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Hard lines

Sir Hubert von Herkomer's depiction of old age in a Victorian workhouse not only tells of hardship, but of a society with little compassion for the poor

Sir Hubert von Herkomer's "Eventide", painted in 1878, shows a scene from the women's quarters at the St James's Workhouse, Westminster, London. Workhouses were established under the 1834 Poor Law Act to help people defined as poor, helpless or unemployed. They were deliberately made to be as harsh as possible so people would look for alternatives to being sent there. Workhouses were so dreadful they were called Bastilles, after the notorious French prison. Families were often separated, with men, women and children living in separate accommodation. New inmates had their few possessions taken from them (although these were returned if they left) and were made to wear regulation clothes. Food was usually monotonous, poorly cooked and tasteless, and servings were small.

In Victorian times, life was uncertain. Labour was often casual and many people did not have a guaranteed weekly wage. Industrial accidents, illness or debt could quickly reduce a family to poverty. Diseases such as smallpox were common, and doctors were expensive. Even those who had work found it difficult to save for their old age. When times were hard, people had to rely on their extended families or charity. There was no national health service or benefits, so many people had no option but to rely on the workhouses.

Despite the poor conditions, the women in "Eventide" look cheerful. Figures huddle beneath the window and along the walls. The most luminous part of the painting is the group in the foreground, who sit in front of an unseen fire. The women are bent over sewing, threading needles, drinking tea or reading. The old woman at the front, who is threading her needle, has a number on her bonnet, because her clothes are workhouse issue. The young woman is a workhouse employee who cuts cloth for them. Sir Hubert based the painting on drawings made in the workhouse, but brightened up the picture by adding some flowers. The title "Eventide" has a double meaning: the fading light of evening brings the day to a close, and it also refers to the approaching end of these workhouse residents' lives.

Some Victorians, such as Charles Dickens, protested about the conditions in workhouses. The poor feature strongly in Dickens's novels, such as Oliver Twist and Hard Times. At the beginning of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge refuses to give money to the poor because, he says, there are workhouses to provide for them. The famous Victorian poem "In the Workhouse", by George R Sims, tells of a businessman who had gone bankrupt. The previous Christmas his wife died of starvation while he was out looking for food after being refused poor relief. He berates the workhouse board members watching the paupers eat their festive meal, but is hushed by the others who don't want trouble.

Workhouses continued to operate in Britain until after the First World War. Old age pensions were introduced in 1908, after which elderly workhouse residents became a rarity.

Teaching ideas: primary

Key stage 2 history - Victorian Britain

This study looks at the impact significant individuals, events, and changes in work and transport had on men, women and children from different sections of society.

Life in the workhouse: use the picture to describe the ideas behind workhouses and how they operated. Ask pupils to imagine being a resident and to produce a narrative, including historical details.

Encourage them to think about:

* what the food was like (design a workhouse menu)

* whether the workhouse was warm

* if they saw their families

* what their clothes were like

* if it smelt in the workhouse

* why sewing may have been difficult.

Be a poor Victorian: use the picture to describe how the poor were treated. Read Oliver Twist or A Christmas Carol. Pupils could work in groups to act out a scene in a workhouse, from a child's point of view.

Life of the rich and poor: compare the painting to one of a rich Victorian family, such as the "Portrait of Mrs Catherine Gill", by James Tissot (copies can be downloaded from www.nmgm.org.uk). Pupils could make a table of differences as a basis for discussion.

Areas to examine could include:

* the clothes the people are wearing

* how the Tissot painting was commissioned and paid for by the family, so its depiction of them is complimentary

* the social status of the people.

Primary art: the "rich and poor" activity above could also be an art activity about the differences between paintings that were paid for by the subjects and those that were not. Pupils could draw portraits of their families or themselves that include everything they feel is important about them. They could then produce a contrasting piece about an aspect of themselves that they would not pay someone to photograph or paint.

Teaching ideas: secondary

Key stage 3 history - Britain 1750-1900

This is a study of how the expansion of trade and colonisation, industrialisation and political changes affected the UK, including the local area.

Victorian values: use the picture to explain how workhouses operated and how they reflected middle-class ideas about poverty, respectability and working hard. Allow pupils to find out and list other ways in which these ideas were expressed, such as in the temperance movement. Do these views still exist? Examine what help is now available for the poor, then compile a timeline.

Historical enquiry: use the painting as a piece of historical evidence. Ask pupils to discuss whether it is an accurate representation of a workhouse. They can compile a table to note which parts they think are accurate and which have been improved on: for example, the added flowers.

Life of the rich and poor: use the census from 1851-1891 to learn about the population in your area, including the occupations, level of unemployment and standard of housing. Compile a graph or map to display the data. "Eventide" could be contrasted with a painting of a rich Victorian family (as described in the primary activity). The conclusions could then be added to the maps and graphs for a classroom display.

This article was written by the staff of the education division, National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside

THE WALKER GALLERY

The Walker Gallery in William Brown Street, Liverpool, is the national gallery of the North, and one of eight venues that comprise the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside. It has collections of paintings and sculpture from the Renaissance through to the 21st century. Teachers' notes and pupil workbooks are available and previsit courses for teachers. Current temporary exhibitions include the Art of Paul McCartney and Turner's Journeys of the Imagination, until August 4. The Earl and the Pussycat: the Life and Legacy of the 13th Earl of Derby is on until September 8.

National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, education department Tel: 0151 478 4178 www.nmgm.org.uk

Sir Hubert von Herkomer 1849-1914

Sir Hubert von Herkomer was born in Bavaria and came to live in England in 1857. He started his career as an illustrator for the Graphic Magazine in London. As a young man he painted realistic social scenes, particularly about the life of the poor and disadvantaged. Vincent van Gogh had an extensive collection of Sir Hubert's work, including engravings relating to "Eventide", which he admired for their expressive qualities. Sir Hubert became a successful portrait painter and owned an art school in Hertfordshire. He is regarded as a British artist.

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