Photographs of anonymous female workers at Tredegar iron works in the 1860s
From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilise the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and
its most brutish; here civilisation works its miracles, and civilised man is turned back almost into a savage.
– Alexis De Tocqueville on Manchester, 1835
The 1851 census revealed the full extent of the social and economic revolution that had swept through Britain in the previous half century. Now, over half of the workforce were employed in manufacturing, mining and construction, while less than a quarter worked the land. The textile industry alone employed well over a million men and women. The number of factories, mines, metal-working complexes, mills and workshops had all multiplied, while technological innovations had vastly increased the number of machines and their capabilities. The economic and social consequences of industrial development were felt throughout the British Isles; the British had become ‘a manufacturing people’. Though these developments had not happened overnight, the most momentous had taken place within living memory. By the 1850s commentators were already describing this momentous shift as an ‘industrial revolution’.
In All That Is Solid Melts Into Air at Manchester Art Gallery, artist Jeremy Deller curates a personal journey through the Industrial Revolution, exploring its impact on British popular culture, and its persisting influence on our lives today. The exhibition is a sprawling, quirky, surprising and hugely stimulating mix of words and images, songs and video taking in along the way: Adrian Street, a young man expected to follow his Welsh mining forebears down the pit, but who rejected that destiny to become a flamboyant androgynous international wrestler; James Sharples, a 19th century blacksmith and self-taught painter from Blackburn; Tony Iommi, the guitarist with Black Sabbath who lost his fingertips in an industrial accident; Francis Crawshay, the industrialist who commissioned portraits of his employees at his Cyfarthfa Ironworks which are probably the only oil paintings of early 19th century workers – and plenty more besides.
‘Factory Children’, 1814 by Robert Havell
‘The Collier’, 1814 by Robert Havell
Entering the gallery, I was intrigued about what I would find. I knew Jeremy Deller as a Turner-prize winning artist with radical left politics who had created (if that’s the word) the disturbing installation Baghdad, 5 March 2007 that now greets visitors to Imperial War Museum North. Not long before my visit to Manchester my friend Frank had brought back from Venice for me a copy of English Magic, the souvenir booklet that accompanied Deller’s exhibition in the British Pavilion at this year’s Biennale. English Magic is haunted by the spirit of William Morris and his critique of industrialism’s impoverishment of the spirit:
We sit starving, amidst our gold
– William Morris, The Socialist Ideal (1891)
At the heart of the exhibition was a huge mural depicting William Morris rising from the Venetian lagoon and hurling aside the megayacht belonging to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.
2013 Venice Biennale: Jeremy Deller’s ‘We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold’
Now, in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Deller investigates what remains of the industrial revolution in the present, touching on aspects such as our relationship to technology and the regimentation of time. Introducing the exhibition he states:
The society we have inherited, our towns and cities, the social formations, cultural traditions, class divisions, inequalities of wealth and opportunity – all derive ultimately from the Industrial Revolution.
The exhibition is, in many ways, complementary to Pandaemonium 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers by Humphrey Jennings, the book compiled first published in 1985 and the inspiration in 2012 behind Danny Boyle’s electrifying Opening Ceremony for the London Olympic Games. Jennings’s book shares the same approach to its subject as Deller’s exhibition: gathering material from a vast array of sources to present an enthralling narrative that slowly reveals how industrialisation has shaped Britain’s national consciousness.
‘All that is solid melts into air’ is a phrase lifted from Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto: it was their way of expressing capitalism’s need to constantly invent and re-invent products in order to satisfy desires superfluous to human need – so what is made one day may be disposed of in the next. Older, less materialistic ways of living and the traditions and values associated with them had to be displaced so that the forces of capitalism could be unleashed. Deller sees the phrase, too, as ‘a metaphor for how we have gone from an industrial to a service and entertainment economy’:
Within a 20 or 30 year [period] the Industrial Revolution just happens – there are no regulations [and] there is this trauma, the inversion of order. The earth is on fire [and] there are these hellish scenes on your doorstop. But it’s producing money for you …. It’s impressive but it’s frightening at the same time – you read accounts of people from France going to Manchester in the 1860s and they cannot believe what they are seeing.
