From Hand to Mouth

From Hand to Mouth — He Was One of the Few Who Would Not Beg by Thomas Faed RA, 1826-1900. 1879. Oil on canvas, 59 x 83 inches. Provenance: Angus Holden MP (afterwards Lord Holden). (Spring '84). [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

The scene is set in a small country shop, where the father of at least two children searches in his pocket, suggesting that he has no money to buy anything. Though poorly clad, terribly thin, and stooped (he looks weak), he is still tall, and has a certain presence: Susan Casteras describes him as an "unemployed veteran" (217). The family now seems to be dependent on whatever they earn on the streets, not by begging, as the painting's title assures us, but as street entertainers — indicated by his son's instrument, and the monkey on a lead. Behind the counter, the shopkeeper, with one hand on its surface, seems adamant: no money, no sale. Beside the father, on the far right, an older daughter is slumped on a wicker basket, overcome with shame or exhaustion, no doubt disappointment too, and hides her face in her lap. The little lad with the monkey hangs his head miserably too. In the background, life goes on: a woman carried something past; some men can be glimpsed in an inner room, one of them unconcernedly reading the paper, another perhaps glancing round; someone looks out of the window on the other side. But, most strikingly, as Casteras explains:

The left side of the canvas is occupied by a lady, who has deferentially been seated and is the center of a very different vignette of comfort and ease. Perched on a chair (in contrast to the girl slumped on a dirty basket), she seems overembellished, almost upholstered, with fabric and accessories. Behind her a black page boy stands with a pet dog, both symbols of conspicuous consumption. The page is as much enslaved by the economic system — and dependent upon the largesse of those well-off — as the boy beside the veteran, who, also like him, is in charge of an animal, but one that is neither a pet nor a status symbol but instead an integral contributor to the poor family's wage earning. It is unclear whether the black child watches his counterpart; the dog he monitors, however, clearly maintains its distance from those less fortunate, and the affluent little girl instinctively turns her back on them, looking to her mother for solace or counsel. The mother does not look directly at the group either, but her tender reassurance of her child and her thoughtful expression perhaps suggest some inward compassion. [271]

Casteras is surely right to see the painting as "a microcosm of class attitudes" (272). It also seems to be an attempt to change them. Faed's work was popular, and perhaps helped the better-off section of society to look at the poor with more understanding, and more will to help. — Commentary added by Jacqueline Banerjee,with special thanks to Dr. Helen Rogers, whose own "seeing" alerted me to the need for it.

Related Material


Casteras, Susan P. "Seeing the Unseen: Pictorial Problematics and Victorian Images of Class, Poverty, and Urban Life." Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination. Ed. Carol T. Christ and John O. Jordan. Berkley: University of California Press, 1995. 264-288.

Spring '84. Exhibition catalogue. London: Fine Art Society, 1984. No. 10.

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Last modified 10 August 2013