Let me start this final post on the topic of UK industry in art by throwing in photos of a couple of paintings which didn’t make it into my previous posts but which really are worth being seen.
And now, with that out of the way, let me meditate for a minute on where things stand for UK industry and what its future might look like.
Through sheer coincidence I have been publishing these posts just when the British Parliament is going through what will probably be the last moments of a contorted, acrimonious process which will take the UK out of the EU, a process that was kicked off by the Referendum results of 23 June 2016. It is the leave vote that interests me here. There were many reasons why people voted to leave, many of them I’m sure having nothing – or relatively little – to do with the EU per se. Consider the following map, which gives a regional distribution of the vote.
The first thing that strikes one is the very clear difference in voting patterns between England and Scotland, and to a lesser degree Northern Ireland. That explains some of the Parliamentary shenanigans we have been witnessing these last two years. Putting that aside, the other major thing that strikes one is that, just from a territorial point of view, the vast majority of England and Wales voted to leave! (although the vote was admittedly close in many places) If the overall vote ended up such a close balance between leave and remain, it is because the bigger cities, which have big populations squeezed into small territories, voted strongly for remain. The following population-adjusted map shows this effect: London and its heavily populated surrounding swells, Scotland and Wales with their small populations shrink.
This divergence in the Referendum results between the large cities and the rest of the country has been interpreted as a protest vote on the part of those who live in the smaller towns. The Referendum was, so the thinking goes, a way they could figuratively stick a finger in the eye of the big-city elites. Since the EU is seen in the heartlands to be very much an elite project, a vote against the EU in the Referendum was very often a vote against the big-city slickers. The people who live in England’s and Wales’s small towns feel left behind, abandoned by the big cities. This must be especially true of towns which were once heavily industrialized whose citizens have seen their proud towns founder and collapse while the big cities seemingly have continued to grow and be ever more prosperous. One of the things that struck me as I prepared the last six posts is how many of the small towns in the paintings I was looking at were once busy, prosperous industrial towns and are now, because of deindustrialization, shells – ghosts – of what they once were. Looking at where the towns in the paintings I chose are on those voting maps, I can understand how the bitterness which has accumulated over the last forty years in these small industrial towns could have spilled over into a vote against the EU – especially since the UK’s membership in the EU started a mere decade before the UK’s deindustrialization started in earnest.
It’s so tragic really, because it looks like many leave voters actually stuck a finger in their own eye. As we have seen over the last few months, manufacturing, which although much diminished still mainly takes place in the old industrial towns, has taken a hit because of Brexit, with one multinational company after another closing down or downsizing their British operations. It will continue taking a hit: in the long term, it has been predicted that Brexit will cause more harm to those who voted to leave than to those who voted to remain. I fear that the divide between England’s big cities and the rest of the country will only deepen once – as I think is now inevitable – the UK leaves the EU. In turn, this will increase the social tensions which already exist and I see no obvious way of defusing them outside the EU. I must confess to being quite gloomy about the UK’s future prospects.
In the late 1980s, globalization really took hold and industry massively began to move out of developed countries and into developing countries. The UK suffered especially heavy losses of its manufacturing capacity. Whole communities not only lost their jobs but their whole raison-d’être. Their ancestors had been forced off the land to work in the factories, the towns they lived in had been created to house the factories, now there was no reason anymore for these towns to exist. People my age remember that time, especially the miners’ strikes, which was their last-ditch attempt to save an industry that was doomed by global market forces. Artists memorialized those terrible moments in the UK’s recent history.
But it was all to no avail. One after another, industries closed or moved away, leaving joblessness and broken communities behind
and leaving old workers with their memories of better times.
What of industry’s environmental impacts, the topic of my professional interests? Well, there was all that black smoke belching out of factories’ chimneys. Painters readily included these smoking chimneys in their paintings of industry: black smoke meant industrial activity, it meant economic progress, it meant wealth! But as we now know, all that black smoke must have also played havoc with people’s lungs, especially poor people’s lungs – they couldn’t escape to comfortable suburbs far away from all that factory smoke – and especially poor children’s lungs. As industry developed, especially the chemical industry, chimney stacks began emitting different coloured smoke, something which artists picked up.
