At Manchester Art Gallery: The Sensory War 1914-2014

At Manchester Art Gallery: The Sensory War 1914-2014

While I was in Manchester today for a book-signing at Waterstones I made some time to visit The Sensory War 1914-2014, a major exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery marking the centenary of the First World War. Taking as its starting point the gallery’s nationally important collection of art of the First World War, the exhibition explores how artists have portrayed the impact of war on the body, mind, environment and human senses during the century that has elapsed since 1914.

At the beginning of the show are two stark paintings by CRW Nevinson. A Howitzer Gun in Elevation (1917) shows a dull-grey artillery barrel thrusting high into an empty sky, while in Explosion (1916) a fountain of earth is blasted skywards on a distant, muddy ridge. Neither painting features human beings: instead Nevinson focusses on the new technology and its capacity for mass destruction.

CWR Nevinson, Howitzer Gun in Elevation, 1917

CWR Nevinson, Howitzer Gun in Elevation, 1917

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CRW Nevinson ‘Explosion’ 1916

But war is a human activity and the exhibition’s aim is to show how artists from 1914 onwards depicted the devastating impact of new military technologies on human flesh and minds. It brings together work from a dazzling array of leading artists including, alongside several more paintings by the excellent Nevinson, others by Henry Lamb,Paul Nash, Otto Dix,David Bomberg, and Laura Knight, plus more recent paintings and photography by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Sophie Ristelhueber, and Nina Berman.  A gruelling experience in parts, I was interested to discover artists whose work had been unknown to me beforehand.

The argument of the curators is that the invention of devastating military technologies that were deployed during the First World War involved a profound re-configuration of sensory experience and perception. Human lives were destroyed and the environment altered beyond recognition. The war’s legacy has continued and evolved through even more radical forms of destruction over the last hundred years. Throughout the century, artists have struggled to understand the effects of modern technological warfare. Military and press photography have brought a new capacity to coldly document the deadliness of modern warfare, while artists found a different way of seeing.

The exhibition is arranged by theme through several rooms. Here is a selection of works that particularly made an impression on me, with additional information drawn from the exhibition’s explanatory panels.

Militarising Bodies, Manufacturing War

The First World War saw an unprecedented mobilisation of combatants around the world. Some 65 million volunteers and conscripts went from all walks of civilian life to become soldiers. The war was truly global and four million colonial troops and military labourers were drafted into the European and American armed forces. It was fought not only in Europe but in the Middle East and in Africa: wherever there were European colonies.

To turn a factory worker, a farm labourer, a clerk or a student into a fighting machine meant militarising them through training. As the title of Eric Kennington’s series of prints puts it, ‘Making Soldiers’.

Making Soldiers: Bringing In Prisoners circa 1917 by Eric Kennington

Eric Kennington, Making Soldiers: Bringing In Prisoners c 1917 

Eric Kennington was born in Liverpool.  His biographer, Julian Freeman, writes:

A vital, independent talent in early and mid-twentieth-century British art, Kennington became a formidable draughtsman-painter, printmaker, and sculptor (his working practice evolved roughly in that order), and a great portraitist: his figures were often somewhat idealized, but always boldly executed, and frequently in pastel crayon, a self-taught medium in which he came to excel.

On the outbreak of the First World War, Kennington enlisted with the 13th London Regiment. He fought on the Western Front but was badly wounded and and sent home in June 1915. During his convalescence he produced The Kensingtons at Laventie, a portrait of a group of infantrymen. When exhibited in the spring of 1916 its portrayal of exhausted soldiers created a sensation. Campbell Dodgson wrote that Kennington was ‘a born painter of the nameless heroes of the rank and file’.

The series of lithographs, ‘Making Soldiers’ was commissioned by Charles Masterman who was in charge of visual art commissions at the Department of Information. ‘Making Soldiers’ was part of a morale-boosting propaganda project called ‘Britain’s Efforts and Ideals’. The series was exhibited in London in July 1917.

(c) BRIDGEMAN; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

CRW Nevinson, Motor Lorries 1916

The full inventive and productive power of the modern industrialised world was turned to the war effort. New weapons could create mass casualties in a way not seen before. Flame throwers, grenades, barbed wire, mobile machine guns, tanks, Zeppelins, aeroplanes and large-scale artillery, such as the Howitzer, could annihilate the environment and pulverise bodies. The development of this military technology and the mass production of shells and bombs ushered in a new era of modern war, which was an assault on bodies, minds, and landscapes, filtered through the human sensory realm. The noise of war began on the home front, in the deafening and dangerous armaments factories. Significantly, it was artists who communicated the din of the factories, the sonic pounding of high-powered artillery, the storm of marching ground-troops, and the clashing of bayonets and boots. Artists visually linked the ferocious technology of the war to the process of militarisation.

CWR Nevinson employed his Futurist depiction of the human body to great effect to show how the soldier was turned into a cog in the machine of war. He paints the soldiers in Motor Lorries with the same harsh geometry as the cold hard girders they are carrying in. In all Nevinson’s paintings of this period he used a palette of mud browns and the blues of leaden-skies and cold steel to create a harsh and inhuman world.

CWR Nevinson, La Guerre des Trous (The Underground War, 1915)

CRW Nevinson, La Guerre des Trous (The Underground War), 1915

The French soldiers in this giant fortified trench wait for the call to go over the top (possibly in Woesten, near Ypres, where Nevinson was stationed). The barbed wire – a major new technology used extensively in the First World War – forms a twisted, menacing skyline. The famed writer, Guillaume Apollinaire recognised that Nevinson had outgrown the bravado of Futurism’s machismo, and was instead ‘making palpable the soldiers’ suffering and communicating to others the feelings of pity and horror’

CRW Nevinson, Returning to the Trenches, engraving, 1916

CRW Nevinson, Returning to the Trenches, engraving, 1916

David Bomberg, Study for 'Sappers at Work A Canadian Tunnelling

David Bomberg, Study for ‘Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunnelling Company’, 1918

David Bomberg was a pioneer of the English movement Vorticism, founded by Wyndham Lewis, which attempted to create a local version of Futurism. Bomberg served with the Royal Engineers and the 18th King’s Royal Rifles before being asked to commemorate the service of Canadian soldiers. This work, done in black and red chalk on paper, is an abstracted study for a more figurative official commission for the Canadian War Memorials Fund, now in the National Gallery of Canada.

Amongst the new sensory experiences created by the First World War was the experience of waging war by working underground. Canadian and Yorkshire miners (sappers) excavated a tunnel at St Eloi to plant a huge mine under Hill 60 at Messines Ridge, near Ypres. The tunnel took eight months to complete. It was detonated in March 1916 obliterating the landscape and leading to devastating loss of life on the German front line – two whole companies of men were killed. The event was portrayed in the Sebastian Faulks novel, Birdsong.

CWR Nevinson, Making Aircraft Making the Engine 1917

CRW Nevinson, Making Aircraft: Making the Engine 1917

In Nevinson’s Making the Engine, the machines and men have merged in a picture resonating with the hammering din of the wartime factory. The image seems to vibrate simulating the whirring, deafening noise of industrial spaces reverberating with the production of war machines.

George Clausen, Making Guns The Furnace 1917

 George Clausen, Making Guns: The Furnace, 1917

Several works in the exhibition derive from projects to document the wartime effort of workers in the armaments industries, including two by George Clausen. The lithograph Making Guns: The Furnace implies the future violence of a large gun forged in a blaze of fire and molten steel.

Clausen, Study for 'The Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal'
George Clausen, Study for ‘The Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal’, c.1919

Clausen’s, Study for ‘The Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal’ in pencil, watercolour and pen and brown ink was made in preparation for a large painting commission to document 74,000 munitions workers occupied at this vast factory site. Shades of light permeate the study streaming in and around the centrepiece of the colossal machinery used to mould gun-barrels. The press resembles a gigantic beast against the barely visible workers below.

Female Factories

The mass mobilisation of society meant that women’s bodies were just as critical as men’s in the conduct of Total War. In Britain alone, over seven million women were mobilised into wartime industries and public services, with over one million working in the munitions industry. Around 60,000 served in the armed services, and thousands volunteered for the medical corps. Though munitions work was dangerous and exhausting, and resisted by Trade Unions as ‘only for the duration’, it offered women paid employment, a degree of independence and a feeling of direct involvement in the war effort. The Society for Women Welders, for instance, was formed in 1915 and by 1918 had 630 members.

