elitism of attendance at art galleries, their engravings of working class life were configured as social realism or at least social commentary that became an everyday part of household consumption, and literally carried the message home. It was easy to avoid a painting or its engraved copy, but more difficult to avoid an illustration on the pages of Punch, in Dickens’s fictions, in a gift book, or in The Graphic Magazine.

The impact of print culture in disseminating social messages is widely recognized, yet detailed scholarship on the subject is relatively undeveloped, with analysis of illustration contained within wider surveys such as Julian Treuherz’s Hard Times (1987) and, more recently, Andrea Korda’s exploration of The Graphic (2015). There are also a number of essays exploring individual contributions, among them Sophie Gilmart’s essay on Frank Holl and the present author’s account of William Small. What is lacking is an over-arching view of how graphic imagery engaged with social problems in Victoria’s gloriously uncaring years. These essays set out to provide an overview, focusing on the ways in which Victorian illustrators negotiate the physical, material and psychological suffering of the poor and working classes. Their approaches are explored in a series of representative designs.

Social Commentary and Victorian Illustration: The Representation of Working Class Life, 1837–1880

Created 20 April 2019