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1891 On Strike

The winter of 1890–1891 was exceptionally hard and December was the coldest month ever recorded in Britain. The misery did not end there, as in March the Great Blizzard arrived with heavy snow and gale force winds that sank ships in the English Channel and claimed the lives of over 200 people. 

The reviewers were certain that “the paralysing winter … the persistent fogs which came so capriciously and stayed so long”1 would be reflected in the Exhibition and “so gloomy [had] been the forecasts” that The Times was sure “the long, dark winter” would negatively effect the work of the artists.2 The Magazine of Art felt that: “the Cimmerian darkness”—in reference to the Greek mythological land of perpetual mist and darkness—“will have robbed [the] exhibition of much of the brilliance it would otherwise have possessed.”3

Explore the 1891 catalogue

In light of this dismal outlook, it is interesting to consider whether the freezing winter engendered a more sympathetic reception for Sir Hubert von Herkomer’s life-size representation of a striking worker with his family. On Strike was hung rather high in Gallery I, and was painted in earthy tones apart from the red dress of the babe being carried by its mother; this purer colour may have been intended to draw attention to the child’s innocence (Fig. 1).

There were other exhibits that either idealised rural work, such as Robert Walker Macbeth’s In the Cider Orchard,4 or drew sympathetic attention to the worker’s plight. In 1843, Thomas Hood’s poem, The Song of the Shirt, immortalised a seamstress’ life of drudgery and exploitation, whose only reward is “A crust of bread—and rags”. Artists in the 1840s and 1850s, including G.F. Watts and Richard Redgrave, were inspired by the poem to depict seamstresses and nearly fifty years later in the 1891 Exhibition the poem still seemed topical. There were at least two paintings which took it as their subject: Margaret Bird’s The Song of the Shirt5 and Claude Calthrop’s It is not linen you’re wearing out, but human creatures’ lives (Fig. 2),6whose title was a quotation from the poem. In Calthrop’s painting, a woman slumps on the work table while her colleague looks on despairingly as yet another pile of sewing is brought in. The sentiment is clear and our sympathies are for these women who, in the words of the poem:

Stitch! stitch! stitch!

In poverty, hunger, and dirt,

The poem goes on to say that if the “Rich” could see the slavery by which their shirts are made, they too would be moved to compassion. 

Herkomer’s painting On Strike introduces a different element to the plight of workers. It is less concerned with illuminating bad conditions than in the direct action that could change them. In the Victorian era, when the work ethic was idealised as a means of stability and prosperity for the family, the withdrawal of labour was shocking to many. Strikes were not a new phenomenon in 1891, as from the 1830s the Chartist movement had led to more politically organised unrest, although 1891 was in fact the first year from which official statistics on strikes were collected. The most recent strike had been that of the London Dockers, which started in 1889 and resulted in victory for the 100,000 strikers. Not only men were driven to strike: in 1888, the women matchmakers in the Bryant and May factory went on strike, and the Manningham Mills strike of 1890–1891 in Bradford included many women textile workers. Alongside direct action, the May Day demonstration in 1890 for an eight-hour working day attracted at least 300,000 people who gathered in London’s Hyde Park.

Some critics made direct comparisons with these recent events. The Illustrated London News referred to the work as “Herkomer’s ‘Dockers’ Strike’—a subject which, like the Salvation Army, has attracted several artists” and that “is full of animation and strong passion”.7 The Times thought that though nobody could “deny that in these days of labour disputes and acute social questions such a subject is appropriate to art” and that Herkomer had “given us a summary of one side, and a very important side, of modern civilization.” However, the critic queried the scale of the work, wondering “whether he could not have told his story better on a small canvas.”8 The Art-Journal also found that the artist made a “capital mistake of working out on a scale fully equal to that of life a subject which in no way calls for such treatment.”9

The critics presumably thought that the large scale valorised the main protagonist. Despite the striker being presented in a slightly melodramatic manner similar to huge theatrical portraits such as Thomas Lawrence’s depictions of the actor John Philip Kemble as Hamlet (1801) or as Coriolanus (1798), it unclear whether the artist intended to create a hero. The model, one of the artist’s favourites, was a gardener called Tom “Money” Birch and nothing specific in the painting points to an actual strike.

The artist’s own views on industrial disputes is not transparent either. In his previous work on The Graphic and earlier paintings such as Eventide: A Scene in Westminster Union (1878) and Hard Times (1885), he had recorded the suffering of working people in a sympathetic manner. In 1900, when lecturing to Royal Academy students, he explained that he thought “art that brings a living individual before our eyes is great art.”10 The implication is that reportage is more important than political comment, which lends an ambiguity to this picture. Yet it differs from a Victorian problem picture where the viewer was left to determine a particular sequence of events. It is less about working out a puzzle and more about the viewer’s attitude to the subject of industrial unrest. 

The painting draws attention to the suffering of the family and many critics commented on the “the gaunt, dogged, and surly labourer”,11 and “the sullen obstinacy of the man’s face”,12which was “rigid, hard, resolute”.13 In contrast, the “unhappy wife and half-famished children”14 are “apparently pleading with the man to give over a strike that costs so much and may even endanger the life of the little one.”15 Once having set this scene though, the sympathies of the critic could widely differ. The Glasgow Herald thought “the man is in evil case, ripe for any mischief”16 but The Birmingham Daily Post found that: “the pictorial power of this work is very great” as it presented “the wretchedness and misery of our barbarous method of settling trade disputes.”17

Possibly The Morning Post came closest in identifying Herkomer’s approach to painting when painting this kind of subject. It found that the picture:

combines with realistic accuracy a certain touch of the poetic ideal, and has been manifestly painted with due regard for that maxim of Balzac which serves, not inaptly, for motto of the catalogue, “La mission de l’art n’est pas de copier la nature, mais de l’exprimer”.18
  1. The Daily News, 2 May 1891.↩︎

  2. The Times, 2 May 1891, 14.↩︎

  3. The Magazine of Art (1891): 217.↩︎

  4. Reproduced in Royal Academy Pictures (London: 1891), 7.↩︎

  5. Royal Academy Exhibition 1891, which was auctioned in 1996.↩︎

  6. Illustrated in Royal Academy Pictures (London: 1891), 78.↩︎

  7. The Illustrated London News, 2 May 1891, 573.↩︎

  8. The Times, 11 May 1891, 8.↩︎

  9. The Art-Journal (1891): 197.↩︎

  10. Hubert von Herkomer, Five Lectures Delivered to the Students of the Royal Academy (London: 1900), 25.↩︎

  11. The Times, 11 May 1891, 8.↩︎

  12. The Illustrated London News, 16 May 1891, 648.↩︎

  13. The Birmingham Daily Post, 1 May 1891.↩︎

  14. The Times, 11 May 1891, 8.↩︎

  15. The Birmingham Daily Post, 1 May 1891.↩︎

  16. The Glasgow Herald, 2 May 1891.↩︎

  17. The Birmingham Daily Post, 1 May 1891.↩︎

  18. The Morning Post, 2 May 1891, 3.↩︎

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