Laura knight, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring, 1942

Laura Knight, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring, 1942

In the Second World war, female munitions workers became symbols of modernity by challenging perceptions of women’s capabilities. Wearing men’s dungarees, engaged in both skilled and physical labour, they adapted their bodies and minds to the taxing work of heavy engineering or the risk of making explosives. Artists reflected this temporary change in women’s roles depicting the militarisation and modernity of the female body.

Laura Knight’s heroic depiction of a woman factory worker in the Second World War has become an iconic image. The eponymous Ruby was a skilled machinist in the Royal Ordinance Factory in Newport, Monmouthshire. The breech ring she is lathing was for a Bofors breech gun; a notoriously difficult engineering task to complete to the required precision without making the gun a suicidal hazard to use. The painting was widely discussed on the radio and produced in poster form as a propaganda tool for distribution to other factories. In America the more fictional Rosie the Riveter became equally famous through the distribution of posters.

Nevinson, Making Aircraft Acetylene Welding 1917
CRW Nevinson, Making Aircraft: Acetylene Welding, 1917

The two women featured in this lithograph wear protective eye-goggles, aprons and scarves. Nevinson’s skilled use of the graphic technique conveys the sensory elements of flying sparks that almost singe the exposed arms, hands and clothes of the women, and draw in the viewer. Absorbed in their skilled task, the women become anonymous bodies in the war machine, a familiar device in art of the period only usually applied to soldiers’ bodies.

Women's Work: On Munitions - Dangerous Work (Packing T.N.T.) circa 1917 by Archibald Standish Hartrick 1864-1950

Archibald Standish Hartrick, Women’s Work: On Munitions, Dangerous Work (Packing TNT), 1917

Hartick completed lithographs for the series, ‘Britain’s Efforts and Ideals’ on the theme of women on the Home Front. For the first time women were recruited to the war effort, working in the munitions factories making the very instruments of death which wrought terror in the trenches. The work of the munitionettes or Canary Girls as they were called due to the yellow discolouration of their skin from TNT, was indeed highly dangerous. Many were killed in munitions factory explosions such as the one at the National Shell Filling Factory at Chilwell, Nottingham in 1918 which killed 137.

Women's Work: On the Railway - Engine and Carriage Cleaners circa 1917 by Archibald Standish Hartrick 1864-1950

Archibald Standish Hartrick , Women’s Work: On the Railways, Engine and Carriage Cleaners, 1917

Women's Work: On Munitions - Heavy Work (Drilling and Casting) circa 1917 by Archibald Standish Hartrick 1864-1950

Archibald Standish Hartrick , Women’s Work: On Munitions – Heavy Work (Drilling and Casting), 1917

Pain and Succour

In the First World War over two million soldiers from Britain and the colonies of its Empire were wounded. The medical corps was charged with evacuating the wounded from the battlefield, treating them in field hospitals and at home, so that they could eventually be returned once again to the front-line: an absurdity not lost on those hoping for a ‘blighty wound’ (a light wound but needing treatment at home).

Artists depicted the chaotic flow of patients in the front-line casualty station, the wounded soldier’s experience of pain and helplessness the moments of tenderness as doctors and nurses attempted to alleviate the agony of their wounds, or the shock of witnessing the death of comrades. Succour was often felt as a temporary bond between patient, stretcher-bearer and nurse. Women’s role in front-line surgery and hospital medical care was both professional, publicly contentious and, at times, also intimate. Doctors also shared the personal cost of the war, with thousands killed and wounded.

Artists understood the inhumanity of modern war as a collective experience of horror and indiscriminate maiming that reached across the classes and genders. They depicted the ashen-faced stretcher-bearers carrying their burden under a gangrenous sky, the lone nurse in the darkened space of the casualty theatre, and the arduous journey of evacuation from the frontline to the hospital back home.

Henry Tonks, An Advanced Dressing Station in France 1918

Henry Tonks, An Advanced Dressing Station in France, 1918

Here, Henry Tonks dramatises his intimate knowledge of shrapnel wounds to the head and body, and the procedures of frontline evacuation medicine under the chaos of military attack. The sensory qualities of this painting are revealed in the lurid glow of burning buildings and the choking haze of smoke-filled air; in patients’ grimaces; in their endurance of gripping pains, and in the relief that a drink of water brought to the desperately wounded.

Like Henry Lamb, Tonks was a doctor-turned artist.  Before the war he was the Director of Drawing at the Slade School of Art where he taught Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and CRW Nevinson, amongst others.  He served as a surgeon in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

(c) Mrs Henrietta Phipps; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Henry Lamb, Advanced Dressing Station on the Struma in  1916, 1921

This painting is a scene of medical aid being given to the wounded man on a stretcher, but is also symbolic of the pain and succour of the entire war with its almost religious composition. Lamb was commissioned in the Royal Army Medical Corps and sent first to Salonika (Thessaloniki) in Greece with the British Salonika Army in 1916 in late 1917 to Palestine. On his return Lamb, who had won a Military Cross for gallantry, began to turn his experiences into his most important works. A small number of drawings and watercolours were exhibited at Manchester City Art Gallery in 1920. One of these, Succouring the Wounded in a Wood on the Doiran Front prompted the Gallery Director, Lawrence Haward, to commission Lamb to turn it into a major painting as the beginning of a war art collection for Manchester.

The River Struma was the site of a little-known campaign to repulse the Bulgarian invasion of eastern Greece and to achieve the ultimate liberation of Serbia from Bulgaria and the Central Powers.

Paul Nash, Wounded, Passchendaele, 1918

Paul Nash, Wounded, Passchendaele, 1918

The majority of Nash’s works from the front depict soldiers at a distance engulfed by the blasted landscape. Here Nash’s pathos at the plight of the soldier is more direct as the stretcher-bearers carry the wounded through a poisoned landscape filled with the colours of gangrene and mustard gas.

Harold Williamson, A German Attack on a Wet Morning, April 1918

 Harold Sandys Williamson, A German Attack on a Wet Morning, April 1918

Harold Williamson  joined the King’s Rifles as a rifleman and was promoted to Lance Corporal in the 8th Battalion. In this painting the artist depicts his own wounding by a grenade during a battle near Villers-Bretonneaux. He hobbles away from the scene, gripping his bleeding hand. A comrade Iies dead in the foreground while the misty haze over the morning assault captures the confusion of battle. Williamson wrote:

In the gloom and rain the storm troops then came over and smashed through our two first lines…Two men are firing a Lewis gun. The wounded man has a poor chance of getting away; he must cross much open country swept by enemy fire, and go through a heavy barrage.

Williamson’s wound was serious enough for him to be repatriated to England. Experiencing and witnessing the extent of suffering in modern war underpinned the intense sensory feel of the work of war artists like

Advanced Dressing Station in France circa 1917 by Claude Shepperson 1867-1921

Claude A Shepperson, Tending the Wounded: Advanced Dressing station, France, 1917

Detraining in England circa 1917 by Claude Shepperson 1867-1921

Claude A Shepperson, Detraining in England, 1917

Claude Shepperson was an illustrator for various magazines. He created this sensitive series of lithographs depicting the passage of the wounded from the front line to recovery in England as part of the ‘Britain’s Efforts and Ideals’ series of propaganda prints.

Embodied Ruins: Natural and Material Environments

The extensive destruction of rural France and Flanders in the First World War was felt as an atrocity, deeply scarring the collective psyche. The ruined Iandscape came to stand for the dead themselves. Artists like Paul Nash and William Orpen expressed their feelings for the loss of men through depicting the aftermath of the battlefields in images of putrid mud, charred and torn trees, and waterlogged shell-holes. The churned earth appeared as gangrenous wounds, ruined buildings like injured faces, and destroyed military hardware as ruptured corpses. At times, these desolate environments have a terrible beauty. Nature was violated but it was also resilient.

In contemporary works this use of landscape as metaphor is seen in Sophie Ristelhueber’s photographs of the disfigured territory of the West Bank and in Simon Norfolk’s carcass-like military hardware strewn across the deserts of Afghanistan.

