One of the most remarkable tricks of time is its habit of turning true hardship into a kind of wistful nostalgia. Today, readers of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) most often leave with pleasant visual impressions of Fezziwig’s ball, or of the reformed Scrooge spending a glorious Christmas morning walking the streets of Victoria’s London. This holds true for even the most wrenching parts: the horrid children Ignorance and Want, the privation of the Cratchits, the visitations to prisons and lonely seafaring men, these all acquire a rosy glow in our mind’s eye.
Nothing could be further from Dickens’ intent. He wrote A Christmas Carol in response to the dreadful conditions of working children throughout the United Kingdom, and with a horror for the current Poor Law and debtors prisons. None of the wretched encountered by Scrooge should be seen with a twinkle; indeed, a resurrected Dickens would point with shame at the miniscule progress we’ve made in terms of humane and equitable treatment of the world’s poor. (I can well imagine Dickens, rosy with cold weather and fired with poetry, excoriating the One Percent from the center of Zuccotti Park…)
Few painters better captured the often appalling conditions we fail to recollect in the throes of Victoria-mania than Sir Luke Fildes (1843-1927). Fields is little remembered or valued today, which is a telling indictment more against the sins of Modernism than it is a critique of his talent.
Fildes entered the Warrington School of Art when he was just 17 years old. He studied under Frederick Walker, the great leader of the social realist movement in the UK, and was an avid advocate on behalf of the poor and destitute. He joined the staff of The Graphic in 1869, using his art to underscore the suffering so commonplace around him.
Fildes was asked to provide an illustration for an article on the Houseless Poor Act, which provided temporary shelter for the homeless in the casual ward of a workhouse. The drawing, called Houseless and Hungry, was so accomplished that he set it aside to later turn into a finished painting.
Fellow artist and contributor to The Graphic, John Everett Millais (1829-1896) was so impressed by this picture that he showed the engraving to his friend Charles Dickens (1812-1870). Dickens commissioned Fildes to illustrate The Mystery of Edwin Drood and the artist had finished 12 illustrations when Dickens invited him to his home, Gad’s Hall. Just as he was about to start the journey, Fildes received word that Dickens had died.
Dickens’ family invited Fildes to come and finish illustrating the book. While at Gad’s Hall, Fildes drew The Empty Chair, showing Dickens' empty desk and chair. The drawing was published in the 1870 Christmas edition of The Graphic, and was so widely celebrated that thousands of prints were sold to mourners throughout the realm.
Millais persuaded Fildes that he had the talent and vision to become a serious painter. He urged Fildes to turn Houseless and Hungry into a painting, along with another drawing done for the Graphic, Fair Quiet and Sweet Rest.
Houseless and Hungry became Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward, finished in 1874. The picture took the Royal Academy by storm, where it could only hang under police protection from behind a railing. The picture dramatically illustrated the disparity between rich and poor in the Victorian England, and has lost none of its power to move.
Casual is an enormous canvas – some nine feet long. Fildes became quite friendly with several of the homeless who served as models, often inviting them to his home. It is not simply Fildes’ virtuosity that makes this painting so remarkable, but the unflinching recognition of human suffering and the artist’s empathy for his subjects. The ragged mother carrying an infant and leading a scruffy child moves forward with her head tilted, as if beaten by both the cold and shame. Her hand cradles the shawl holding the child, who is completely invisible.
The background figures are remarkable, each individual and with an appreciable story. There is a neer-do-well with his hands in his pockets, belly out and topper cocked, clearly drunk. Four children – is the boy a cripple? -- huddle round exhausted parents, the father nearly asleep against the wall as he holds his child. Even the dog, in the lower left corner, is meager, scrawny and ravaged by disease.
The wall is drab, and the prints on the wall offer no respite from misery as the words Missing and Murder are clearly visible on the handbills. The gaslight throws no light or warmth and the police officer directs a man on the downward path towards the hell that awaits.
The triangular composition, stretched-out much like a police line-up, reads almost like a checklist of misery, poverty and despair. It is one of the most remarkable pictures of its era.
Fildes would later spend much time painting in Venice. He became a full member of the Royal Academy in 1998 and was knighted in 1906. His own life was not untouched by tragedy, his son Philip dying of tuberculosis in 1877.
For Fildes, like Dickens, the poor were not props to be pulled out at the Christmas season to provide contrast, and nothing else. Perhaps we should all take the words of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred to heart, when he said: There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say … Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.
There would be no place for a talent like Sir Luke Fildes in our contemporary art scene, which is interested only in stunts and flummery and not an examination of the human condition seen through an artist’s vision. We are all poorer for it.