Richard Redgrave: Victorian Renaissance Man

Richard Redgrave (1804-1888) was one of the most successful painters of the 19th century; a Royal Academician with an eye for colour and a gift for detail, but his great enthusiasm for teaching and belief in what art could achieve meant he accomplished very much more.

No one could ever accuse Redgrave of wasting time or of not realising his full potential. After lecturing at the Government School of Design he became its superintendent and the driving force in refreshing its uninspiring methods of teaching. He was then appointed art director of the South Kensington Museum before it morphed into the V&A on whose original selection committee he served, becoming its first Keeper of Paintings. In 1855 he was special commissioner of the British artwork that debuted at the Paris Exhibition for which he was awarded the cross of the Légion d’honneur by the French Government. In 1858 he was appointed Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, cataloguing the entire Royal Collection in 34 volumes. In 1862 he organised of the art section of the Great London Exposition and in 1866 found time to co-author the seminal art reference work ‘A Century of Painters of the English School’.

Redgrave’s accomplishments as an art educator, curator, and historian were immense but there can be no doubt that it was his abilities as a painter and merits as a man that earned him his exalted place in British art history.

‘Going to Service’ & ‘The Poor Teacher’ by Richard Redgrave

In the first two decades of his career Richard Redgrave had mostly contented himself – as well as the Royal Academy and the art buying public – with picturesque landscapes, history paintings (Biblical scenes), and literary subjects. But in 1843 he exhibited ‘Going to Service’ and ‘The Poor Teacher’ at the Academy, two paintings that would see him set a radical new course. ‘Going to Service’ shows a lower middle-class girl as she leaves home and family behind for life in domestic service, whilst ‘The Poor Teacher’ (familiar today as the image on the Barnes & Noble cover of Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’) captures the loneliness that awaits her. The following year Redgrave trumped both paintings with a work that was to spawn an entire sub-genre of 19th century art.

Detail of ‘The Sempstress’ by Richard Redgrave

‘The Sempstress’ (seamstress) depicts an exhausted young garment worker in a dimly lit garret as she looks up momentarily from her unfinished work. The open curtains and longcase clock tell us it is two thirty AM.

Such exploitation was the day-to-day reality for tens of thousands of Victorian women (and girls). And these examples were not atypical or chosen by Redgrave at random. Three of the most common jobs for women in the 19th century were governess, seamstress, and domestic servant.

Just a few of the well known paintings directly inspired by Redgrave’s seamstress

For us, here in the 21st century, to look back and truly see how life was for millions of people in Victorian London is almost impossible. Our rear-view vision is impaired by all that has appeared in-between; the Ten Hours Act of 1847 that began to reduce insanely long working hours, the Trade Union Act of 1871 that made union membership reasonably legitimate, the Factory Act of 1901 that attempted to improve working conditions, the old age pension in 1902, the Housing Act of 1919 that began clearance of the capitol’s huge slums, the Representation of the People and Equal Franchise Acts of 1918 and 1928 that finally gave the vote to all men and women over 21, the Beveridge report of 1942 that lead to the wholesale improvements of the Welfare State, and in 1948; the National Health Service.

And then of course, there is television; more than half a century of sanitized, censored, and sugar-coated period drama to try and see beyond.

‘Downton Abbey’; great fun but not a reliable history lesson

Many modern reviewers of Redgrave’s work fail to take any of the above into proper consideration, preferring to show off their ignorance by labelling his work… and here comes one of my most despised expressions… “Victorian Sentimentalism”. Victorian art produced many mawkish potboilers but they were invariably (with one or two notable exceptions who we’ll touch on in a second) the work of less prominent painters. Redgrave’s detractors – often superfans of the earnestly moralising Pre Raphaelites – should really be careful who they’re calling sentimental.

It is both ironic and laughable that they should pan Redgrave’s pictures for “sentimentalism” and yet praise their Pre Raphaelite attention to detail when perhaps the greatest Pre Raphaelite of them all, Sir John Millais, painted some of the most horribly sentimental pictures of the 19th century.

Some genuine “Victorian Sentimentalism” from Sir John Millais

But this accusation is nothing new. In 1844, the celebrated author William Makepeace Thackeray condemned what he described as Redgrave’s “hysterical sentimentalism”, adding that “Art should inspire delicate sympathies” rather than make “course demands” upon the viewer. Thackery felt that art should be undemanding and “refresh you with its quiet good-fellowship”.

Of course, I agree that paintings can be purely decorative and uplifting, but should that be the sole purpose of all? To this day a great many people take much of their learning and opinions from public figures whom they admire rather from parents and teachers. Therefore, if you happen to be an acclaimed painter with a point to make, such an important event in the social calendar as the RA Exhibition offers up an opportunity that is too good to turn down. Instead of giving the citizens of this laissez-faire society more reassurance from another landscape you invite them to face an equally fine painting that has the power to re-awaken a sleeping conscience. This goes back to what I mentioned earlier regarding Redgrave’s enthusiasm for what art could achieve; that when done well it has the power to shape opinions and perhaps change lives.