Paul Nash, The Field of Passchendaele 1917

Paul Nash, The Field of Passchendaele, 1917

Nash enlisted in 1914, but only arrived at the front in February 1917. In May he fell into a trench and was injured badly enough to be sent home again. When he returned in late October he witnessed the final stages of the battle of Passchendaele, which was fought over the summer months into November. His regiment, the Hampshires, had been almost completely wiped out in the battle for Hill 60 in August.  The drawings he made, such as this one, were all begun on site.  The landscape of battle debris, churned mud and rancid water-filled craters in the undraining Flanders clay after the heavy summer rains touched Nash deeply.  He was able to make these landscapes of the aftermath of war into metaphors for the human body destroyed by conflict.

William Orpen, The Great Mine, La Boiselle 1917

William Orpen, The Great Mine, La Boiselle, 1917

William Orpen first visited the Somme in April 1917 as an Official War Artist under the auspices of the Department of Information after the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line. His principal task was to draw and paint the officers but he had time to wander the battlefields. Returning to the Somme again after the summer he was amazed to find, ‘The dreary, dismal mud was baked white and pure – dazzling white. White daisies, red poppies and a blue flower, great masses of them, stretched for miles and miles’. La Boiselle is the site of one of the giant craters created by huge mines laid under the German trenches.

William Orpen, Village, Evening 1917

William Orpen, Village: Evening, 1917

Artists were not only struck by these vast wastelands, they also felt the terrifying impact of war on the domestic front. They depicted the ruin of the material and built environment in Flanders – roads, villages and churches where shattered homes and putrefying corpses are equated with ruined bodies.

Sophie Ristelhueber, WB #8 2005

Sophie Ristelhueber, WB #8, 2005

The apocalyptic imagination is refracted through Sophie Ristelhueber’s approach to the landscapes of recent conflicts in former Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and the West Bank. The WB series depicts roadblocks with deeply ambivalent sensations. In WB #8, the viewer stands before the gritty impasse; slowly the eye travels beyond, only to be confronted with an impenetrable set of barriers, and further still, a settlement on the horizon appears impossibly faraway. The artificial topography of man-made violence in zones of conflict and disputed territory is strangely sensual and fleshy. The barricades appear as brutal, jagged scars on an ancient geological body.

Shocking the Senses

Modern war produced terrifying sights, putrid smells, and nerve-shattering sounds that shocked the human senses. In the confined spaces of tanks trenches and submarines, bodies felt compressed and minds became stressed. ‘Thousand-yard stares’ panicked expressions, nervous ticks, and hysterical gaits were physical responses to emotional and sensory trauma.

In 1915 British neurologist C.S. Myers invented the term ‘shell shock’. The term aptly conveyed the sensory assault of artillery bombardments and the repercussions on the individual of industrialised modern warfare. Military medicine lost control of the term as it entered the public vernacular and its psychological and emotional complexities were distilled into the myth that shellfire was the sole cause of shell shock. Unlike the stigma attached to psychiatric disorder, shell shock enabled families to preserve the dignity and heroic sacrifice of loved ones.

Artists and writers, many of whom were afflicted with shell shock, were crucial figures in translating its symptoms to audiences and rendering visible this disturbing yet invisible wound. Siegfried Sassoon described the unceasing ‘thud’ of bombardments: ‘I want to go out and screech at them to stop…I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.’

Repatriated home, CRW Nevinson recalled his ‘delayed shock’ as ‘uncontrollable tremblings’ and vomiting, a sense of foreboding and rage. Terrified faces and distressed bodies became the subject of artistic empathy during the First World War.

Over the century, artists have been combatants, captive prisoners and anti-war activists, engaging with other people’s suffering and visualising the repetitive nightmare of trauma. Some have confronted torture, executions, and genocide as the abyss reached when human lives are seen as barely human. Artists have also been compelled to show that trauma is not the preserve of soldiers. The shocking sights of agonised women and children, of rape, disease and starvation, and the powerlessness of grief, have entered the darkest artistic imaginings.

Otto Dix, Der Krieg 28, Seen on the Escarpment at Clery-sur- Somme

 Otto Dix, Der Krieg 28: Seen on the Escarpment at Clery-sur- Somme, 1924

The hellish,visceral and hallucinatory quality of Der Krieg is undeniable and the artist created perhaps the most powerful, and sensory, anti-war works of art of the twentieth century. Dix consciously took inspiration from Francesco Goya’s series of prints, The Disasters of War which recorded the horrors of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain and the Spanish War of independence from 1808-1814.

Pietro Morando, One of the Brave struck down. San Marco, 1917

Pietro Morando, One of the brave struck down, San Marco, 1917

In Britain, we know little about the Italian Front in the First World War, fought in the mountainous borderlands between Austro-Hungary and Italy. In freezing conditions, this front was soon bogged down in trench stalemate. In 1916-17 Pietro Morando fought as a volunteer in the Arditi (Italian elite troops) on the front-line in the limestone Karst country bordering Italy and Slovenia. He made drawings on any pieces of paper he could find. His works have an immediacy of perception and a sense of the artist’s urgent need to note down the painful and deadly events at the front and in the prison camps of Austro-Hungary.

Pietro Morando, At the prison camp of Komarom, Hungary, 1918 Pietro Morando, At the prison camp of Komarom, Hungary, 1918

Pietro Morando, At the prison camp of Komarom, Hungary, 1918

Morando was captured during the retreat from the Piave River in 1918. His charcoal sketches (from an album dated 1915-1918) describe the torture, executions, cholera and starvation he witnessed while imprisoned in the Hungarian camp of Nagymegyer and in the city of Komarom. In addition to the privations of military prisoners, during the conflict thousands of Italian civilians were interned and died of malnutrition.

Abu Ghraib by Richard Serra

Richard Serra, Abu Ghraib, 2004 

Serra transformed the horrific, mass-circulated image of torture into a lithograph of the faceless, nameless Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib. Another, larger, version of this print is more directly a protest work and bears the words ‘Stop Bush’.

Eric Kennington, Bewitched

Eric Kennington, Bewitched, Bemused and Bewildered 1917

This depiction of an exhausted, sleep-deprived and disoriented soldier was also titled Via Crucis (The Way of the Cross). The censors tried to prevent it from being exhibited in Kennington’s exhibition of war art at the Leicester Galleries in July 1918. The title Bewitched, Bemused and Bewildered comes from lines to a popular song of the day. Kennington wrote: ‘Must the soldiers endure the most hideous agony and the civilian not be permitted to think of it second-hand?’

Pietro Morando, Thoughtful, On the Carso, 1917

Pietro Morando, Thoughtful, On the Carso, 1917

Otto Dix, The Madwoman of St.-Marie-a-Py

 Otto Dix, Der Krieg 35: The Madwoman of St.-Marie-a-Py, 1924

The shocking impact of bombardments on civilians is powerfully conveyed in The Mad Woman of St-Marie-a-Py. Her baby lies dead among her ruined home while she beats her bare breast in the agony and powerlessness of grief. This is a rare but stark moment of Dix’s sorrow for the innocent casualties of men’s wars as we are forced to share in her state of absolute distress.

Conrad Felixmoller , Soldier in the Madhouse 1918

Conrad Felixmoller, Soldier in the Madhouse, 1918

Gripping the asylum cell window, and perhaps even chained to the bed, Conrad Felixmoller’s Soldier in the Madhouse has jagged furrows in his forehead; the work portrays the desperate isolation of the shell-shocked patient.

Rupture and Rehabilitation: Disability and the Wounds of War

Away from the battlefield artists depicted the impact of wounding on the body. Modern medicine saved soldiers lives, though they often survived with terrible, disfiguring wounds. The artists who served as medical illustrators in the First World War were closely involved with the new field of plastic surgery as it attempted facial and bodily reconstructions. In delicate pastels and watercolours intended as medical studies they also saw the fragile humanity of those with such horrific wounds. They found amputees and blinded men recovering in hospital, undergoing physical and vocational rehabilitation. In many of these works we see a compassionate rapport between the wounded sitter and the artist, sensitive to the intimate depths of suffering as pained eyes meet our gaze. The courage, pride and silent dignity of the wounded are deeply moving.

In the 1920s wounded soldiers were fitted with artificial prosthetic limbs. Artists were sceptical of this revolution in prosthetics which held out a fantasy of the cyborg – half man and half machine. It promised that the body destroyed by modern technology could be reconstructed into a hyper-masculine, superhuman being. However artists like the German Heinrich Hoerle saw the reality of living with disability and approached the notion of the superhuman man-machine with bitter irony. More recently, as women have entered the war zone as combatants, artists have highlighted both the frailty and resilience of disabled veterans of both genders.