Then there is this moment, which I find interesting, when people take stock of what has happened and realise that they have probably let things happen too quickly and things have gone too far ….
Deller’s words express what lies at the heart of the exhibition: first there is the euphoric experience of radical social and economic change. Then there is the belated shock and dismay at what the revolution had brought in train: pollution of the environment, the growth of hellish towns, the transformation of peasants into workers shackled to machines.
John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852
The exhibition is divided into six sections. The first, ‘The Industrial Sublime’, shows how contemporary artists were drawn to the terrifying beauty of the new industries. A terrifying beauty: around the time that John Martin painted The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the British parliament commissioned reports into living conditions in the new industrial towns.The investigators returned with devastating evidence of degradation and poverty. Photographers (wielding the latest technology) brought back from the industrial wastelands of Wales photos of labouring women swathed in filthy rags, staring numbly into the camera.
John Martin’s painting tells us much about the anxieties of the Victorian age – as the exhibition commentary explains, Martin painted the work in 1852, when the reality of what we were doing our environment, our towns and to the labourers condemned to spend their working lives in mines and factories was beginning to sink in. As Deller puts it:
Within a 20 or 30 year [period] the Industrial Revolution just happens – there are no regulations [and] there is this trauma, the inversion of order. The earth is on fire [and] there are these hellish scenes on your doorstop. But it’s producing money for you …. It’s impressive but it’s frightening at the same time – you read accounts of people from France going to Manchester in the 1860s and they cannot believe what they are seeing. Then there is this moment, which I find interesting, when people take stock of what has happened and realise that they have probably let things happen too quickly and things have gone too far.
But Martin was also occupied with schemes for the improvement of London, and published various pamphlets and plans dealing with the metropolitan water supply, sewerage, dock and railway systems. There’s an 1828 lithograph print here of his Plan of Hyde Park, Green Park and St. James’s, Showing the Proposed Canal, Together with Insets Depicting Views in the Parks after the Improvement has been Completed. Martin’s schemes were considered outlandish by public and Parliament alike, yet his plans in 1854 for a London Sewage and Marine company proved to be a visionary foundation for later engineers assigned to prevent any recurrence of London’s famous Great Stink of 1858.
A kiln for burning coke near Maidstone, Kent aquatint print, 1799
The lithograph A Kiln for Burning Coke, near Maidstone, Kent makes an interesting comparison with the widescreen allegorical terror of John Martin’s Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The contrast between gently glowing, tree-framed kiln and Martin’s vision of urban cataclysm mirrors the way in which industry moved from experimentation in rural backwaters into the urban hell of the new industrial towns. This mass migration of labour meant that, by 1851, for the first time, more people lived in Britain’s cities than in the countryside and their exponentially-growing populations, coupled with increases in poverty, disease and vice gave pious Victorians good grounds for truly believing in Martin’s vision of an impending biblical apocalypse.
Philip James de Loutherbourg and William Pickett, Iron Works, Colebrookdale, 1805
The book Romantic and Picturesque Scenery of England and Wales has been left opened at a beautiful, hand-coloured engraving, Iron Works, Colebrook Dale. It’s a large format folio book, published in 1805 by William Pickett, a traveller’s guide to Great Britain that includes romantic images of industrial edifices alongside those of castles, caves and lakes. The iron works in Colebrook Dale have all the appearance of a classical ruin, fire exiting from chimneys more than a little reminiscent of classical columns bereft of their capitals.
Penryhn slate quarries, Bangor, Wales, lithograph 1842
Early 19th century artists were often compelled to express their sense of awe at the scale of the new industrial enterprises. In the image of Penrhyn Slate Quarries, near Bangor in 1842, the human figures are dwarfed by the scale of the quarry. ‘To me this is like the Welsh Grand Canyon has been produced by these slate miners,’ says Deller. ‘There was an element to the industrial revolution of great beauty and of change and people being quite impressed by it’.
