Michael Blaker. Source: Blaker 31. [Click on the image to enlarge it.], by William Strang R.A. (1859-1921). 1885. Courtesy of
Strang is known for his pictures of the socially disadvantaged as well as for his portraits of the successful and eminent. Here, a poor family occupies this narrow space in an attic room. Seated on the right is a barefooted skeletal man: he still has his hat on, so has perhaps has just come in, and taken his shoes off his aching feet. His lowly trade is represented by the empty basket in the right foreground, its strap lying loose on the floor. On the bed behind him, only one thin arm in clear view, lies an even more skeletal figure, probably his sick wife, while facing away from them both, a child eats or plays on the bare floorboards. There is a small saucepan at the fireplace. We can guess that the child knows no other life than this. There are no expectations here of change for the better.
Compare this rendition of a poor man's life with Thomas Faed's earlier, influential oil-painting Worn Out (1868). There are several points in common, suggesting that this work by a fellow-Scotsman might have been at the back of Strang's mind: an attic room with a sloping ceiling, small fireplace and bare wooden floor; a bag with its trailing strap; a man in his outdoor clothes, too weary or too poor to have changed into different ones, on a chair by a bed. But in Faed's painting the figure in the bed, covered with old newspapers and a coat, is the child, bathed in light, and there is a vase on the window-ledge with flowers in it, and a fiddle hanging on the wall. The man is asleep, not sunk in the stupor of despair. It is a pitiful scene but (unlike Strang's) one which has some sentimental touches, and a sense of human connection, too: the man's arm is on the bed and the child is turned towards him. Perhaps the father fell asleep while watching solicitously over the child. In Strang's tableau, the man has his back to the bed and the child faces away from the adults.
Michael Blaker feels drawn to "the melancholy ... the general air of unremitting hardship that so often appears" in Strang's etchings. He finds something more subtle here, as well, and more subtly pleasing, for he notes "apart from the inescapable elements of the subject, the beautiful blacks ..., the contrasts, the disposition of shapes, the depth, and the light created by these means" (31).
Image capture and text by Jacqueline Banerjee. You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the source and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.
Blaker, Michael. "Selections from the Editorial Collection, Part I." The Journal of the Royal Society of Printer-Etchers and Engravers. No. 8 (1986): 31-38.
Last modified 10 March 2015