Henry Tonks, Saline Infusion An incident in the British Red Cross

Henry Tonks, Saline Infusion: An incident in the British Red Cross hospital, Arc-en-Barrois, 1915

Tonks’ medical training, his understanding of wounds and their treatment and his sensitive use of pastel come together ‘in this study made in northern France. Tonks turns the secular scene into a work with religious overtones, arranging the composition as a Descent from the Cross. Tonks is most well known for his medical studies of facial wounds in pastel – a subject which has featured in the novels of Pat Barker such as Toby’s Room.

Kruppel 1920 Heinrich HoerleKruppel 1920 Heinrich Hoerle, The Married Couple

Heinrich Hoerle, Help the Cripple, 1920 

The Cripple Portfolio was published in 1920 by Cologne Dada artist, Heinrich Hoerle, in the context of the 2.7 million disabled German veterans who had returned home from the Front. 67,000 of these veterans were also amputees. The Weimar Republic instituted a system of rehabilitation and employment, which caused resentment amongst the able-bodied as the Great Depression of the 1930s took hold. Some 90 per cent of disabled soldiers were employed. The subject of Hoerle’s portfolio of prints is the intimate suffering of the lives of the disabled in the aftermath of war. It is divided into six scenes of the everyday life of the wounded veteran and six of his dreams and nightmares.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Michael Jernigan, Marine Corporal, 2006

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Michael Jernigan, Marine Corporal, 2006

Michael Jernigan lost his sight in an attack with an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) while serving in Iraq. Like so many marriages, Jernigan’s failed when he returned home so badly injured. In Greenfield-Sanders’ photograph, attention is drawn directly to the  diamonds from his wife’s wedding ring which Jernigan had set into one of his eight prosthetic eyes.

Nina Berman, Marine wedding, 2006

Nina Berman, Marine wedding, 2006

Nina Berman is a documentary photographer, author and educator. Much of her photographic work focuses upon the American political and social landscape, including the militarization of American life and the dialogue around war, patriotism and sacrifice.

Her 2006 photo Marine Wedding, probably one of her most recognizable works, is a haunting picture. The bride, in a red-trimmed wedding gown with beading on the bodice and skirt, holds a crimson bouquet, and the groom wears his navy-colored military dress uniform. But neither smiles – they look past the camera in opposite directions. And the groom, an Iraq War veteran, has no ears, nose, or chin. His face looks like it is covered with a plastic mask. Severely burned in 2004 after a suicide bomber attacked his truck, his skin melted when he was trapped inside. Marine Wedding won a 2006 World Press Award.

Rosine Cahen, Hospital Villemin, 2 January 1918

Rosine Cahen, Hospital Villemin (2 January 1918), 1918

I had never encountered the work of Rosine Cahen before, but I found her delicate portrayals, in charcoal, pastel and white chalk, of wounded and disabled soldiers among the most memorable of the exhibition.

Born in Alsace and trained at the Academy Julian in Paris, Rosine Cahen (who was mostly known as a print-maker) turned to delicate pastel, chalk and charcoal to draw the wounded and disabled soldiers she visited in French hospitals during the war. In her sketches, the observer is so discrete we are never allowed to gawk at the men’s wounds, but rather it is their faces in a state of almost serene despair that she portrays. These works exude great calmness both in the men’s expression and in the way the artist alludes to the intimate relationship of these captured moments.

Cahen gives these wounded men their dignity – they are never just medical objects. She was 59 years old in 191 6 when she began visiting the war hospitals of Paris and Monte Carlo. She continued her visits on numerous occasions over the following three years. The age difference enabled her to build a personal rapport with the soldiers while they ‘sat’ for her, quietly recovering.

In Hospital Villemin, 2 January 1918, the facially wounded patient is disguised under bandages, contrasting with his luminous purple shirt. A solitary eye peers out, as he tries to eat some thing from his tray.

Rosine Cahen, Hospital Rollin (October 1918)

Rosine Cahen, Hospital Rollin (October 1918), 1918

This is a portrait of an amputee from the 17th InfantryRegiment, wounded on 21 August 1918, near Soissons in Picardy. Preoccupied with reading his gazette, a little blue slipper juts out of his trouser leg. The space next to it is empty and crutches reveal his early stage of recovery.

Rosine Cahen, Hospital Villemin (8 April 1919)

Rosine Cahen, Hospital Villemin (8 April 1919), 1919

A blind soldier practices Braille while sitting in bed recovering from his injuries. Wounded soldiers were
expected to begin the rehabilitation before they were fully recovered. In the background are little sketches of the same patient, perhaps completed on other occasions.

Rosine Cahen, The Amputees' Workshop 1918

Rosine Cahen, The Amputees’ Workshop, 1918

This study reveals the temporary wooden leg of an amputee which juts out awkwardly, uncomfortably, under the table. His left hand is also amputated. Cahen captures him absorbed in his writing task.

See also

Grayson Perry’s ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’: class and taste run deep

Grayson Perry’s ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’: class and taste run deep

Grayson Perry with The Upper Class at Bay

Grayson Perry with ‘The Upper Class at Bay’

We don’t talk much about class these days, but its presence is palpable in Manchester Art Gallery at the moment.  It haunts Jeremy Deller’s magisterial exhibition All That Is Solid Melts Into Air that is about the defining and continuing impact of the Industrial Revolution.  And the interrelationship of class, social mobility and taste is central to Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences, also currently on display there.

In The Vanity of Small Differences, Grayson Perry pays homage to Hogarth’s 18th century series, A Rake’s Progress. Hogarth’s paintings and prints told the story of the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell, the spendthrift who inherits a fortune but loses everything in a satirically-observed downward spiral of vice and degradation.  Perry has altered the plot and applied his narrative to contemporary society, documenting the rise and fall of software millionaire Tim Rakewell in a series of six enormous tapestries.

Grayson Perry has often acknowledged his fascination with Hogarth, once remarking, ‘I identify with his Englishness, his robust humour and his depiction of, in his own words, ‘modern moral subjects”. The gallery also has on Hogarth’s A Rakes Progress on display in an adjacent room, so you can see how much Perry has drawn from Hogarth’s 1733 tale of an anti-hero who acquires wealth and social status but then loses everything – and how much he has created a work that is entirely his own vision, acutely relevant to contemporary England.

In both series the central character gains wealth and status with ease, makes poor choices and loses everything before dying in horrific circumstances.  Like Hogarth, Perry crams his scenes with anecdotal details that place the characters in their time and bring to life character and motivation.  Both artists are acute observers of human behaviour and the relationship between social class and taste. Both love irony and the absurd.  However, Perry has more empathy with his people, and is less judgemental than Hogarth.The series grew out of the TV series that Perry made for Channel 4 – All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry, in which he travelled across England exploring the meaning of class in modern Britain and the extent to which our tastes are determined by our class. He travelled to Sunderland to study the working class, went to  Tumbridge Wells to meet the middle class, and the Cotswolds to spend time with the upper class. In each episode he spent time talking with people and joining in their social rituals.

Whilst filming in Sunderland, Tunbridge Wells and the Cotswolds, Perry made notes, drawings and photos to be used as source materials. Back in his studio, he began to plot the life story of his central character and organise ideas into six compositions.  The result was the six large-scale tapestries that Perry subsequently donated to the nation. The tapestries were woven by Flanders Tapestries in Belgium – Perry’s drawings were translated into a computer program that controlled a digital loom.  Each tapestry was made in a limited edition of six.

At the beginning of the exhibition, a statement from Perry explains what he hoped to achieve with the work:

The tapestry tries to tell the story of class mobility, for I think nothing has as strong an influence on our aesthetic taste as the social class in which we grow up.  I am interested in the politics of consumerism and the story of popular design, but, for this project, I focus on the emotional investment we make in the things we choose to live with, wear, eat, read or drive.  Class and taste run deep in our character – we care.  This emotional charge is what draws me to a subject.