Artists seem to have been less interested in painting the black rivers – or even sometimes highly coloured rivers if textile factories were involved – which were another by-product of industrialization. As usual, L.S. Lowry seems to have been the only painter who turned his unflinching gaze on this watery ugliness.
Of course, when industries closed or went away, this air and water pollution disappeared (only to reappear, though, in the developing countries where the industries relocated). Not so with industry’s solid wastes. In the early days, there was always a useful hole somewhere behind the factories where wastes could be conveniently dumped and forgotten about.
Industries may have closed down and moved away, but these noisome deposits stayed. How many of them have I dug up over my career! A poisoned present from past industries left for current and future generations to clean up.
And of course the mining operations – coal mines, tin mines, slate mines, … – have left indelible scars on the UK’s landscape, with their tips of mining waste looming up behind the mining villages.
In my next and final post, I’ll slip in some paintings which didn’t fit my narrative but which deserve to be seen by a wider audience. I’ll also meditate on what has been the deeper impact of this story on the UK.
The rural poor may have been chased off the land and dragooned into factories, but at least they went on to create vibrant, closely-knit communities. Artists celebrated this throng of humanity in the shadow of the factories.
In the bigger cities, these communities began to be ripped apart in the late 1950s, early 1960s by well-meaning attempts to upgrade people’s living conditions, but it meant that the centres of industrial cities were laid to waste as factories were moved out into industrial estates and the people were moved into high-rise blocks of flats.
Far greater wreckage was to occur a few decades later when the UK started deindustrializing under Thatcher as globalization shifted factories into the developing countries and left many old industrial towns and cities with no future. This topic will be covered in my next post.
The industrial revolution could only take off because the rural poor were chased off the land, herded into towns, and put to work in the burgeoning factories. These foot soldiers of the industrial revolution were immediately of interest to painters, who caught on right away to the military, drill-like quality of the work for many.
It is striking indeed that most of these pictures have women workers, but this might be more a reflection of the fact that many of the pictures were painted during the two World Wars, when women were drafted into the workplace to replace the men; when the wars were over they were expected to go home. (It is also striking that in the pictures in yesterday’s post, which were all from “heavy industries”, there were NO women.)
The harsh working conditions, the tendency of the factory owners to pay their workers as little as possible, the lack of job security, all led to worker agitation and the creation of the Trades Union movement as well as of left-wing political parties. Artists captured these political trends early.
In later decades, some artists were perhaps not so sympathetic to the workers’ movement.
Others were decidedly more sympathetic.
While all this was happening, a number of artists went about using the new art forms of 20th Century art to depict the real nature of work.
Artists were also interested in capturing the flow of workers into and out of the factories, at the beginning and end of their day or their shift. Miners’ shift changes got pride of place.
But pictures were painted of other factory workers too, catching them when they came out
or went in.
Paintings of workers’ lives in their local community outside the factory gates will be the topic of the next post.
Right from the start of the industrial revolution, artists were fascinated by the factories which glowed red in the night or sent flames leaping up into the night sky – William Blake’s dark satanic mills. Here is a series of paintings on this theme.
Much of that fire has emanated from iron and steel works, whose interiors have also drawn artists – like moths to a flame, we could say.
While the molten metal went on to further working, the slag from the foundries was thrown onto heaps where, still incredibly hot, it glowed sullenly until it had cooled sufficiently.
These slag heaps must have looked quite satanic at night, giving off a deep red glow.
Rolling mills, where molten – or at least red-hot – metal is rolled out, have also been a constant source of artistic inspiration.
Forging, too, has had its enthusiasts.
Moulding has also attracted followers.
I finish with a spray of sparks
and a homage to the men who spent their working lives in those dark satanic mills.
This last picture is an introduction to my next post, which will cover the theme of industrial workers.
