In this blog I am once again returning to nineteenth century social realism art. Today’s artist was a genre painter who was also known for his wood carvings and book illustrations. Let me introduce you to the English painter, Ralph Hedley.
Ralph Hedley was born in the North Yorkshire village of Gilling West near Richmond on New Year’s Eve 1848, the son of carpenter, Ralph Hedley, and his wife Anne Hedley. The Farrier’s Arms in Gilling West was the first house Ralph lived in. Around the age of two, Ralph and his family left Yorkshire and moved to Newcastle upon Tyne where the Industrial Revolution had opened up new opportunities for work.
Ralph attended school up to the age of thirteen and then became an apprentice at the wood carving workshop of Thomas Tweedy and during his evenings he attended art and design classes at the Government School of Art in Newcastle upon Tyne, where the principal was the Scottish poet and artist, William Bell Scott, a landscape and history painter who had also painted scenes from the Industrial Revolution in his work. The Industrial Revolution had changed the life of the population. Changes which were good for some but for others who had moved to the cities to grab the new opportunities for work there had been adverse consequences due to the rapid growth of dense urban areas with their problems of public health, housing, crime, and poverty. William Bell Scott greatly influenced Ralph Hedley. And at the age of 14 Ralph was awarded a bronze medal by government’s Department of Art and Science.
On completion of his apprenticeship with Thomas Tweedy, Hedley set up his own woodcarving and architectural sculpture business, which proved a great success. As a wood carver, he received many commissions for decorative work in churches. In 1874. Hedley married his wife Sarah Storey and they had six children, three boys and three girls. One daughter died in an accident, but the other five would all take up woodcarving as well, and two of his sons, on the death of their father, would take over the running of the workshop.
Despite working as a wood carver, Hedley loved to spend his free time painting, and he had many of his works accepted into the Royal Academy’s exhibitions. Hedley had more than fifty of his paintings displayed at the Royal Academy between 1879 and 1904. In 1879, he completed his painting entitled The Newsboy accepted by the Royal Academy’s jurists for inclusion at that summer’s exhibition. It is a humorous depiction of a very young boy who has succumbed to tiredness and fallen asleep on some stone steps as he waits to offer people his newspapers.
Thirteen years later Hedley returned to the subject with his 1892 version of the The Newsboy. An article about this picture appeared in the Evening Chronicle of 27 January 1930:
“…For years this young newsboy stood against the hoardings which then occupied a site practically opposite the Central Station…..Seen almost invariably with a sack around his shoulders this young seller of ‘Chronicles’ became a familiar figure…”
In 1881 Hedley completed one of his best-loved paintings, Blinking in the Sun (Cat in a Cottage Window) sometimes referred to as Ralph’s Cat. This tabby cat has that lazy, “loving-the-sunshine” expression on its face which every cat lover will recognise as their feline searches out the warmest spot they can find. Its sleek fur looks like it is a well cared for feline. The cat is sitting on the windowsill of an old stone cottage next to an old earthenware pot of geraniums and narcissi and a Chinese vase of red tulips.
Ralph Hedley and a number of fellow Newcastle artists set up the Bewick Club in 1884, an art group named after Thomas Bewick, the famous Northumbrian wood engraver. The club held a number of exhibitions which attracted large numbers of artists from the region. The works on show varied from landscapes and seascapes to genre depictions that had a sense of gritty realism. The raison d’être of the Club was to promote the needs of professional artists and to urge not only the patronage of rich individuals but of the interested less wealthy local population.