The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal detail

‘The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal’ (detail)

In an interesting piece for the Financial Times, Simon Schama wrote of Perry’s painstaking care with each and every detail of the tapestries, especially the colours, wanting to precisely nail the habitat and the costume of the social tribes who feature in his story:

All this is in the service of the kind of social storytelling of which he is the contemporary master and which he delivers with the warmest-hearted of sensibilities. He laughs at the journalist who interviewed him for Le Monde, who thought that the picture he delivered of modern Britain from ‘The Agony in the Car Park’ to the vainglory of the Oliver-esque kitchen table was ‘bleak’. Perry is a shrewd psycho-ethnographer of the consumer tribes of modern Britain but one sympathetic to its rich vein of human comedy exactly because he recognises so much of their foibles in himself. ‘Whenever I find myself bristling at something, I ask myself, ‘Is there a bit of me in the person I am not liking? And the answer is, ‘Yes, totally.’ Oh, I am so part of the aching cycle of self-awareness and self-hatred: the need for individuation and the equal need for belonging. I want to be a tribe of one yet have everybody in it.’

In an appreciation of The Vanity of Small Differences written for the Guardian, Suzanne Moore observed that ‘Perry has instinct’; for example:

He understands that working-class taste is about display and comfort and bling and play. Of course it is ridiculous, some of it. It is nasty and ostentatious at its worst, and as sentimental as we see in his depiction of it (The Agony in the Car Park). But there is a generosity there – an ability to live in the moment. Getting ready to go out is as much fun as going out; in Sunderland, Perry played with the current aesthetic of the hyper-feminine (The Adoration of the Cage Fighters).

Here are the six tapestries, accompanied by Perry’s notes and the text that appears on each one (from a leaflet given to each gallery visitor).

The Adoration of the Cage Fighters

The Adoration of the Cage Fighters

Artist’s statement:

The scene is Tim’s great-grandmother’s front room. The infant Tim reaches for his mother’s smartphone – his rival for her attention. She is dressed up, ready for a night out with her four friends, who have perhaps already been on ‘the pre-lash’. Two ‘Mixed Martial Arts’ enthusiasts present icons of tribal identity to the infant: a Sunderland AFC football shirt and a miner’s lamp. In the manner of early Christian painting, Tim appears a second time in the work: on the stairs, as a four-year-old, facing another evening alone in front of a screen. Although this series of images developed very organically, with little consistent method, the religious reference was here from the start: I hear the echo of paintings such as Andrea Mantegna’s The Adoration of the Shepherds (c 1450).

Mantegna's The Adoration of the Shepherds

Andrea Mantegna, The Adoration of the Shepherds, c1450

Text (in the voice of Tim’s Mother):

‘I could have gone to Uni, but I did the best I could, considering his father upped and left. He (Tim) was always a clever little boy, he knows how to wind me up. My mother liked a drink, my father liked one too. Ex miner a real man, open with his love, and his anger. My Nan though is the salt of the earth, the boy loves her. She spent her whole life looking after others. There are no jobs round here anymore, just the gym and the football. A normal family, a divorce or two, mental illness, addiction, domestic violence…the usual thing…My friends they keep me sane…take me out…listen…a night out of the weekend in town is a precious ritual.

The Agony in the Car Park

The Agony in the Car Park

Artist’s statement:

This image is a distant relative of Giovanni Bellini’s The Agony in the Garden (c 1465). The scene is a hill outside Sunderland – in the distance is the Stadium of Light. The central figure, Tim’s stepfather, a club singer, hints at Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. A child-like shipyard crane stands in for the crucifix, with Tim’s mother as Mary – once again in the throes of an earthly passion. Tim, in grammar school uniform, blocks hjs ears, squirming in embarrassment. A computer magazine sticks out of his bag, betraying his early enthusiasm for software. To the left, a younger Tim plays happily with his step-grandfather outside his pigeon cree on the allotments. To the right, young men with their customised cars gather in the car park of ‘Heppie’s’ social club. Mrs T and the call centre manager await a new recruit into the middle class.

Bellini's The Agony in the Garden

Bellini, The Agony in the Garden, c 1465

Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece

Matthias Grunewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512–1516

Text (in the voice of Tim’s stepfather): ‘I started as a lad in the shipyards. I followed in my father’s footsteps. Now Dad has his pigeons and he loves the boy [Tim Shipbuilding bound the town together like a religion. When Thatcher closed the yards down it ripped the heart out of the community. I could have been  a rock band [above graffiti of Sunderland band The Futureheads] I met the boy’s mother at the club. I sing on a Saturday night between the bingo and the meat raffle. Now I work in a call centre, the boss says I am management material. The money’s good, I could buy my council house, sell it and get out. I voted Tory last time.’

Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close

Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close

Artist’s statement:

Tim is at university studying computer science, and is going steady with a nice girl from Tunbridge Wells. To the left, we see Tim’s mother and stepfather, who now live on a private development and own a luxury car. She hoovers the AstroTurf lawn, he returns from a game of golf. There has been an argument and Tim and his girlfriend are leaving. They pass through a rainbow, while Jamie Oliver, the god of social mobility, looks down. They are guilty of a sin, just like Adam and Eve in Masaccio’s The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (c 1425). To the right, a dinner party is just starting. Tim’s girlfriend’s parents and fellow guests toast the new arrival.

Masaccio's The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden

Masaccio, The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, 1425

Text (in the voice of Tim’s girlfriend): ‘I met Tim at College, he was Such a Geek. He took me back to meet his mother and Stepfather. Their house was so clean and Tidy, not a speck of dust… or a book, apart from her god, Jamie. She Says I have turned Tim into a Snob. His parents don’t appreciate how bright he is. My father laughed at Tim’s accent but welcomed him onto the sunlit uplands of the middle classes. 1 hope Tim loses his obsession with money.’

The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal

The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal

Artist’s statement:

‘Tim is relaxing with his family in the kitchen of his rural (second) home. His business partner (in yellow) has just told him that he is now an extremely wealthy man, as they have sold their software business to Richard Branson. On the table is a still life demonstrating the cultural bounty of his affluent lifestyle.To the left, his parents-in-law read, and his elder child plays on the rug. To the right, Tim dandles his baby while his wife tweets. This image includes references to three different paintings of the Annunciation – by Carlo Crivelli (the vegetables), Matthias Grunewald (his colleague’s expression) and Robert Campin (the jug of lilies). The convex mirror and discarded shoes are reminders of that great pictorial display of wealth and status, The Amolfini Portrait (1434), by Jan van Eyck.

Text (in the voice of Tim’s business partner): ‘I have worked with Tim for a decade, a genius, yet so down to earth. Tim’s incredibly driven, he never feels successful. He’s calmer since his mother died. He’s had a lot of therapy. He wants to be good.’

Text on copy of The Guardian used to wrap organic vegetables: ‘A Geek’s Progress,Tim Rakewell: risen without trace’ Text on iPad: ‘Rakewell sells to Virgin for £270m’

Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation, 1486

Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation, 1486

Robert Campin, Annunciation

Robert Campin, The Merode Altarpiece, c 1425

In his article for the FT, Simon Schama (who knows a thing or two about Flemish art) comments on how the tapestries connect Perry with the vernacular art that began in the northern European Renaissance, art that glowed:
With the new brilliance of oil painting, invented in Flanders where Perry gets his tapestries woven, and which drew on textile craft – dyeing and weaving – for the appeal of its pictures. (There’s a sly, mirroring allusion to van Eyck’s Arnolfini wedding couple in one of the tapestries.) Flemish and Dutch painting was intensely material, revelling in the texture of the stuff that piled up in their early form of consumer culture: its food, clothes, the fixtures and fittings of bourgeois life. And that art did something else as well, which set it aside from the rigorous fixed-point perspective of Italian classicism: it encompassed an entire social universe with an omnivorous appetite for all human types. Avercamp’s skating scenes and Rembrandt’s most socially encyclopedic etchings such as ‘The Hundred Guilder Print’ or ‘St John the Baptist Preaching’, with their wailing babies, gnarly beggars and crapping dogs are what made possible Hogarth, Goya, the painters of Victorian crowd scenes, such as William Powell Frith (for whom Perry has a soft spot), LS Lowry and Grayson Perry.

The Upper Class at Bay

The Upper Class at Bay

Artist’s statement:

Tim Rakewell and his wife are now in their late forties and their children are grown. They stroll, like Mr and Mrs Andrews in Thomas Gainsborough’s famous portrait of the landed gentry (c 1750), in the grounds of their mansion in the Cotswolds. They are new money; they can never become upper-class in their lifetime. In the light of the sunset, they watch the old aristocratic stag with its tattered tweed hide being hunted down by the dogs of tax, social change, upkeep and fuel bills. The old landowning breed is dying out. Tim has his own problems; as a ‘fat cat’ he has attracted the ire of an ‘Occupy’-style protest movement, who camp outside his house. The protester silhouetted between the stag’s antlers refers to paintings of the vision of Saint Hubert, who converted from the leisured life of a nobleman on seeing a vision of a crucifix above the head of a stag.