A salt mine, Cheshire, coloured aquatint, 1814
The Black Country, engraving by G Greatbach, 1869
These images are punctuated by several album covers, including those of Slade, Happy Mondays and Brian Ferry, accompanied by each band leader’s family tree printed directly onto the gallery wall, stretching back to the origins of the Industrial Revolution.Deller’s intention is to mark the decline of British heavy industry and the turning of young, working-class people (whose ancestors commonly found work in factories or mills) to popular music as a form of self-expression and sometimes employment, by forming bands such as Judas Priest, Slade and Black Sabbath.
Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath, Donnington, 2012, digital C-print by Dean Shaw
Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi is the subject of Dean Shaw’s photo Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath, Donnington (found in the ‘Health and Safety will be the Death of Me’ section at the end of the exhibition). Iommi lost his fingertips in an industrial accident in a Birmingham sheet metal factory in the 1960s before he joined Black Sabbath. This accident is credited with helping to create the distinctive Black Sabbath sound, as Iommi had to learn how to play the guitar differently from everyone else and modify its strings and tuning to suit.
Deller tracks Brian Ferry, Shaun Ryder and Noddy Holder through their family’s working history. All three hail from industrial working class backgrounds, and have become famous rock stars in a way that transcends their family lineage.
Noddy Holder was born in 1946 in Walsall and went on to be lead singer in Slade. His family tree reveals ancestors who were variously:
millwright, shoemaker, boiler cleaner, agricultural labourer, spin filer, washerwoman, curb and chain maker, buckle filer, key stamper, buckle stamper, chainmaker, coalminer, railway carriage cleaner, ironworker, puddler, forgeman, blacksmith
His father was a window cleaner.
The family trees of Bryan Ferry reveals 19th century ancestors that included agricultural labourers, blacksmiths, a cartman, colliery labourers, farm servants and coal miners. His father was a pit pony handler.
James Sharples, The Forge 1848
James Sharples (1825-92) was a self-taught English artist born at Wakefield in Yorkshire. He started work when he was ten years old as a blacksmith’s boy on the foundry floor. During his spare time he learned to read and write. His talent for drawing was discovered when chalking out designs on the foundry floor. He subsequently began to make figure and landscape drawings, and copy lithographs.
Sharples took up painting when he was eighteen. From 1848 Sharples devoted his artistic energies to designing and engraving. He ordered an engraver’s steel plate and made a press and engraving tools for himself. He started the engraving of The Forge in his spare time. It took him ten years.
Sharples was regarded as a prime example of the Victorian middle-class ideal of the self-improved working man, and features in Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help, published in 1859.
Rules to be Observed – Church Street cotton mill, Preston, c 1830
The regime of the new factories is represented in Rules to be Observed – a notice that informed workers in a cotton mill in Preston that to give their notice they must do so on Saturday only, in writing and one month in advance. In contrast, the ‘Masters have full power to discharge any person employed therein without any previous notice whatsoever’. The same notice states that workers are to be at the factory from 6 in the morning to 7.30 at night, with half an hour allowed for breakfast and one hour for dinner. The ninth rule notes that ‘Any person taking cotton or waste into the Necessaries shall forfeit 2 shillings, 4 sixpence’ (the ‘Necessaries’ being the toilets, I guess).
Church Street Cotton Mill was the centre of the Preston Lock-Out and Strike of 1853-4, the longest and most expensive industrial conflict in the history of Preston. In 1853 cotton workers in Lancashire began to demand that a 10-20% cut in their wages made during the 1840s should be restored. The majority of manufacturers agreed to restore half of the cuts, but some refused and 25,000 workers went on strike. The bitter struggle lasted for eight months. Engels thought the revolution would begin in Preston.
The protest was peaceful and the town supported the workers, with a weekly collection made from working people, shopkeepers and the general public. The end came when another depression in trade forced the strikers to give in and go back to work.
