Children, Class, and Countryside

The New Child: British Art and the Origins of Modern Childhood
An exhibition at the University Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, UC Berkeley
August 23 - November 19, 1995

The morally didactic imagery of children provoked by the charity movement often focused on class issues. In contrasting city and country life, such images brought out the conflict between the reality of children's lives and adult attitudes projected onto them. Many such images (including Thomas Gainsborough's so-called "cottage" pictures) share a romanticized notion of the countryside as an innocent, idyllic environment in which to grow up. While often presenting children in tattered clothing, these images tend to ignore the realities of rural poverty.

In actuality, the Georgian period was one of profound rural hardship. Individual livelihoods and entire villages were obliterated by urban industrialization and the enclosure movement. "Enclosure" erected fences across open lands and separated poor farmers from what had been common land (an experience reflected in poems such as Oliver Goldsmith's "The Deserted Village.") Not surprisingly, few patrons of the arts wished to own visual records of such problems.

Urban life presented its own share of ills, often visited on children in the form of exploitative labor. Families sent children as young as age six to work in the most horrific conditions. The first child labor laws were not instituted until the 1830s, despite the visual propaganda of artists including William Blake and William Mulready. For Blake, child labor embodied society's failure to care adequately for its young.

Thomas Gainsborough
Two Shepherd Boys with Dogs Fighting
Oil on canvas
88 x 62 in. (223.5 x 157.5 cm)
The Iveagh Bequest, KenwoodŠEnglish Heritage
Explore this image in our Self-Guided Tour for Young People

Thomas Gainsborough
Peasant Smoking at Cottage Door
Oil on canvas
77 x 62 in. (195.6 x 157.5 cm)
Collection Wight Art Gallery, UCLA. Gift of Mrs. James Kennedy

Francis Wheatley
A Peasant Boy
about 1790
Oil on canvas
30 1/2 x 41 in. (77.5 x 104.1 cm)
Royal Academy of Arts, London

Sir Henry Raeburn
Boy and Rabbit
Oil on canvas
40 x 31 in. (101.6 x 78.7 cm)
Royal Academy of Arts, London

George Morland
The Squire's Door
about 1790
Oil on canvas
15 5/16 x 12 7/8 in. (39 x 32.7 cm)
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

William Mulready
Giving a Bite
Oil on canvas
19 3/4 x 15 3/8 in. (50.4 x 39 cm)
The Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Robert Dighton
Mr. Deputy Dumpling & Family Enjoying a Summer Afternoon
Mezzotint engraving
13 13/16 x 10 1/16 in. (35.2 x 25.4 cm)
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

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