Category Archives: painting

Luke Fildes: his social realist paintings

I have been wanting to share my M Phil thesis more widely for about a decade.

I had always intended to try to develop a book out of it. I must admit that I have put off re-reading it for all of that time. I knew that typographical errors would jump out at me that I had missed, despite going over it repeatedly, through over-familiarity with the text at the time (and sheer exhaustion – I had worked at least 16 to 18 hours a day on it during the final 6 weeks of writing). As soon as I had finished writing it, I wanted to revise it, and knew that I might change my interpretation of some facts. Having discovered some new primary material recently, I would probably want to revise an element of the family history, but it would not change very substantially what I wrote 12 years ago.

This is just the first chapter, slightly edited. It is the least illustrated chapter of the thesis. I want to publish the rest but there are issues with permission, although the original drawings, prints and paintings are all out of copyright. I cannot afford to pay fees to use official museum photographs of some of the key images (those in my thesis are my own photographs, taken with permission for research purposes).

After a decade of writing for the Web for a general audience, the paragraphs look horrendously long to me. If you can face reading it, I would be delighted.

Chapter One – Introduction

Sir Luke Fildes, RA (1843-1927):
His Social Realist Paintings
Janet E Davis.


High art for the masses

Fountain, Trafalgar Square © Janet E Davis

Fountain with National Gallery entrance in background, Trafalgar Square © Janet E Davis

Often, I would be one of the first to defend the right of public cultural institutions to charge for special exhibitions, or even a modest cost for entry (provided there are appropriate exceptions and concessions). They need to have money to open to the public, and temporary exhibitions of work mostly borrowed from others has been one way of also making more money. I should also state at this point that I knew a lot about the costs and income of such places at one time because I was involved in the monitoring of expenditure and income for, and in project planning of, about 140 heritage sites.

I was interested to read Charles Saatchi’s piece in the Guardian’s ‘Comment is free’ section: ‘£20 for an exhibition – are museums fooling the public, or themselves?’ especially his statement:

But even London’s leading museums, admirable in so many ways, only earn about 7% of their annual costs from ticket sales – the rest being provided by the public purse, and sponsorship.

It would be interesting to see if this relatively low proportion is at the same sort of level at provincial museums. His assertion that it would be easier to attract sponsors to provide more funding if the special exhibitions were free to all may be true in London. I do wonder whether it would help to encourage sponsors elsewhere in the country.

I do agree with Charles Saatchi that exhibitions should be free, but I am not yet convinced that they could find ways of filling in the income gap beyond London. If it were that easy, we would not have had museums closing or having to reduce their opening hours to save money.

The principle of people having access to experience some of the finest achievements of culture and knowledge was well-established by the late 19th century. Successful industrialists set up museums and libraries in towns and cities throughout Britain. Many libraries were founded on collections donated by earlier, 18th century benefactors who believed that it would benefit all to have access to culture.

Henry Cole had argued for the importance of educating everyone about good art and design. He pushed for the founding of the V&A Museum (Victoria & Albert Museum) and set it up to:

  1. inspire designers
  2. educate ordinary people about art and design
  3. encourage industrialists to manufacture well-designed products that could compete with any from elsewhere in the world.

Henry Cole could see clearly the connection between good design and the country’s commercial success. He understood that by educating everyone about what good art and design is, not only does the country get better designers and makers, but also better-educated customers who expect better design.

One of the most exciting developments of the last 200 years has been the increasing opening up of the best of cultural heritage in our public museums, galleries and historic properties to almost everybody in the UK for free, or at a reasonably affordable price. The best art and design, including architecture, has been produced for the rich. Traditionally in Britain for many centuries, this meant mostly for the Church, royalty, aristocrats and the wealthiest of the upper middle class.

By the early 19th century, the government of the day was sufficiently concerned by the standard of Britain’s designers to have set up the Government School of Design in 1837. This became the National Art Training School in 1853 (and usually called the South Kensington Schools in the later 19th century). Bursaries enabled the best students from from less affluent families and from elsewhere in Britain to study there. The students were able to study some of the best art and design in the world in the South Kensington Museum (later renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum).

Although the South Kensington Schools were intended to train young men and women to become designers or art teachers, many went on to be professional fine artists. During the 1860s and 1870s, many of the graphic artists who worked on the rapidly proliferating illustrated journals and newspapers were those students as they emerged into full-time professional work. These publications were the Web of the day. They went into homes throughout the United Kingdom, and the illustrations (including those in holiday and other special supplements) were cut out and pinned to the walls in even the poorest labourer’s cottage.

Fast-forward to 1960s Britain: art and design is at the heart of a  post-war contemporary culture renaissance. Art schools produce some of the great rock and pop bands as well as some of the most challenging artists and coolest of designers.  Many in the rest of the world want what Britain creates. Meanwhile, Woolworth’s stock framed pictures for the masses: clowns crying, a herd of white horses galloping out of the waves, mediterranean waifs with huge eyes crying, Constable’s Suffolk idylls, Tretchikoff’s ‘Chinese Girl’ (more usually known as the ‘Green Lady’).

The British masses also had access to some of the greatest art and design in the world in their public museums and galleries. There were grants to enable the talented from any socio-economic level to go to art school. The art schools produced designers so talented that companies from elsewhere in the world snapped them up (sometimes offering places before they had graduated). One of the most successful companies in the world (at the time of writing) which has had most influence on design so far in the 21st century has a design team headed by a British designer.

It is vitally important to our society both culturally and economically that all have access to see and learn about the finest art and design. The UK is a special place where for centuries there has been cultural stability and flux simultaneously as trade and political connections bring different cultural influences from everywhere else in the world.  This provides a great environment in which creativity can flourish if people have access to it.

We need our public museums and galleries, and we need to keep the free ones free to encourage future generations to continue the superb British tradition of creativity. This is especially important in an age when tuition fees are likely to deter many potential talented people from studying at university. Both our culture and our country’s economy would be badly affected if only the wealthy had access to the best of art and design. We need the masses to access and understand ‘high’ art.

Further reading

Charles Saatchi, ‘£20 for an exhibition – are museums fooling the public, or themselves?’ Comment is Free, The Guardian, Monday 30th January 2012 14:30 GMT.

<; last accessed 8th February 2012.

Javier Pes, ‘Ten years of free entry, but can it last?’ The Art Newspaper, 1st February, 2012.

<; last accessed 8th February 2012.