The Spirit of the Age: Work and Art in Victorian England

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This is the last week to see Victorian Radical, an exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum of Pre-Raphaelite art. On first impression, you may wonder how these artists, with their baffling medievalism and stylistic clumsiness, could be taken as revolutionary. After all, handcrafts like embroidery, wallpaper, hand woven tapestries don’t appear particularly threatening. Yet the title is well earned, to understand it we must visit the life and times in of the Pre-Raphaelites; and it turns out that today, Labor Day, is an apt time for the conversation.

The 19th century, like our own age, was one of swift change that drastically affected how people worked and lived. In the early part of the century, Britain was predominantly a nation of farmers , rural communities and cottage industries. Work was fused with a sense of place and tied to personal identity and tangible skills were learned and passed, from one to another, providing the goods and services needed by the neighbors. The making of fabric was the business of whole families working together from the spinning of the thread to its weaving and the selling. Life in rural villages had its seasons, feasts and holidays and was in rhythm with the rising and setting of the sun, and rooted to the land where families lived and worked.

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Within a generation this would all change, inventions from the previous century such as engines, power looms and spinning frames were perfected and put in the first factories which ran round the clock. Machines run by a child, working in dangerous conditions, for 12 hour shifts, with low pay, could produce as much as dozens of craftsmen working at home. By 1840 the mechanized spinning and weaving of cotton became Britain’s most valuable product, ushering in the Industrial revolution.

Many good things came from Industrialization, including the innovation and personal freedom that has given us the prosperity of our own time. Yet, there was also a cost that took the form of squalor, overcrowded cities, environmental degradation and, for many, a loss of meaningful work through specialization and the separation of mental and physical labor into two different job types. This sets the stage for the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood whose interest in craftsmanship and things like weaving, take the form of protest.

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The PreRaphaelites looked to a simpler way of life, a preindustrial era, where a craftsman’s work added beauty to people’s lives. They saw, as artists often do, the steep costs of an age that valued the material over the spiritual, but their answer to the squalor of the age was a utopian vision. The critic and philanthropist John Ruskin spoke against ‘this degradation of the operative into a machine” declaring, “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make him both. “ Artists put forth ideas of more fulfilling work that resulted in human flourishing.

The Pre-Raphaelite imagination was drawn to medievalism, (as were people influenced by them such as J.R.R. Tolkien) with its tales of heroism, beauty, courage and high endeavors. In the Pre-Raphaelite hands, gone was dehumanizing sterility, they wanted their art not be relegated to museums but to be used, to touch everything -from the designs of our homes, bedcovers, wallpaper, books and teapots and, of course, drawing and painting.

Perhaps this Labor Day we can reflect on the Pre-Raphaelites advocating for beauty in homes and the dignity of meaningful, creative work. Perhaps in the spirit of the day we can use our free time for reverie. Let’s go down the block to get a pint of small-batch ale, made with local, organic hops, from the bartender with the handlebar mustache, and discuss at the utopian dreams, visions and art of the Victorian Radicals.

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