Of course, whether you believe his paintings can still be called ‘sentimental’ rather depends on your definition of the word and your appetite for human feeling. Let’s remember that we’re not talking about pretty pictures of chirpy orphans frolicking in golden fields; these are well-executed testaments of what it was like for girls as young as 10 (yes, 10) to leave home and work a 100-hour week for pennies so their own families might not starve to death. Of course, for Thackeray and men like him it wasn’t so much the “sentimentalism” that rankled but rather it’s application to images of human suffering. But then why not level the same criticism at the Old Masters?

Before the flowering of the British School in the 19th century buying a painting invariably meant buying an “Old Master”; a Dutch or Italian picture (of wildly varying age and quality) depicting say, ‘The Rape of the Sabine Women’, ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’ and of course the crucifixion of Christ. Each violent and tragic scene executed to elicit the greatest emotional response from the viewer. It is certainly fair to say that the gentlemen of the Victorian establishment were perfectly familiar with, and happy to look at, overwrought depictions of human suffering as long as the humans doing the suffering were the ones in the Bible and not the ones they themselves employed to clean, and sew, and bring up their kids for tuppence a week. A picture of a young carpenter being crucified for asking people to be nicer to each other? Fine. A picture of a penniless prostitute lying grief stricken at his feet? No problem. But ask this same flock to face images of contemporary miseries and they did not like it one bit. No doubt because they hit rather too close to home.

Guido Reni’s ‘Penitent Magdalene’ & Redgrave’s seamstress;
should we feel compassion for one and not the other?

There is an unfortunate habit we all share of sometimes believing we’ve heard it all before, but we can never allow ourselves to forget the realities of life in domestic service for millions of young women in the 19th century, some of whom were our own flesh and blood.

I believe that Richard Redgrave’s paintings can only be fully appreciated and correctly appraised in the context of their time and with the tastes, attitudes, and moral mores of the day borne firmly in mind. As we have seen, unlike Millais, by the 1850’s Richard Redgrave had moved on from Biblical pictures (the original moralising genre) and was doing something genuinely new and illuminating, and I think it is enormously to his credit that he was more concerned about the fortunes of the living bodies of ordinary folk than any possible fate that awaited their souls in the Here After. But we should also remember that any working mid-19th century artist – even an A.R.A. as Redgrave then was – with a point to make, needed to present it in a way that wouldn’t frighten off potential patrons.

Redgrave knew how to approach and appeal to his audience, how their attention could be caught, their eyes opened to injustice and their hearts opened to charity. His was a necessarily genteel sort of appeal. It is highly unlikely that the art buying mid-19th century middle classes would have responded well to a Victorian Bob Geldof screaming “Give us your f***ing money!” This was back in a time when the public expected (even demanded) something very different of, and from, the artistes whose work they paid to see.

When the most famous actor of the day, William Macready burst through a door onto the stage at Drury Lane every night to the sound of a howling wind and handfuls of fake snow, his legs broadly akimbo, bellowing “tis I!” I can guarantee that no one in the audience muttered… “Hmmm, that was a bit melodramatic”. They gasped and said, “Wow, this guy’s great!”

In the 1850s, melodrama was drama, and to the Victorians it would have felt no less authentic than the ‘kitchen sink’ version did to audiences in the 1950s. That was the way the Victorians took their drama; melodramatically. And their art, and their prose, and even their correspondence. Look at this extract from a letter sent by Charles Dickens to William Macready in 1847…

“The multitude of tokens by which I know you for a great man, the swelling within me of my love for you, the pride I have in you, the majestic reflection I see in you of the passions and affections that make up our mystery, throw me into a strange kind of transport that has no expression but in a mute sense of an attachment which in truth and fervency is worthy of its subject.”

In the 21st century, can you imagine J.D. Salinger sending a note like that to George Clooney? Of course not. Very, very different times. If anything, Redgrave’s pictures were pouring it mild (as Edmund Sparkler in Andrew Davies’ brilliant BBC adaptation of ‘Little Dorrit’ would say); the desolate figure of the governess being quite the most discreet representation of working-class drudgery it’s possible to imagine.

In the end though what is so wrong about a being a bit sentimental?  Is there such a thing as too much sympathy and compassion? Certainly, prior to 1850 there was precious little of either for London’s poverty-stricken masses, the prevailing wisdom of the time being that they only had themselves to blame for their predicament.

Richard Redgrave’s estimable paintings and admirable convictions filled the void between the 18th century social criticism of Hogarth and the social realism of Frank Holl, Luke Fildes and Hubert Herkomer a century later. For his groundbreaking work both on and away from his easel he deserves to be celebrated as a true Renaissance Man of Victorian Britain.

By Gavin Claxton © Academy Fine Paintings Ltd 2020