One of Francis Crawshay’s Workers Portraits, 1835 by WJ Chapman
If I was forced to choose one exhibit from this mighty exhibition, I think it would be the selection that Deller has made from a series of sixteen oil paintings commissioned by Francis Crawshay of the workers at his Cyfarthfa Ironworks. Crawshay was a progressive industrialist who, when he was managing the Hirwaun Ironworks commissioned sixteen small portraits of his employees that he hung in his office. The subjects included workers as well as managers, all depicted in working dress and with the tools of their trade. It’s a unique group of images of industrial workers, probably painted by W J Chapman, an itinerant artisan artist who worked as a sporting and animal painter.
WJ Chapman, portrait of carpenter David Williams
WJ Chapman, portrait of mine agent, John Bryant
WJ Chapman, portrait of quarryman Thomas Francis
WJ Chapman, portrait of foreman, John Llewellyn
WJ Chapman, portrait of cinder filler David Davies
WJ Chapman, portrait of roller William James
W J Chapman, portrait of Thomas Euston, Lodge Keeper
The images are an astonishing revelation. No other such images of industrial workers of this period are known. Even more unusually, the names and job titles of these workers were recorded.
Just to make sure that we don’t get too sentimental or nostalgic about these lost times there’s a section that Deller has artfully labelled ‘The Shit Old Days’. It includes a series of photographs of women who worked at Tredegar Ironworks in South Wales, taken by local photographer William Clayton. Unlike Crayshaw’s portraits, the identity of the women is unknown and the elaborate studio backdrops serve to emphasise their class while in many of the photos the women appear drained and dispirited by overwork. This was their purpose, since they were taken to highlight the impact of heavy industry on the domestic life of female labourers.
Photographs of anonymous female workers at an iron works in Tredegar, Wales
Deller says of the images: ‘These are very early photographs of workers. I’d never seen anything like these before. I think we are lucky. By our standards they had appalling lives and those photographs are very powerful.’
Jeremy Deller with Jukebox
Next I encounter a jukebox. It contains a selection of archive recordings, including the working song Down the Pit We Want to Go sung by Roy Palmer, and Drop Valves and Steam Leak on Piston, the sound of a Dee Mill Engine operating in Royton. Music provided relief from the rigours of working class life, and the second section of the exhibition, ‘Broadside Blues’, explores the broadsides, printed copies of popular songs sold in streets and pubs of the new industrial towns which could be purchased cheaply and sung at home or in the pub. The subject matter of these ‘English blues’ ranged from romance to tales of loss, home-sickness and the strange new life among the machines. Often they were tales of hardship, an example of the latter being being Salford Bastille: ‘God keep all poor people that they may ne’er go, To do penance in Salford Bastille…’.
Stockport Viaduct, 1986 by John Davies
The physical remnants of the Industrial Revolution are still visible in the industrial towns of the north. The striking photograph by John Davies of Stockport Viaduct shows a formidable Victorian structure that is still in use, carrying the main railway line from Manchester to London.
Deller has selected images that reflect a changing landscape, too. Ian Tilton’s photographs of the Happy Mondays in 1987 picture the band on a photoshoot to promote a new album. They have been shot alongside the Manchester Ship Canal, and one image shows them outside the new Cannon multiplex cinema at Salford Quays, reflecting the very first signs of the area’s transition to a leisure economy in which old industrial buildings and spaces have been transformed to serve new functions in a post-industrial age.
Effects of Alston Brewery, pencil drawing with red ink, c1805
‘Unlike nowadays, people used to get drunk and then fight in the street’, the caption for this exhibit reads. It’s a drawing entitled Effects of Alston Brewery and was made in the early 1800s, presumably to promote a temperance drive. ‘I just think it’s funny that someone saw fit to draw this, and I’m glad they did,’ Deller says. ‘It shows that the world hasn’t changed that much, has it? That’s a Friday night anywhere in Britain.’