Thomas Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs Andrews, c1750

Thomas Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs Andrews, c1750



Artist’s statement:

The scene is the aftermath of a car accident at an intersection near a retail park. Tim lies dead in the arms of a stranger. His glamorous second wife stands stunned and bloodstained amidst the wreckage of his Ferrari. To the right, paramedics prepare to remove his body. To the left, police and firemen record and clear the crash scene. Onlookers take photos with their camera phones to upload to the internet. His dog lays dead. The contents of his wife’s expensive handbag spill out over a copy of Hello magazine that features her and Tim on the cover. At the bottom of Rogier van der Weyden’s Lamentation (c 1460), the painting that inspired this image, is a skull; I have substituted it with a smashed smartphone which refers back to the first tapestry in the series, where Tim reaches for his mother’s phone. This scene also echoes the final painting of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1733), where Tom Rakewell dies naked in ‘The Madhouse’.

Rogier van der Weyden, Lamentation

Rogier van der Weyden, Lamentation, c 1460

Text in the voice of a female passer-by: ‘We were walking home from a night out, these two cars, racing each other, speed past. Middle aged men showing off, the red one lost control. The driver wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. He didn’t stand a chance. The female passenger was okay but catatonic with shock. I’m a nurse. I tried to save the man but he died in my arms. It was only afterwards I found out that he was that famous computer guy, Rakewell. All he said to me was ‘Mother’. All that money and he dies in the gutter.’

William Hogarth The Madhouse from A Rake's Progress

William Hogarth, ‘The Madhouse’ from ‘A Rake’s Progress’

Final words on this magnificent series from Suzanne Moore again:

At a time when social mobility has ground to a halt – when inequality booms and cannot be bust – Perry reminds us of how we tell each other who we are and who we belong to. In these conservative times, this is a radical thing to be doing. That is why this work is important. Sometimes things not only look good; they are good. I am making a moral judgement here, but then I recognise myself – my flaws, my dreams – in these tapestries of joy and despair, of ugliness and beauty.

As Perry has said: “Taste is a tender subject. What really fascinates me about the topic of aesthetic taste is that  people really care.” What really fascinates me about these works is precisely that they are really caring – and for those often not cared for. Classlessness is a dream. The ability to accrue cultural capital, to shift class, as both Perry and I have managed somehow to do, is being taken away. Taste, like everything else, will be further privatised; we are not all in it together. These tapestries put the debate back in the public realm. Taste belongs to all of us. Make it your own. For this is how we live now.

Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress at the Sir John Soane Museum (BBC)

See also

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: ‘from this filthy sewer pure gold flows’

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: ‘from this filthy sewer pure gold flows’

Photographs of anonymous female workers iron works Tredegar 1860s

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. Havell, Robert

‘Factory Children’, 1814 by Robert Havell

'The Collier', 1814. Havell, Robert

‘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

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

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 1799 Aquatint and hand

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

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.

Newman & Co, Penrhyn Slate Quarries, near Bangor, Wales, 1842

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’.

salt mine, cheshire, coloured aquatint,1814

A salt mine, Cheshire, coloured aquatint, 1814

Black country

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

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, 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.

Francis Crawshay Workers Portraits,1835, WJ Chapman 2

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.

Carpenter David Williams

WJ Chapman, portrait of carpenter David Williams

mine agent at Hirwaun, John Bryant

WJ Chapman, portrait of mine agent, John Bryant

Quarryman Thomas Francis

WJ Chapman, portrait of quarryman Thomas Francis

tinplate works at Treforest near Pontypridd. This portrait depicts its foreman, John Llewellyn

WJ Chapman, portrait of foreman, John Llewellyn

Francis Crawshay Workers Portraits,1835, WJ Chapman David Davies

 WJ Chapman, portrait of cinder filler David Davies

Francis Crawshay Workers Portraits,1835, WJ Chapman William James

WJ Chapman, portrait of roller William James

W J Chapman (c.1835-40), Thomas Euston, Lodge Keeper

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.

Iron Workers, Tredegar, Wales, 1865, W Clayton

women workers iron works Tredegar 1860s 4

women workers iron works Tredegar 1860s 1

women workers iron works Tredegar 1860s 2

women workers iron works Tredegar 1860s 3

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

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, England, 1986 John Davies

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.

Mondays Salford Quays Ian Tilton

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

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, 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.

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.

Macclesfield clock

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.

Motorola WT4000

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.

Wrestler Adrian Street and his miner father (1973)

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.

See also

Radical Figures: the reinvention of figurative art in post-war Britain

Girls Head in Profile with Cap on, 1963-64

Euan Uglow, Girl’s Head in Profile with Cap On, 1963-64

The other day I spent an absorbing afternoon in Manchester Art Gallery, looking at Grayson Perry’s wonderful tapestries (The Vanity of Small Differences) and an exhibition curated by Jeremy Deller, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air in which he takes a personal look at the impact of the Industrial Revolution on British popular culture, and its persisting influence on our lives today.

But first, I spent some time viewing Radical Figures, a display that explores the pioneering role that painters such as Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and David Hockney played in the reinvention of figurative art in Britain in the post-war decades.

Francis Bacon, Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1951

Francis Bacon, Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1951

This was a period in which radical work in British art tended to be influenced by the modern art of  New York – especially abstraction and Pop Art.  But alongside such boundary-breaking painting, there was another current in art pioneered by a group of loosely associated artists who later were labelled The School of London.

These artists shared a firm belief that they could find new ways to create realist paintings and reinvent the representation of the human figure to make it relevant in the modern world. These figurative painters studied the art of the Renaissance and of Impressionism, whilst their work also had origins in pre-War British art: in the painting of Walter Sickert, David Bomberg and the realists of the Euston Road School.

By the 1970s and 1980s the work of these artists had begun to be recognised as amongst the most important British art of its time. This undeclared group included Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Michael Andrews, Euan Uglow and the more Pop Art-associated David Hockney. As the introduction to the display puts it:

Between them they found new ways of looking intensely at the world around them; to combine in paint what they saw, with what they felt.

Head VI. Francis Bacon (1948)

Francis Bacon, Head VI, 1948

I’m no fan of Francis Bacon, but there are two arresting works here that I appreciated. There is, without doubt, intensity and feeling in Head VI, painted in 1948. It is, quite simply, a painting of a scream.

Bacon and Lucian Freud were close friends, and in 1951 Freud was invited to sit for his first portrait by Bacon. This in its itself was unusual, as Bacon usually preferred working from secondary media, such as photographs.  In fact, Freud quickly discovered this to be the case. When he returned to Bacon’s studio for a second sitting, he found that in his absence the portrait had changed completely since he had last seen it. Bacon had continued, working from memory and, at the same time, incorporating elements from a photo of Kafka leaning against a pillar which Freud noticed among the debris littering the floor of Bacon’s studio.

The 1951 portrait was one of several that Bacon made of Freud over the next decade.  Freud returned the compliment, but only made two portraits of Bacon.  The first (below) was made in 1952 and, although it looks like an etching, is actually oil paint on metal. Bought by the Tate, the painting disappeared in 1988 while on loan to a gallery in Berlin.  Freud painted another portrait in 1956-57 that, as with the earlier portrait, shows Bacon with a downward gaze. Bacon sat knee-to-knee with Freud while he worked on the portraits, and during the three months of sittings for the first work, he is said to have ‘grumbled but sat consistently’.

Francis Bacon 1952 by Lucian Freud

Francis Bacon, 1952 by Lucian Freud

There is a wonderful portrait by Lucian Freud in the exhibition – Girl with Beret, made in 1951-2.  It’s from the early period of his portraiture that is distinguished by fine brushwork and the jewel-like intensity of paintings from the Northern Renaissance which Freud studied intently in the National Gallery at this time.  Freud’s portraits usually involved over 150 hours of sitting – and some have suggested it is this which gives the sitter here such a haunted appearance.  The critic John Russell described Freud’s technique as ‘a particular kind of scrutiny which involves a long, slow stalking of the thing seen’.

