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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Art and the Industrial Revolution

I've just finished Francis Klingender's remarkable Art and the Industrial Revolution. Why remarkable? Well it seems to me to be one of the first pieces of art history (I'm now waiting to be blown out of the water by the mass ranks of art historians more knowledgeable about the subject than I am!) to take seriously the fact that industrial workplaces and their artifacts were the subject of considerable amounts of artistic representation of one sort or another and that the attitude of the artists themselves was one of ambivalence. Of course some recoiled in horror, while others celebrated the tapping of natural resources and the taming of nature's energy that industrialism implied, without resorting to the wooden cliches of soviet style socialist realism. He also points out that in many cases the industrial artifacts themselves were things of great beauty and thought to be so by contemporaries.
The book is also a store of  inspiring tales of men (sorry they were almost exclusively men) with dogged visions tenaciously pursued.Take for instance James Sharples (1825-1893) painter of The Forge which you can see in the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery.
Sharples was largely self-taught, could, before early adulthood, barely read and write and earned his living as a smith in the sort of engine factory that he depicts in his painting, which was completed over three years in his spare time after his 11-12 hour shifts. The representation is very matter of fact and he is quoted by Smiles as saying: "The picture simply represents the interior of a large workshop such as I have been accustomed to work in". That's what I like about it. There is nothing particularly heroic in the work itself nor is there a hint of moral condemnation. He is simply showing it as it actually was: you have to earn your living one way or another, take it or leave it.
But there is something  quite incredible about what happened next. After completing the painting he made the usual move of producing an engraving for the popular market. The common practice was to farm this out to one of the vast number of engravers who made a business out of this sort of thing. Not our man: he decided to teach himself how to engrave on steel and took ten years to produce the plate, partly because he refused to use acid and picked out all the detail of the shading with point and rocker!
The engraving was apparently a great success, but he himself made little money from it and  spent almost the whole of his working life in a foundry.
Literal as his depiction of the workplace was, he was not entirely a man devoid of allegorical imagination. In 1852 he won a competition to design an image for the membership certificate of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers of which he was himself a member. It is, in its own way, a beautiful thing and personifies a rather attractive vision of the good society:
The mechanic refuses to repair Mars' broken sword, the slaves demonstrate that a bundle is stronger than a single stick, James Watt surveys the scene in his toga and the workshops of the world get on with the business of making reality out of improving inventions. How did we get from that vision to where we are today?
By the way, Klingender, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Hull, was a rather interesting man. One of a number of CP members and fellow travellers floating around the LSE at the beginning of the 1930s. There is a recently released  MI5 file on him.

1 comment:

Primula Monkey said...

I'd have thought Klingender's interwar book on the condition of clerical labour i.e. a CPGB Marxist tries to contend with the emergence of the white collar class decades before Harry Braverman or David Lockwood, would have been of more interest. That and how the poor sod tried to reconcile party ideology and party dictates with what actually floated his boat.