Monday, November 27, 2006

Walter Langley

Today was one of the unexpected delights of my job. I have to carry out tutor observations of our part-time staff and this morning I observed the art historian, Tim Stimson. The class was on the Newlyn colony of Victorian artists and focussed on the social realist, Walter Langley. The second half of the class was gripping as Tim explored the extraordinary mastery of Langley's watercolour technique, its astonishing detail and perfectly balanced composition. The class opened my eyes to Victorian Art and focussed on just one painting, "But Men Must Work and Women Must Weep". The title is drawn from Charles Kingsley's poem, "The Three Fishers". Tim is a champion of Langley's work and I think that he is right.

I was gripped by the painting. It was the face of the old woman that was haunting. Cloth links the flowing lines of the figures in a near perfect composition, a circular image that clearly gives us the idea of a life cycle, hence the three generations (did you spot the babe in arms at first?). Could it mean that each generation is condemned to repeat the same fate? I think not. The first clue is that the hand on the shoulder is too light to be more than consoling. It is not the embrace of a passionate shared grief, it is a gesture of solidarity. It said, "It is our fate, it is woman's lot".

Everything draws you to the old woman's face – and what a face! It bears an expression of profound sorrow, deeply etched, but it is also complex. Most importantly, it breaks the circle. It looks out, not back. It looks to the light. In its sorrow, it gazes to the sea and the past, but I saw more in it, determination, anger. And the poem is an angry poem.

Charles Kingsley was active in the Chartists and was a founder of the Christian Socialist movement. His early novels, notably Alton Locke (1850), written in the aftermath of the defeat of Chartism, are explicit explorations of social injustice. The Three Fishers is an obvious expression of this political sentiment.

The Three Fishers
Charles Kingsley (1819–75)

THREE fishers went sailing out into the West,
Out into the West as the sun went down;
Each thought on the woman who lov’d him the best;
And the children stood watching them out of the town;
For men must work, and women must weep,
And there’s little to earn, and many to keep,
Though the harbour bar be moaning.

Three wives sat up in the light-house tower,
And they trimm’d the lamps as the sun went down;
They look’d at the squall, and they look’d at the shower,
And the night rack came rolling up ragged and brown!
But men must work, and women must weep,
Though storms be sudden, and waters deep,
And the harbour bar be moaning.

Three corpses lay out on the shining sands
In the morning gleam as the tide went down,
And the women are weeping and wringing their hands
For those who will never come back to the town;
For men must work, and women must weep,
And the sooner it’s over, the sooner to sleep—
And good-by to the bar and its moaning.

It is because the circle of the composition is broken that I do not see three generations intrinsically locked into the same tragedy. We can see a circle as being past pain, current pain and future pain, accepted with bitter resignation. In this case, the figures would represent that resignation, the shattering of illusion and innocence to be betrayed, a complete circle. However, I see the figures differently as past, present and future. The past is experience, the present is despair and the future is hope. The old woman is certainly looking to the past and has clearly experienced the same hurt; she is feeling her pain rather than the grief of the young woman. However, she is staring into light from darkness, a common form of socialist iconography. Is she looking to the future as well as the past, seeing a new future where this will not happen again? Is she seeing a sign that a new dawn will break the cycle? Is she a visionary? This would fit into the climate of Victorian thought, which was ultimately optimistic and progressive. There was a common belief that the world could and would change for the better and this is expressed in all the arts. I cannot see Walter Langley, especially given his working class background, escaping this and this is the way Kingsley would have seen it. That Langley consciously referred to the poem in the title surely means that he meant to reflect Kingsley's anger and his politics.

The Victorian "cult of death" was, to me, part of the daily experience of a new mass society, of squalor and cholera in the cities, of dangerous and arduous work, and above all of the terrible heartbreak of high infant mortality and the death of women in childbirth. The cult of death produced kitsch, mawkish sentiment. This painting is not kitsch, not even masterly kitsch. Its style is social realism and I was struck by its lack of sentimentality, once again because of the old woman. The painting offers something more, and that is what I saw in it, a sense that the world will change and the circle will be broken. This is the message that the painting gave to me.

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