Girl with Beret, Lucian Freud, 1951-2

Lucian Freud, Girl with Beret, 1951-2

Frank Auerbach – who is represented here by the urban landscape, Euston Steps and a portrait of his lover, E.O.W (Stella West) – had been taught by David Bomberg, whose influence led Auerbach to execute his work in hugely thick paint (impasto).

Frank Auerbach, Euston Steps, 1980-81

Frank Auerbach, Euston Steps, 1980-81

The portrait of E.O.W. led the critic David Sylvester to remark in 1956: ‘In this clotted heap of muck there has somehow been preserved the precious fluidity and the pliancy proper to paint’.

Frank Auerbach, Head of E.O.W, charcoal on paper, 1956

Frank Auerbach, Head of E.O.W, charcoal on paper, 1956

Euan Uglow is represented here by two paintings – Girl’s Head in Profile with Cap On (top) and The Quarry,  Pignano (1979), a nude that Catherine Lampert has described as ‘a masterpiece that circumvents the question of the relationship between artist and model’.  The explanation for the curious title is that, longing to be abroad in the summer of 1979, Uglow remembered a steep-walled quarry near Pignano outside Volterra.  He created an artificial recess that meant the model’s face was hidden from view.


Euan Uglow, The Quarry,  Pignano, 1979

Uglow’s intention was that the eyes of the viewer could wander over the woman’s forms just as a local person might stare at the boulders in the quarry.  ‘I didn’t want that psychological thing of somebody trying to look to see what kind of person it was – you are supposed to be able to roam over these hills, the green is supposed to be the trees, the blue is supposed to be sky, glittering through the trees.’

Four People Sunbathing, 1955, Michael Andrews

Michael Andrews, Four People Sunbathing, 1955

Michael Andrews spent three years studying at the Slade School of Art in London in the 1940s, where his contemporaries included Craigie Aitchison, Paula Rego and Euan Uglow.  He quickly gained a reputation as one of the most promising painters of his generation. I can’t remember where I saw it (probably at Tate Modern), but A Man Who Suddenly Fell Over, 1952 (not in this display) is a painting I have relished: it reveals the artist’s fascination with human behaviour and is typical of paintings by him which show individuals struggling to maintain their composure in trying situations: overdressed and out of place on the beach, or falling down in the street.

A Man who Suddenly Fell Over 1952 by Michael Andrews

Michael Andrews, A Man Who Suddenly Fell Over, 1952

Certainly, the figures in Four People Sunbathing, unclothed or in swimming trunks, appear awkward and ill at ease, pale townies not really enjoying the afternoon in the open air. In the dazzling light there’s an oppressive feeling on this summer afternoon which seems to have paralysed all activity.

David Hockney, Peter C, 1961

While at the Royal College of Art in the early 1960s, David Hockney had an requited crush on Peter Crutch, a fellow student. Such feelings could not be openly admitted in the context of the law and social climate of the time. Hockney has painted Peter wearing fashionable drainpipe trousers and a skinny tie. The full length portrait is painted in a child-like style with an oversized head and long, thin legs, one leg unfinished. Peter has a red heart on his jacket and the background is plain with the inscription: ‘PETER C’ in the top right-hand corner. In block capitals, the words ‘my friend’ can be seen beneath his hand, with ‘PETER’ repeated in the bottom left-hand corner. The words ‘who is the m’ trail off the right-hand side of the canvas. The piece is a tall narrow work consisting of two canvases joined together.

See also

Adolphe Valette: Pioneer of Impressionism in Manchester

My favourite room in Manchester Art Gallery is the one devoted to the French artist, Adolphe Valette, who came from his home in St Etienne to England in 1904 and, from 1906 to 1920, taught at Manchester School of Art where he influenced LS Lowry, his most famous pupil.  The room displays a superb group of impressionistic paintings of Edwardian Manchester, painted between 1908 and 1913, which represent Valette’s most significant artistic achievement.

Now the Lowry in Salford has mounted a near-definitive exhibition, Adolphe Valette: A Pioneer of Impressionism in Manchester, that fills in the background to those atmospheric paintings in Manchester Art Gallery and traces his career, both before and after he lived in Manchester.

Adolphe Valette: Manchester Ship Canal

The exhibition curator Cecilia Lyon has managed to bring together some of his best known works from neighbouring galleries (including several from Manchester Art Gallery) alongside loans from private collections and several never-before-seen works.  She explains Valette’s importance:

He came to Manchester in 1905 and brought the syllabus of his French experience and pioneered Impressionism in Manchester at the time with these huge oil paintings.  He painted urban architecture, waterways, industry, the pollution and smog.  He was the first painter to paint Manchester, the first to see the beauty in the hard working city.  But Valette was also an extremely modest person and he didn’t write manifestos or letters to other artists. So it remains a great mystery what drew him to Manchester.

Adolphe Valette (1876-1942) was born in 1876 in the industrial town of St Etienne, and came to England in 1904. He settled in Manchester and studied at the Manchester School of Art and taught there from 1906-1920. Amongst his students was LS Lowry.

When Adolphe Valette was an art student in France, the Impressionist movement was at its height.  By the end of the 19th century art galleries and collectors all over Europe were buying paintings by Monet, Renoir and others. When Valette arrived in Manchester he brought first hand knowledge of Impressionist painting with him which he was able to share with his students, including LS Lowry.  ‘Forain, Monet, Degas and the French Impressionists were his gods’, as one of his students put it.

It was between 1908  and 1913 that he completed his major Impressionist  Manchester cityscapes, the first of which was ‘Manchester Ship Canal’ (top), actually of the canal in Salford.  ‘Manchester Ship Canal and Warehouses’ (1908, below) is his second earliest known dated view of Manchester.  Also exhibited for the first time is an oil painting of ‘Plymouth Grove, July 1909’ – this was the location of Valette’s first home in Manchester.

Adolphe Valette: Manchester Ship Canal and Warehouses 1908

Valette pioneered Impressionism in Manchester with a series of large oil paintings depicting urban architecture, waterways, industry and the dynamism of the city, captured in atmospheric variations of light, fog (below) and haze.   He was the first artist to put the city centre stage in his paintings and commented, ‘There is a beauty in Manchester’.

Adolphe Valette: Manchester Street in Fog

Exhibitions of Valette’s work were held in this period at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and at the Society of Modern Painters in Manchester, which he co-founded in 1912.

Adolphe Valette: Manchester suburban view

Valette’s early fascination with Impressionism was probably reinforced by a visit to Manchester City Art Gallery, where from December 1907 to January 1908 a stunning array of paintings by Monet, Degas, Pissarro and others were exhibited.
On 18 March  1908, Valette produced his first Manchester Impressionist painting depicting Manchester Ship Canal.  He fully understood the Impressionist practice of painting en plein air, capturing an immediate visual impression of a scene and rendering the exact effect of light.

Adolphe Valette: Old Trafford Swing Bridge

In both his Manchester cityscapes, Valette was fascinated by the English fog and its capacity to transform an everyday waterway or cityscape into a slightly surreal scene (as in some works by Whistler, Monet or Turner).   He also understood the Impressionists’ visible brushwork and innovative approach to laying the paint unmixed on to the canvas.

Valette excelled at pochades – small sketches painted outdoors and intended either as preparation for a larger painting or as paintings in their own right.  Two striking examples on show for the first time are ‘Manchester Suburban View’ (above) and ‘Wintry View of Manchester’.

Adolphe Valette: Bailey Bridge Manchester 1912

Valette’s talent, however, goes beyond his Manchester cityscapes.  He was a skilled painter of still life, portraits and the contrasting sun-drenched landscape of southern France.   The exhibition begins with a collection of self portraits and portraits of family members. While in Manchester, Valette married his first wife – one of his students, Gabriela de Bolivar, of Venezuelan nationality.  There are portraits of Gabriela, along with her mother, Valette’s brother and his son, Pierre.  Gabriela died in 1917 and two years later he married a fellow french national, Andree Pallez, a lecturer in French at Manchester University.

Alongside the city views there are several portraits of friends and neighbours, including this one, of  Ahmed Loufti, an Egyptian living in Manchester.  The caption notes that Valette ‘enjoyed Manchester’s cosmopolitan atmosphere’ – a clue, maybe, as to the reason why Valette came to Manchester, which remains unexplained.