JW Lowry, Thomas Robinson’s power loom factory, Stockport, 1849-1850
JW Lowry’s elegant drawing of Thomas Robinson’s power loom factory in Stockport in 1849-1850 is an idealised image of a cotton mill. ‘It’s a beautiful engraving’, says Deller, ‘but the women all look like Greek goddesses. They’re dressed with their hair up and with these dresses… Of course we know the reality would have been somewhat different.’ Deller has deliberately placed this image near to compares it to a 2011 photo by Ben Roberts of an Amazon warehouse (or ‘fulfilment centre’) the size of nine football pitches, with shelves stretching into the distance.
Ben Roberts, from the series Amazon Unpacked, 2011.
This section of the exhibition is titled ‘How’s the Enemy?’ and is concerned with the way that the industrial revolution altered conceptions of time and impacted on working class life. Time became an oppressive force in the workplace through the need to maintain a constant work rate over long working hours. Meanwhile, leisure time shrank, disappointing in its scarcity.
Double-dial Longcase Clock from Park Green Silk Mill, Macclesfield (c.1810)
Two exhibits separated by 200 years make the point about the management of our time very powerfully. Sometime around 1810, the managers of Park Green Silk Mill, Macclesfield installed what looks like a grandfather clock but is actually a means to measure their workers’ productivity. The clock has two faces, one that kept time by normal hand-winding, the other by means of attachment to the factory’s rotating water wheel. The time kept by the latter could be compared at a glance by the efficiency-conscious managers to that of the hand-wound clock. Any shortfall had to be made up by the workforce at the end of the day.
Near to the clock, Deller has installed a Motorola WT400 attached to a mannequin arm. His purpose is to demonstrate that the target-driven culture of 1810 is still with us, and has even more terrifying power to control. Unlike the clock, this device is used to calculate the productivity and speed of work of an individual worker – and warns the employee if they are not up to speed. This is the sort of device is worn that workers at Amazon fulfilment centres are required to wear. In the same room Deller has displayed Ben Roberts’s giant photograph Amazon Fulfilment Centre, Towers Business Park, Rugeley (2013), which powerfully conveys the soulless nature of the Amazon warehouse, its vastness dwarfing the workers.
Here, too, is an exhibit commissioned as an original work by Deller: a banner bearing the text, ‘Hello, Today you have day off’, the words of a text message sent to a worker on a zero-hours contract. Deller says that in retrospect he would have liked to use this message as the overall title for the whole exhibition.
Adrian Street with his father at the pithead of Brynmawr colliery in Wales, 1973
Adrian Street’s life reads like a Dickens novel. Born into a South Wales mining family, he briefly endured the hardship of the pit before, at the age of 15, he escaped to find fame and fortune in London where he hung around Soho, starting out as a body-builder, before gaining fame and fortune as a wrestler. He left the mine in 1956 to the jeers of his co-workers. Then, in 1973, he returned to his village and posed, in the show’s most remarkable image, with miners covered in dirt from the pit. They included his own father, with whom he did not get on. In Deller’s words:
Seventeen years later he returned, prophet-like, to show the coal serfs what the future would look like in a post-industrial entertainment economy. Whilst William Blake did not have Adrian Street in mind when he wrote Jerusalem, he might have had visions of him.
Street had become famous for his glam-rock style and for teasing his audiences’ perceptions of his sexuality. For Deller, Adrian is a character who transcended his environment through sheer will power and self-belief. Now 73, he still wrestles. ‘He is a phenomenon, a one off,’ says Deller, and yet he is also a symbol of people’s own ability to challenge the status quo on a very personal level:
He’s a great cipher for change. The image of him with his father is a metaphor for the changes going on in Britain. [It shows] what Britain was [and] what Britain will be: this shiny, clean, fame-based economy. We were the first country to industrialise and also the first country to de-industrialise. Adrian is like a one-man band, just doing it on his own. He and his dad had a terrible relationship. His dad was a prisoner of war of the Japanese [and] then he came back and went straight down the mines. He had been traumatised and was quite brutal with his son. So this is the image of Adrian returning to show his father, the miners, and Wales ‘this is what I’ve made of myself’. He’s a totally self-made man.