The new structures created by the industrial revolution were immediately of interest to artists, who memorialized these new activities
as well as the buildings that sprang up to house them.
No doubt the owners of these new activities – the “capitalists” – were proud to have them memorialized, much as in previous centuries landowners had been proud to have their country seats memorialized.
The industrial buildings got bigger and more complex, but still their owners wanted artists to memorialize their factories.
But I suppose at some point artists just wanted to show the factories the way they really were.
And they tried using the new painting techniques of the 20th Century to capture the industrial reality they saw around them.
From the 1960s onward, artists who painted industry seem to have focused almost exclusively on recording the passing of the coal industry, which had underpinned the whole industrial revolution in the UK and was now entering its death spiral.
By 2007, the date of the last painting I show here, the British coal industry was effectively dead, along with much of the manufacturing industry which had powered itself with that coal.
A line from William Blake’s poem Jerusalem has given me the title of both this post and the previous one. Blake asks if Jesus ever walked over England’s green and pleasant land. When Blake wrote that poem, England mostly was still a green and pleasant land, a rural land. It was only slightly pockmarked by the “dark satanic mills” of industry which he mentions in that poem (“And was Jerusalem builded here / Among these dark Satanic Mills?”). Blake died in 1827, before – as the paintings in these two posts show – the blighting ugliness of industrial development had really started disfiguring the land. In my next post, I will explore artists’ fascination with the most satanic of those industrial mills.
I recently came across a wonderful website, Art UK. It is the fruit of a long effort to digitize absolutely every single painting, watercolour, etching, and drawing being held by public bodies in the UK. And I mean every such piece of art, from the products of the most exalted artists to those of the humblest, from pieces in a perfect state of repair to pieces which are dirty, discolored, scratched and peeling. And I mean every public body. Why, we are talking of as humble a body as the Goole Museum (I challenge anyone to tell me where that is without looking it up on Google Maps or some such). In this way, the website is able to make available 222,572 artworks. The purpose of the exercise is to give every UK citizen access to that body of art which in theory they own but which in practice is often locked away in physically inaccessible parts of public buildings or in store rooms. And of course, through the worldwide net they have made this a gift to the whole world. This exercise democratizes art not only by making it more accessible but also by taking away the filters imposed on it by an artistic elite who decide what is worth seeing and what should be hidden away from view in store rooms. Art UK has now turned its attention to all the sculptures being held by these same public bodies. I wait with bated breath for the result!
As readers can easily appreciate, it would be impossible to enjoy these 220,000-plus works of art without having the ability to use filters to extract from the site’s database some manageable subset of artworks. And indeed the website gives its users the tools to do this. So I have been spending my spare moments in the last couple of weeks doing just that, extracting works of art which fit a particular theme close to my heart: the depiction in art of industry. Allow me to explain.
I have spent my entire career at the interface between industry and the environment, trying to minimize the impacts of the former upon the latter. As readers can imagine, this has left me with a somewhat jaundiced view of industry. Although tangential to my areas of expertise, I have also seen close up how industry can impact the health, safety, and the general well-being of its workers, which has increased my jaundiced view of industry. Nevertheless, I also have to recognize that many workers have found in their industrial work a reason for pride in their skills and a comforting communal solidarity. It is also true to say that industry has created many well-paying jobs and has contributed significantly to general economic well-being – or at least it did so in the industrialized countries until the deindustrialization of the 1980s and 1990s wiped out whole swathes of industry and ripped out the fabric of many communities, a collective harm from which they have not yet recovered.
Now these are my own, very personal views of industry. How, I have been asking myself for many years, have artists been reacting to this phenomenon which has transformed our economies and our societies over the last 200 years, both for better and for worse? As readers can imagine, most mainstream museums show very few, if any, pieces of art about industry.
