Milan, 10 March 2019
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.
All photos taken from the Art UK website.