Like rock bands such as Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Happy Mondays and Slade, Adrian Street was the product of the industrialisation and migration from rural to urban living of the early 19th century, of family trees that feature generations of miners, metal-bashers, millwrights, weavers and servants.
We may have changed in myriad ways, Deller seems to say, but the Industrial Revolution, which transformed Britain before any other country, was a traumatic event that formed and shaped our lives. We live in its shadow still.
Jeremy Deller’s video: So many ways to hurt you, the life and times of Adrian Street (excerpt)
Jeremy Deller’s video: A Prophecy For 1973
Oh dear, Oh Dear, what things you will see
In One thousand nine hundred and seventy three…
No government laws we shall have, it is true
There will be no Magistrates, no Bobbys in blue
To charge ‘Ten bob and costs’ when a man’s been on the spree
In One thousand nine hundred and seventy three…
Everyone will be rich, there will be no need to beg
Nor stump up and down with an old wooden leg
If your limbs are blown off with a bullet or breeze
The doctors will replace you new ones with ease
In One thousand nine hundred and seventy three…
Young lovers you’ll see them in dozens and crowds
Courting by moonlight on the top of the clouds…
This video, produced in collaboration with BBC Newsnight, is featured in the exhibition. Members of the public, including those on zero hours contracts, read accounts of life and work during the industrial revolution, and a pop video is made for a Victorian futuristic broadside, A Prophecy For 1973, illustrated with home movie footage shot in a Butlins holiday camp in 1973, illustrating that the reality of 1973 was somewhat more mundane than the author of the broadside had imagined.
Watch the video (16 minutes) here.
Deller has produced an excellent catalogue to accompany the exhibition which, after Manchester, travels to Nottingham, Coventry and Newcastle. At the end of the exhibition there was a display of books drawn upon by Deller when gathering material for the show. They included Pandaemonium 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers by Humphrey Jennings and All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity by Marshall Berman, first published around 1980, and now regarded as a classic text on the subject of modernity. Berman charts the development of the modern industrial process and explores how development is portrayed in literature and other art forms.
- Jeremy Deller’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air: exhibition film (BBC)
- Glam rock, wrestlers and our family trees: Jeremy Deller finds art in an industrial past (Observer)
- All That is Solid Melts into Air: blog post by Ben Roberts, whose photos of an Amazon fulfilment centre are featured in the exhibition
- Contemporary Art and War at IWM North: featured Jeremy Deller’s Baghdad, 5 March 2007
- The Art of War: more on Deller’s Baghdad, 5 March 2007
- ‘We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold’: illuminating blog post on Deller’s Venice Biennale installation
- Grayson Perry’s ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’: class and taste run deep
6 thoughts on “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: ‘from this filthy sewer pure gold flows’”
Fascinating exhibition and article Gerry.
About 2 years ago, curious about climate change and its causes, I idly began to wonder where the source of our Industrialisation began. I live 10 miles south of Derby, home to Joseph Wright, where a few of his paintings are displayed in the museum and who captured some of the revolutionary times in oil. I’m about 13 miles north of Lichfield, which plays an important part in this story too. I am therefore just a stones throw from Birmingham, the Black Country, Coalbrookdale and live in the heart of the Industrial Revolution, indeed Burton on Trent, my town, became a link in as much as beer was transported from here by canal all over the country and the world. I had visited a few of the Industrial museums, but still I wondered how and where it really all started and by whom. Was there a moment and place in time that could be pinned down? I listened to a debate on Radio 4’s archives section, ‘In Our Time’ which pointed to a group of men meeting in Birmingham, The Lunar Society, who met at Soho House, home of Matthew Boulton. Who? Talk of the Industrial Revolution brings up names like Brunel, Stephenson, maybe James Watt, but Matthew Boulton?
The house still stands, amazingly, it has had many functions and many owners and now sits in the heart of Birmingham where once it was half a mile or more from the heart of the then city centre.
I’m not going to waffle on here about this, the In our Time’ episodes are still available on BBCIplayer, but the visit to the house is quite amazing, although much of the original furnishings and fitting were lost or claimed by family and friends, they are slowly re creating the house to its former state.
