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.
Two Shepherd Boys with Dogs Fighting
Oil on canvas
88 x 62 in. (223.5 x 157.5 cm)
The Iveagh Bequest, KenwoodŠEnglish Heritage
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Sir Henry Raeburn