Adolphe Valette: Portrait of Ahmed Loufti

Soon after his arrival in Manchester, Valette enrolled as a student in the evening classes at the Municipal School
of Art at All Saints, now part of Manchester Metropolitan University.  His talent was quickly recognised and he was encouraged to apply for the position of Master of Painting and Drawing.  Valette accepted this post ‘on the condition that he should teach the pupils by actually painting with them.

Valette (front, with beard) with his life class at Manchester Art School in 1910

He was reputedly an inspiring teacher, and his students – the best known of whom was LS Lowry – both liked and admired him.  The exhibition includes many drawings made by Valette during his classes, alongside several made by LS Lowry as a student.  Affectionately nicknamed ‘Mr Monsieur’ by his students, Valette taught many disciplines over the next fourteen years including life classes, drawing and etching.

Adolphe Valette: Llandudno
LS Lowry: Seascape

Lowry recognised Valette’s skill in teaching life drawing, and was influenced by his enthusiasm for the French Impressionists. On his painting ‘Country Lane’, Lowry commented, ‘I was going through my Impressionist period’.  Valette’s strongest influence may have been on Lowry’s choice of subject matter.  As the exhibition guide notes:

After Valette, Lowry was the second major painter in the North West to focus on the industrial scene.  He recalled that his ‘first idea of doing it’ was ‘about 1912 or 1913’ (when Valette had already exhibited many of his major ‘Manchester-scapes’). ‘I was taught then by a gentleman by the name of Valette. He was what I would call a typical product of the Impressionist school but I didn’t want to paint like the Impressionist school’. While Valette painted Manchester, celebrating the architectural magnificence of the industrial buildings, the vibrancy of the city or the languor of the canals, Lowry depicted the industrial landscape and the mills of Salford and Greater Manchester in a more stylised manner, with greater attention to the people in the streets.  Lowry gradually found his own artistic style and the influence of Valette, still to be seen in the pastels ‘Coming from the Mill’ and ‘The Lodging House’, started to wane.  ‘I could have been subconsciously influenced by Valette’,  he admitted, grudgingly, in later years. By the mid-1920s, Valette’s influence became even less pronounced, with Lowry eventually declaring, ‘We did not see eye to eye at all about my paintings; I did not show them  to him again.’

Adolphe Valette: York Street leading to Charles Street, Manchester 1913
LS Lowry: The Lodging House 1921

In 1928 Valette left Manchester, due to ill health and following the death of his mother.  He moved permanently to Blace  in the Beaujolais region of France, settling in a cottage which he inherited from his mother and where he had spent many holidays (below). He frequented local artistic circles and, like Van Gogh after his move from the north to Arles, new colour and light bursts from his paintings.

Adolphe Valette: Farm at Blace
Adolphe Valette: Blace

As in Manchester, Valette liked to paint in the open air and set up his easel wherever he went.  Again like Van Gogh, there are many paintings here which expressively capture the movement of a farm animal or the posture of the field workers in the local vineyards.

Adolphe Valette: Vineyard Worker

Valette painted the landscapes of the villages of this region north of Lyon, producing studies of the field labourers, men and women bent over their tools, working in the fields and vineyards.

Adolphe Valette: Le Berger et ses Moutons
Adolphe Valette: Peasants Going Home

In this period Valette also produced expressive portraits of friends and neighbours, and of Maria Lafond, his housekeeper. He died in 1942, aged 65.

Until recently, it proved impossible to trace many of Valette’s paintings, though their existence was known from their titles, listed in old exhibition catalogues, and, in some cases, photographs and oil sketches.  As part of the research for this exhibition, a public appeal was launched by The Lowry asking for owners of works by Valette to come forward.

Among many interesting discoveries, one preparatory sketch for a lost painting – ‘Old Peasant Smoking Pipe’ – came to light and is displayed alongside a photograph of the finished work for the first time.  Another recent discovery has been the location of the graves of Valette’s first wife and son in the churchyard of St Margaret’s Church in Prestwich.

Adolphe Valette: Self-Portrait 1912

This unfinished self-portrait, painted in 1912 when Valette was in his thirties, shows the artist as a dapper, intense young man with a fashionable waxed moustache. Dramatically lit from behind, it conveys the image of a romantic artist, whose
effect on his students, including LS Lowry, was considerable, and whose legacy, this exhibition reveals, consists of far more than those magnificent impressionistic townscapes in Manchester Art Gallery.


Valette: a northern Impressionist

Valette: a northern Impressionist
Valette: Albert Square, Manchester 1910

While we were in Manchester yesterday we visited the Manchester Art Gallery which has a room devoted to the French artist, Adolphe Valette, who came from his home in St Etienne, France, to England in 1904 and, from 1906 to 1920, taught at Manchester School of Art where he influenced LS Lowry, his most famous pupil.

The centrepiece of this gallery is a superb group of impressionistic paintings of Edwardian Manchester, painted between 1908 and 1913, which represent Valette’s most significant artistic achievement.

‘These memorable and enduring paintings capture the genesis of a modern metropolis where past and present collide.  In them a dense industrial ether of smoke, steam and fog envelops the Edwardian city’s streets and hangs gloomily over its rivers and canals.’
Adolphe Valette, A French Impressionist in Manchester, Manchester Art Gallery

When Valette returned to France in 1928, nine of his atmospheric paintings of the city were acquired by Manchester Art Gallery which now has by far the largest holding of his work.  These included his most ambitious work, Albert Square 1910 (above) which shows the busy city square with its Victorian Town Hall and Albert Memorial bathed in fog.  On the far side of the street, is a hansom cab, parked beneath the statue of Gladstone. Behind the statue looms the hazy silhouette of the Town Hall. The softly painted tones reflect his French Impressionist influences.

Valette: India House 1912


It’s possible that Valette saw Monet’s Thames paintings, such as ‘Charing Cross Bridge 1902’ (below), when they were exhibited in Paris in 1904. Valette seems to have had a love affair with Manchester’s smog-ridden atmosphere, discovering the same qualities of light that Monet found in the London fogs on the Thames a few years earlier.

Monet Charing Cross Bridge


Just as in Monet’s painting, in ‘Under Windsor Bridge’ 1912 (below) the forms are dematerialised by the industrial haze.  The composition is anchored by a ‘Mersey flat’, the type of barge used to carry grain, cotton and coal along the Ship Canal from Liverpool to Manchester. There’s a lone silhouetted figure taking in the scene that prefigures those in Lowry’s work. This painting was exhibited in Liverpool in 1909 at the Walker Art Gallery’s autumn exhibition.

Valette: Under Windsor Bridge 1912


Valette’s paintings of the mist-shrouded waterways of Manchester can also be compared with Whistler’s ‘nocturnes’, such as ‘Nocturne – Blue and Gold’ (below).

Whistler: Nocturne in Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, 1872-75


In 1910. Valette again exhibited in Liverpool and reviewers singled out for praise ‘Oxford Road, Manchester’ (below), calling it ‘a fine impression conveying all the greyness and sombre dignity of the city’.  The building under construction in the painting is the Refuge Assurance Building, designed by Alfred Waterhouse.

Valette: Oxford Road, Manchester 1910


‘Old Cab at All Saints’  (below) shows a smog-filled, autumnal scene of a hansom cab parked at the curb of Grosvenor Square (All Saints) on Oxford Road, Manchester.

Valette – Old Cab at All Saints, Manchester 1911


‘An Organ Grinder’ by LS Lowry (below) is displayed nearby to illustrate the connection between Valette’s images and the work of his student, inspired to paint the urban landscape as a result Valette’s example.

LS Lowry: An Organ Grinder, 1934


Lowry said: “I cannot underestimate the effect on me at that time of the coming into this drab city of Adolphe Valette, full of the French Impressionists, aware of everything that was going on in Paris … I owe so much to him”.

Valette: Rooftops Manchester


This exquisitely-worked pastel by Valette, ‘Rooftops, Manchester’, is truly evocative of a rain-soaked and sooty winter’s afternoon in industrial Manchester, and again displays an approach that was to influence Lowry.

‘York Street Leading to Charles Street’ (below) was painted in 1913 and, in its depiction of townscape with street labourers, connects with the work of the Camden Town Group from the same period. This was to be the last painting Valette made of Manchester.

Valette: York Street Leading To Charles Street, Manchester


‘It is not known why Valette chose to live and work in Manchester, or why he ceased to paint the seminal impressionistic views of the city that absorbed him for many years, and for which he is now acclaimed.’
Adolphe Valette, A French Impressionist in Manchester, Manchester Art Gallery