Thursday, 13 October 2011


The Wichita Lineman, Feed the Birds from Mary Poppins, Jessie’s Song from Toy Story 2. These are no-questions-asked, quick and easy routes to make me cry. I am now crying just thinking about them. For goodness sake. Feed the Birds reminds me of my grandmother who would play the song on her organ and her dog would howl along. Jessie’s Song (which I can’t even hear in public without sobbing, so trips to The Disney Store are fraught to say the least) is about eventual and certain abandonment by everyone you love. It taps nicely into my fear and certainty that everyone will outgrow me and I will end up in a cardboard box in a lay-by. Possibly that's a metaphor, but I am now crying so much my nose is running. Excuse me a second.

Anyway, I’m not here to tell you about my fear that you will all leave me. Or about my unexplained misery brought on by the Wichita Lineman (that snow is never ending and he wants to go home, but it just won’t stop snowing. Oh God.) I’m here to talk about possibly my secret favourite genre in Victorian painting: The Knuckle-Biter. It all started with this picture…

Doubtful Hope (1875) Frank Holl
I saw this picture at an auction of the Forbes art collection, and my friend Phil and I thought it was the most gloriously miserable thing we had ever seen. The virtually dead woman clutches her last coin as the pharmacists look doubtfully on. She’s not leaving alive. No-one is leaving alive. Good Lord, any minute she might cough and it’ll be all over. Good God, that’s bleak.

Anyway, it brought about a curious game – when travelling around the country, going to galleries, Mr Walker and I play ‘Who can find the most miserable picture imaginable – so miserable you want to bite your own hand with the heart-rendering pathos and bleakness of it all…’ It’s a game for all the family! We may one day write a book on the subject, so you can bite your own knuckles in the comfort of your own home. So, we like hope dashed, imminent death, and utter devastation, and plenty of it. Here are some choice examples, the very pinnacle of the genre…

Never Morning Wore to Evening But Some Heart Did Break (1894) Walter Langley
There should be an entire book on the misery of fishman, possibly there is, but Newlyn seems to have produced a couple of great practitioners of depression. Take Walter Langley. He brings some excellent sea-widows to the table, with some cracking titles. It’s amazing any fishmen made it out of the 19th century alive, seeing how many utterly desolate paintings there are of women awaiting the boat that will never return…

Among the Missing Walter Langley
What they do seem to provide you with when you marry an ill-fated Victorian fisherman, is a shawl-clad crone to pat you when your husband is lost at sea. God knows you seem to need it swiftly.

A Hopeless Dawn (1888) Frank Bramley
Lord alive, not another one?! Huddled in your miserable (but clean and honest) home by the sea, all you can do is wait for that dead fisherman, but he’s gone. Did you not check out the art work before you married him? Did you not see that Cornish + Fishing = Death? If only everyone had stopped eating fish in the nineteenth century, who knows how many lives may have been saved and canvases may have remained unpainted. I need to blow my nose again…

Hush (1877) Frank Holl
Ahh, that’s better. A nice little domestic scene, with a mother shushing her child to allow her baby to sleep. I feel better already…

Hushed (1877) Frank Holl
Well, thank you Mr Holl, that is just so bloody bleak. Yes, that baby isn’t crying any more, is it? And I bet you’re married to a bloody fisherman. It escapes me why images of infant mortality were so popular during the Victorian period. Possibly because it was marginally becoming better for some parts of society, possibly because the people buying the paintings were the ones for whom the situation was improving and they could indulge in a little ‘grief tourism’, which in my opinion should be a criminal offence. If we excuse the images of dead women that abounded as being pseudo-erotic, it is at least vaguely understandable, but dead babies?

Her First Born Robert Reid
Who would want this on their wall? It’s just appalling intrusion into grief and made-up grief at that. When I read a book where terrible things happen to characters, I move through the story with them, they are not locked in a moment of tragedy forever. This is different and I don’t understand why anyone would want to buy it.

Death of Her First Born (1876) Frank Holl
Thanks Frank, I knew I could depend on you. Was I not crying hard enough? I swear I will cough up a lung in a minute. Isn't it interesting that it's 'her' firstborn, not 'their', even though the father (I presume) is with the sobbing mother at the funeral.  God, and the kids are carrying the coffin…

 For Such is the Kingdom of Heaven (1891) Frank Bramley
This has to be one of the finest proponents of the genre. You have little girls in white and children carrying the flower strewn white coffin. I like to think that some young girl has popped off, maybe due to grief after the rest of her family died in a fishing boat accident.

I am the Resurrection and the Life or The Village Funeral (1872) Frank Holl
There is something a little Millais-esque in the features of the little girl leading the mourners. She’s so stoical, despite the fact that everyone keeps dying. The narrative aspect of such pictures is where the fun begins (in the loosest sense of the word). The best examples of Misery art are the ones where you have to work out what’s going on. I’m guessing that it’s the little girl’s mother who has died of being poor and rural, and the man whose hand she holds is her father. I’m not sure why the woman behind them is being overly emotional, but you always get one, don’t you?

Faithful Unto Death Henry Emmerson
Pathos isn’t limited to widows and orphans. There is a nice selection of animals in the world of Misery art. That shepherd isn’t tending any more sheep, however much his dogs howl. They should be a bit more dignified, which they would have been had they been painted by Landseer.

The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner (1837) Edwin Landseer
What will happen to that dog now? What will he do for food? Will he be able to get another job?
It’s okay, I heard he got work in Cornwall.
On a fishing boat.


  1. Not to mention all the mourning dogs lying alongside their dead masters on the battlefield.

  2. Indeed, I'm sure there is a cracking one in Manchester - is it 'The Last Cavalier' or something equally as hideous? Dog squashed by canonball, I believe...

  3. Cot did one that always upsets me
    Charity for my sister
    Pathos was almost a Victorian industry - I blame Dickens and Paul Dombey and Little Nell

  4. Charity for my Sister is like a manically-depressed The Blind Girl. Marvellous. The Victorians loved a good wallow, didn't they? Mind you, who doesn't?


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