Saturday, 8 December 2012

Hard Times a painting and a story

This is one of those paintings I come back to time and time again, and each time it prompts me to reflect on how little I know about those men and women who migrated across the country looking for work.  

These four may stand for many.  They have few possessions, only what they carry in the blankets along with his tools.

The journey has been long and you sense that the children and their mother cannot go much further.  But he stands resolute gazing across the fields to where there might be work and shelter.

Hard Times was painted by Hubert von Herkomer in 1885 and hangs in the Manchester City Art Gallery.

It crops up fairly regularly in books and on the covers of novels of 19th century rural life, and has generated its fair share of criticism.

At the time there were those who were repelled by its realism while later others have argued that it over idealises the labourer, seeking to contrast the tired and forlorn figures at his feet with his own steadfast confidence that in the distance there will be work and the promise of better times.

I cannot pretend that I have that depth of knowledge or even that ability to really get under the painting but as that caricature of low brow culture often says, “I know what I likes” and I do like this painting.

For me who has spent some time describing the landscape of rural Chorlton in the 1840s as well as the lives of the people who lived here Hard Times works for me.

I can almost feel the chill in the winter air and hear the sound of the rooks with their piercing and ugly cries breaking the silence of  the empty sky.

At the same time I recognise that landscape.

Look at the OS map for the township in the 1840s and there in the fields behind the hedgerows are the same ponds and water courses as well as the twisting lanes which seem to follow no logical route other than they were determined by ancient field boundaries and natural obstacles.

Just how many such wandering families passed through Chorlton is unrecorded but enough of our farmers had shippons where their labourers were accommodated above the cattle.

And there were plenty of people living in Chorlton during the middle years of the century to suggest that our population was no stay at home bunch who never went more than the next village.

Now Hard Times was painted in 1885 just one year before Thomas Hardy published The Mayor of Casterbridge with that memorable opening sentence,

“One evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one third of its span a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching the large village of Weydon- Priors, in Upper Wessex on foot.”

And it may be that there is more than a hint that here we are dealing with people who while they are on the margins of poverty experiencing hard times, do have a dignity and determination about them.  A little over forty years earlier many would have been self educated, and pursued a variety of interests from literature to the natural sciences.

Men like the shoe maker Richard Buxton and his fellow botanists who were hand loom weavers who in their spare time roamed the countryside around Manchester recording the plant life and discussing their finds in working class societies.

While here in the township there were those of energy and determination who worked hard, left the fields to play in our brass band, raised money for church and lay buildings and participated in the local democracy of the community.

Now I do have a romantic side, but history has taught me that you cannot draw too cosy a picture of rural life in the 19th century.

Work was long and often interspersed with periods of unemployment, living conditions could be basic and pretty uncomfortable and the ever present threat of ill health, lack of work or just bad luck could pitch almost every labouring family into poverty and destitution with a spell in the workhouse.

Which brings me back to the painting.  Now true it depicts a real moment of hard times but it suggests that there is a dignity and nobility in these unknown people on the tramp and that will do for me.

Oh and I have learnt that Hubert von Herkomer, who was born in 1849 and died in 1914, was not only a painter but also a pioneering film director and composer.

Picture; Hard Times, by Hubert von Herkomer, 1885 Manchester City Art Gallery, taken from Wikipedia common and in the public domain because the copyright has expired.  

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