Between 1882 and 1889 Ralph Hedley’s skills as a wood carver were put to use in the renovation of the interior of the Chancel and Reredos of the Cathedral Church of St Nicholas, Newcastle. His workshop carved the choir and rood screen for the scheme by architect Robert James Johnson. John McQuillen, author of The Church of St. Nicholas, With a Brief Sketch of the History of Newcastle wrote of Hedley’s role in the internal renovations:
“…The richly-carved woodwork, a creation in which grace and strength are united, is strictly in keeping with the severe style of the chancel, and in accord with ecclesiastical traditions, was executed by Mr Ralph Hedley, and splendidly upholds his craftmanship and artistic feeling…”
Hedley’s great-granddaughter, Clodagh Brown, said that Hedley was responsible for the exceptionally fine wood carving in the choir, including the rood screen, Bishop’s throne, and canons’ stalls with misericords. For more details of Hedleys work in the cathedral take a look at Victorian Web page:
What I believe was Hedley’s greatest contribution to society was his pictorial history of everyday life in Tyneside during the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. When he died in 1913, the Newcastle Daily Chronicle recognised the importance of his work, writing:
“…What Burns did for the peasantry of Scotland with his pen, Ralph Hedley with his brush and palette had done for the Northumberland miner and labouring man…”
The Industrial Revolution in Britain was a period deemed to be between 1780 and 1830. It was an episode in British history which saw the transition from being agricultural to being industrial. There was a movement of the population from the rural areas to the urban areas. The standard of living for those working-class people who came to the city in search of work was of a poor standard and to make matters worse, work was hard to come by and when you achieved employment, the wages were meagre and barely enough to survive and support your family. These hard times were ones Hedley depicted in his paintings. One example of this is his 1888 painting entitled Out of Work with an alternative title, Nothing to do. The setting is the dockside of the River Tyne. The four men had queued for a job that morning but were not hired. Now all they have to do is to sit around and wait to re-apply for work the next morning. Look at their distraught expressions. They know they have to return home to their families and break the bad news.
Another of Hedley’s work which focused on the plight of the unemployed is his 1904 painting, Seeking Situations. The setting for Hedley’s work is what we would now call a “Job Centre”. In it we see a number of men, some only young lads who may be looking for their first job, and a single female. They are all studying the job adverts which are posted on the information boards. According to the Laing Gallery in Newcastle which owns the painting, the setting is in fact the Victoria City Library, a building which was situated close to the artist’s studio in Newcastle. It is interesting to look carefully at the various individuals Hedley has depicted. In the foreground there is a bearded gentleman who is slightly hunched over. Looking at the way he is dressed, he does not look like a manual worker and probably held, at one time, a supervisory role. He looks sad and dejected. He is walking away from the noticeboards having not been able to find any suitable employment. His age and reduced ability are probably working against him. Contrast his hunched and crestfallen demeanour with that of the young man to the right of him. Again, by his clothes we know he is not a manual worker. He is dressed in typical office-clothes. His appearance and mood could not be more different to that of the bearded gentleman. He looks pleased and eager as he spots a job description which would suit him perfectly. He hastily writes down the information. The only woman depicted in the painting is dressed well and has a refined air about her. She is probably looking for shop work rather than factory work. This compassionate but entirely unemotional work was a great example of social realism and is one of Ralph Hedley’s best-known paintings.
Young children of working-class families and their lot in life was depicted in many of Hedley’s paintings, as was there time at school. A fine example of this genre was his 1896 painting with the unusual title, Barred Out. The title is all about a widespread custom, up to the 19th century, known as the ‘barring-out’ of the schoolteacher by his pupils. On a certain day agreed by the school authorities, the pupils planned to bar the classroom door with the teacher outside and refused to let him in until he agreed to their terms, which were usually for a half-holiday, or something similar. In Hedley’s painting we see schoolchildren enjoying the North-East custom of barring the teacher from the classroom on the 29th of May, until the holidays for the next year had been agreed. One boy is wearing a Northumberland hat with a red pom-pom. Ralph Hedley has depicted the setting as a shabby country classroom in which children of many different ages are being taught together. The children’s clothing albeit shabby and multi-patched does not detract from the depiction of happy and healthy children. However, although some of the children’s clothes are patched, they seem happy and healthy.
………………….to be continued