I took a a guided tour and you began to realise that, although you cannot pin down the Industrial revolution down to one moment, one man or even a small group of men, these people meeting every month, (hence the lunar society) really did dream the world we now live in. I suppose archaeologists would call it stochastic evolution, a slow change and then over short a period of time, a sudden exponential increase of change and activity.
I suppose that our three fundamental requirements in life, the basic things we need to sustain us are food, water and power and to this end James Boswell in 1774 said “I shall never forget Mr Boultons expression to me: ‘I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have – Power.’
So those awful terrible scenes exhibited in your blog emanate from these times and to some extent from these men, their thinking, their expansion of ideas to enlighten or otherwise, they knew and began to show to people as to what was possible.
Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles, already thinking about evolution), James Watt, (who advanced Newcomens steam engine), potter, Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestly, the chemist who isolated oxygen, photosynthesis and nitrogen, James Keir, chemist, clockmaker John Whitehurst and on and on.
They were somewhat isolated from London and therefore free to pursue their ideas. Away from the constraints of the class riddled society.
I came home stunned that when you watch the 24 hour news or fly abroad and see the vast technological workings and their effects on us and our lives and landscape, that to some extent you can trace it back, like tracing a rose back to its roots, to these minds, for it is minds that think, that change the world, for good or not. All of this happening in the space of two generations from 1730 to 1800.
I guess the trouble is, that whilst all this change was racing long at breakneck speed, there was not the intellectual, compassionate and empathetic thinking that said, ‘hold on’ what are we doing to the world and us. Lets not forget that slavery fed our systems for years and that there was and still is a dark side to all this. Controls eventually came in, in the form employment laws and sewerage etc. etc. They were changing the face of the earth too, (and now the sky and climate) some people are getting rich, some peoples lives acquiring a degree of wealth, and eventually we get to where we are now, all rich and famous, our fifteen minutes of fame fully realised and yet somewhat spiritually bereft. We finally seem to have separated ourselves from whence we came.
I guess that its at this point that a split occurred in our psyche, moving as we did from an agricultural and village / home technology to the machine / man powered monolith that has led us to the most wonderful science of understanding, but the terrible lack of appreciation of who and what we are, until we seem to be on the edge of a precipice. It reminds me of that moment in Kubricks film ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ when the previously mundane ape, living a life not as a ‘keystone predator’ (which we have manufactured a position for ourselves as since then) but as a scared primate stumbling about in the day, fearing the night (we still do) picks up the bone of a dead animal and uses it as a weapon (and then Kubrick jump cuts thousands of years to the space station). The huge black monolith looming over the ape and man representing …well I don’t know, God, Nature, a force of some kind that willed us to think and change. A theme that Mark Rowlands picks up in his book, The Philosopher and the Wolf’ as he postulates that it is when we became social animals our Machiavellian intelligence increased and we needed to understand the relationship between us animals, social intelligence. Who is superior who is subordinate and indeed it is this demand that helped us increase our brain size and power. And this gave certain people the power to manipulate others in social groupings as well as forming social alliances that afforded them best and others not so. Scheming and deception forming the basis of the apes thinking, but also the basis for writing Eroica symphony, its a double edged sword.
I don’t know, it just seems to me the Industrial Revolution is the extenuating circumstance of the use of this mode of thought, backed by research and science whilst our other kinder side of human quality was not able to grasp where we were heading and able to reflect of its consequences.
A passage from a new book, reviewed in the New Yorker magazine, “A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction” (Bloomsbury), written by Joel Greenberg, which tells the story of a how the passenger pigeon went from a population of billions to extinction in fifty years highlights these thoughts.
“And without a capacity for complexity there is not much hope of knowing even what needs saving. The great biologist E. O. Wilson speaks about a coming wave of extinctions whose scope eludes us, because though there may be anywhere from ten million to a hundred million species in the world, we have identified far fewer than two million. Unlike the passenger pigeon, these creatures may be hidden in oceans, forest canopies, handfuls of earth. It takes effort and imagination to sift through this information, just as it requires an educated humanism to figure out whether a de-extinction project holds real environmental promise or is only an ancient longing for resurrection disguised as bioengineering.