Art UK has finally offered me a wonderful way of checking how artists have been tracking the phenomenon of industrialization – and deindustrialization – in the UK, the country where the industrial revolution started some 200 years ago. Using search terms like “factory”, “industry”, “industrial”, “mill”, “mine”, “worker”, “union”, and “strike” I have been drilling down through the database. To do justice to all the artwork I have unearthed, I have prepared several posts, each on a different thread which I found running through the paintings. This post will look at the theme of industry in the landscape.
I start with the earliest painting I could find in this genre, from 1810, which places it in the first decades of the UK’s Industrial Revolution. In this landscape, which has figures dressed in Regency style in the foreground, we see the English town of Halifax. Industry has a very modest presence in this landscape, in the form of those three-storey mills close to the bridge.
In this next painting, from some twenty years later, we have a typical landscape painting: old, gnarled trees in the foreground, some rustics working at something among the trees to the left, the city of Bristol in the background. A black plume of smoke – that instant marker of industrial activity – signals the presence of some factory in the city. The industrial presence still seems modest.
In Rotherham in the same period, industry is much more present in the landscape. The tall cathedral spire is matched by several tall industrial chimneys belching their black smoke, while figures in the foreground carry on with what still seems to be a bucolic life.
And what could be more English than this, playing cricket while a factory chimney emits its smoke discreetly in the background?
By the late 1830s, industry has become very much more present in what were to become major hubs of industry in the UK, like this view of Sheffield from 1838.
The next two paintings, painted within a few years of each other, were painted about twenty years later. They are views of Manchester, and they too show this city, which was to be at the heart of the UK’s industrial revolution, with the same array of chimneys spouting black smoke.
In this painting of 1861, the traditional rural past of the UK still takes pride of place, although the future, in the form of a forest of smoking chimneys, lurks in the background. As we will see in a minute, that future will eventually engulf everything.
By about this period, the traditional landscape painting with industry a minor player in it disappears. I suppose this reflects the reality of what was going on. The small towns which had adopted industry grew rapidly and sucked into them the rural poor, who were to become the industrial proletariat of the future. Now landscapes give way to cityscapes, with industry now embedded in an urban fabric.
The countryside disappears to give place to views of the new industrial cities.
The bleakness of these new cities was well captured by L.S. Lowry, who from the late 1910s to the early 1960s was to paint these industrial cityscapes over and over again.
I add this next Lowry as a counterpoint to the earlier painting of church and industry. Now the church has been completely engulfed by the spread of industry.
Not all industrial landscapes of these years were as bleak as Lowry’s paintings. Here is one from 1932, which gives a more optimistic view of a typical industrial city.
But to my mind Lowry represents better the soul-destroying element of the UK’s industrial development.
Other painters, while not denying the bleakness of these industrial towns, pick up on the linear geometry of modern life.
But Lowry continued with his really depressing paintings.
This next painting shows what the landscape around an industrial town had become: a dirty and torn-up landscape devoid of any life.
Other painters continued to give a sunnier view of industry’s place in the landscape – we are now five years after the Second World War.
But others continued producing relentlessly dark landscapes – in this painting, cooling towers, which were to displace chimneys as the typical symbol of industry, make their first appearance.
Another dark cityscape from the late 1950s.
A sunnier version from the same year. Cooling towers are now very visible.
This painting is a return to earlier landscape paintings. It is celebrating the industries of the future, which are leaving behind the bleak, coal-dirty towns of the past (seen in the far distance) and starting afresh in the new industrial zones of the post-War period.
This is a slightly more realistic depiction of the huge industrial zones that are still with us today.
This is another throw-back to the landscape paintings of the past, although I suspect that this one is a mourning for what once was. The steel plant in the background was eventually closed down some 15 years after this picture was painted.
Here we have a bleak vision – not messy and dirty, just alienated – of industry from the 1980s.
This one is a commentary on how the beautiful object in the foreground was birthed in the ugliness behind it.
And finally, a contemporary vision of industry: still there but much cleared away, leaving joblessness and broken communities behind.
Here I have shown paintings where factories were but one of a number of elements in the landscape. The next post will show paintings of factories as the sole element in the landscape.