Richard Redgrave – The Sempstress

19 Mar

Work — work — work!
My labour never flags;
And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
A crust of bread — and rags.
That shattered roof — this naked floor —
A table — a broken chair —
And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank
For sometimes falling there!

Richard Redgrave, The Sempstress, 1846

In a modest interior, on a light of a single candle a poor girl is wasting her precious hours, days and nights, labouring over a blouse she will never wear, or a dress for a dance she’ll never attend. Outside the last breath of twilight colours the sky in sad streaks of yellow. Lights on the windows appear one by one. The hour is merry. The night murmurs of dreams and far-off lands, it speaks to the poets and dreamers across the grey cityscape, and softly knocks on this poor needlewoman’s window… The night invites her eyes for a dream, distant trees are whispering gentle lullabies, but she knows she cannot leave her needle and rest her hands… The work needs to be done, the bills paid, warm bread on the table would be heaven… And yet her gaze is directed upwards; tired of the wordly misery, she longs for the stars. Her own shadow on the wall is her only companion; her kindred-spirits are the birds that sing cheerfully in spring, and white snowflakes in winter. She is yearning not for idleness and luxury but rather a heaven up there with all its promised delights, for this earth is unkind. Exhausting work day by day, night by night, have coloured her young oval face in paleness of sorrow, as she daydreams of the sweetness of the countryside:

Oh! but to breathe the breath
Of the cowslip and primrose sweet —
With the sky above my head,
And the grass beneath my feet.

She might be poor and starving in the countryside, but at least she would have fresh air, brooks and flowers that ease the life’s hardships in ways that the grey city cannot. In the early Victorian era, the newspapers were informing their readers about the exploitation of workers in the factories, often in the clothing trade. Still, when Richard Redgrave painted “The Sempstress”as a part of the wave of sentimentalised portrayals of working-class life, he was inspired by a poem he had read earlier, Thomas Hood’s “The Song of the Shirt“, which I already quoted above, first published on 16th December 1843. Here are some more lines that go well with the painting:

In poverty, hunger and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
A Shroud as well as a Shirt.

But why do I talk of Death?
That Phantom of grisly bone,
I hardly fear its terrible shape,
It seems so like my own —
It seems so like my own,
Because of the fasts I keep;
Oh, God! that bread should be so dear
And flesh and blood so cheap!

Her face expression, with large eyes turned upwards, and the way her figure is lighted in a dramatic way are reminiscent of the baroque paintings of female saints. Redgrave here portrays a realistic subject and offers a social criticism to eyes that wished to see it, but for the majority of Victorian viewers this painting offered a sentimentalized portrayal of working class reality; a life of sorrows, poverty and longing, with hope directed towards god. Is not this poor girl a martyr then? A martyr of a society blighted by the blossoming industrialisation and exploatation of cheap labour in factories.

2 Responses to “Richard Redgrave – The Sempstress”

  1. Eric Wayne 20th Mar 2018 at 2:24 am #

    The painting, the poetry, and your description all come together wonderfully and leave a strong impression as well as meaning to contemplate. Often I don’t give poetry enough attention to like it, but here I was able to engage the poem and appreciate it.

    Thinking about this woman and her situation, I instantly thought of the harsh alternative which availed itself of young women at that time and in relation to industrialization and flocking to the city, where one was lucky to find an underpaid job, and which the Pre-Raphaelites focused on.

    I like to think there’s hope for this woman. That she will go outside, that something will happen, that she will meet someone (in inclined). But history shows us the cruel stupidity and indifference of tethering most people to lives and livelihoods that allow for little pleasure or exultancy. It seems criminal, and to go against nature, for humans to relegate other humans to toil and drudgery. Though there will nearly always be glimpses, surprising, and shocking turns of fate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 20th Mar 2018 at 9:39 pm #

      Wonderfully put, I agree! I am very interested in Victorian representations of social issues and fallen women. It’s great when a poem and a painting share an idea and can connect. I always like to think there is hope, but in case of this woman, just as in the cases of many poor individuals in Dickens’s novels, I struggle to see hope or meaning to their lives. Cheers.

      Like

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