Thoreau, in a mysteriously beautiful passage in his 1862 essay “Walking,” likens the diminishing numbers of passenger pigeons in New England to the dwindling number of thoughts in a man’s head, “for the grove in our minds is laid waste.” Thinking of the birds as missing thoughts is a good way to honour them. Martha ( the last remaining passenger pigeon that died in 1914 and resides , stuffed, in the Smithsonian museum in Washington DC) and her billions were undone by the complicated, pitiless tangle of our modern industrialized world, but Thoreau’s nineteenth-century protest—“Simplify, simplify”—will not help us in the twenty-first. Indeed, when it comes to our relationship to nature, the wish for simplicity may be the most destructive thing in the world.”
What was it that Thoreau said, ‘In wildness lies the preservation of thw world’.
Perhaps one can only hope for a mirroring of that moment in Kubricks film, when the ape lifts the bone to kill and has another ‘monolith moment that truly enlightens us.
It always fascinates me how industrialisation began in such rural settings. I’m familiar with your area – my mum came from Derbyshire, and we often visit friends in Uttoxeter, who have taken us to see the Joseph Wrights in Derby, and to Lichfield. For some time I’ve been intending to read ‘The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future 1730-1810’ by Jenny Uglow which got good reviews when it was published. I must get round to it. The ‘mysteriously beautiful’ quotation from Thoreau about ‘the grove in our minds’ being laid waste pinpoints something that Deller also recognises in this exhibition – the way in which the process of industrialisation, though it has provided many benefits, has distanced us as a species from the natural world and its rhythms. If I can mention John Gray’s Point of View on BBC Radio 4 again – this morning’s talk, in which he spoke of an indigenous tribe in Vietnam, observed by the travel writer Norman Lewis in the 1950s, seems relevant. They were people who ‘lived with their pigs, hens and dogs, taking little thought for the morrow. For them wealth was embodied in ancient gongs and jars, which they collected and treasured. Feasting and drinking their traditional rice wine as often as they could, they only worked for wages when compelled to do so. They were, one anthropologist noted, ‘one of the happiest and most attractive civilisations on the planet’. In the 20th century they were persecuted by Christian evangelist missionaries and displaced from their homelands when the North Vietnamese Communist government came to power. Progress meant wage labour and serving the demands of economic growth. (Text here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25561810)
Thanks for that Gerry, I will peruse and listen. Jay Griffiths book, ‘Wild’, has much to say about the treatment and ‘cleansing’ of indigenous tribes and her own ‘cleansing’ (she suffered depression for years). her writing style is not everyones taste though. Also her alternative look at time, ‘Pip-pip – a sideways look at time’ is revealing. I was fortunate to be on a writing course 3 years ago with her. Interesting woman, spiky and hates pomposity…good friends with George Monbiot I believe, so you see her leanings. PS when I returned home from Soho House, i opened a Christmas present from my son. The TV series ‘The Ascent of man’ by Jacob Bronowski, circa the 1970’s, which i knew of but never saw. Curious, i looked for confirmation about the accuracy of the notion where this revolution had begun….and there it was, disc 2….chapter entitled ‘The lunar society’….
Hello Gerry, This is a fascinating blog. Thank you. I attended the Deller exhibition in Nov 2013 at Manchester Art Gallery and unfortunately I didn’t pick up a catalogue. I wanted to ask if you have one that you would be willing to sell or lend. I am a student at The Open College of Arts and I’m working on a project about industrialisation and this exhibition is key to some of the points I want to make. I look forward to hearing from you.
I’m sorry Alison I don’t have a copy. I would have been glad to lend it if I had! Good luck with finding one.
Thanks for getting back to me Gerry. I have emailed Jeremy Deller’s gallery to ask if he can help. Cheers.