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Review of Last Lecture

So what was country life really like in the nineteenth century?  Was it a rural idyll, with roses round the door of your thatched cottage, or was it living in squalor with not enough to eat and working every hour of daylight?

Felicity Herring gave us a feast of pictures from both sides of the spectrum.  Many painters were abe to sell their paintings to the newly emerging middle class, who were living in comfort, usually in towns, and wished to emulate the rich by having pictures on their walls.  One of the best known and most successful was Constable, with his Hay Wain and Salisbury Cathedral.  He was, along with Turner, the pinnacle of representatives of the rural idyll.  On the other side of the coin were Richard Redgrave with The Sempstress, still working at 2.30 in the morning, and Birket Foster The Chairmender.  In the middle were Samuel Palmer with The Gleaning Field,  and Thomas Faed with Home and the Homeless.

Most of the successful painters were themselves sons of town dwellers.  They moved out to the countryside to enjoy the idyllic life-style but experience taught them that life was harder than their dreams.  

Sir George Clausen caught scenes in the fields, with whole families working away, children as well as mother and father toiling to bring in the turnip harvest; men scything the hay.  He also painted attractive young girls relaxing in the fields, indicating that they had been working, but occasionally stopped.

Wages were minimal in the countryside, food was scarce, many lived on bead and potatoes, poaching, unsurprisingly, was rife.  Thomas Wade gave us the Inside of the Poachers Home.  Bare floors, virtually no furniture, and children.  Frederick Hardy gave us Preparing for Dinner; the wife sitting on a stool, scraping a carrot to go with their bread with one more stool for father to sit on.

Outside, in the more chocolate boxy pictures by artists like Helen Allingham, gardens were full of flowers, trees were in bloom and the sun shone.  In reality the gardens probably had vegetables in them, and of course, the weather was British.

Sir George Clausen                                                                                          Helen Allingham

Farm labourers began to complain of the hardships of their lives, but initially this only made matters worse, as wages in Hampshire were reduced from 7 shillings an hour to six.  No wonder so many people were moving to the towns in this time of industrial revolution, town wages were 11/- a week and jobs were plentiful.

There was a lighter side to life, apart from attending Church every Sunday, villagers had the occasional entertainment.  Wilkie's Blind Fidler and The Card Players and Thomas Webster's Village Choir evidenced this.  John Robertson Reid painted The Cricket Match, although the main focus seemed to be the beer tent. Sir David Wilkie's Pitlessie Fair also shows the whole village population enjoying themselves.  Wilkie was very conscious of both sides of the coin, his Distraining for Rent when eviction obviously threatened brings this home.

Finally, if they could not move to a town, and had not ended up in the work house, or deported for a minor offence, they emigrated.  Felicity's final picture was Richard Redgrave's  The Emigrants' Last Sight of Home.

Felicity gave us a feast of beautiful paintings, topped and tailed by Richard Redgrave, and including many whose paintings we knew well, and others whose careers we had missed.