Part One: ‘Poverty is beautiful maan!’
A retrospective of the work of photographer Chris Killip served to confirm a feeling I had some years earlier and renewed since, that a certain picturesque quality attaches to the representation of the British working class objectified in ways that deny the subjects responsibility and, importantly, the possibility of change¹. Photographs of the extremely marginalised in our society at that time, precisely, coldly, placed on a museum wall and encapsulated. I was reminded of a phrase used by John Berger to describe his thoughts on two portrait paintings of peasants by 17th century Dutch artist Frans Hals:
These people belong to the poor. The poor can be seen in the street outside or in the countryside. Pictures of the poor inside the house, however, are reassuring. Here the painted poor smile as they offer what they have for sale. (They smile showing their teeth, which the rich in pictures never do.) They smile at the better-off – to ingratiate themselves, but also at the prospect of a sale or a job. Such pictures assert two things: that the poor are happy, and that the better-off are a source of hope for the world².
The photography in question was part of a long project looking at travellers who had settled down on the north east coast collecting coal washed up by the tides to sell door to door. They used ponies and carts amongst the waves and lived in dilapidated caravans. The gleanings in sacks heaved and piled up, the bedraggled men in flat caps and old overcoats and gum boots, the piebald ponies, fading winter light, and, at times, sleety rain whipped by northerly winds, all captured on cameras worth more than all they possessed.
These images sealed a sort of view of the working class – so untypical and now at odds both as true record and prediction.
The coal still washes up (taken away in near corporate 4×4’s now) but beyond this coast a hinterland of villages built to serve coal mines closed forty or more years ago, have been transformed into desirable retirement destinations and Air B&Bs, where truth be told, the coal gleaners were always shunned by the workers. Killip memorialised a fragment that never did represent a wider reality. It fitted a view of the world and is now its legacy, a visually challenging look at a place and people who were exceptional at the time, held at a distance not simply of time. Killip, like other photographers and film makers he associated with then, wanted a population who could be plausibly serve as ‘natives’. It was never true.
There is a history to this safe pigeon holing the working class. In the later 18th century fashionable houses hung paintings of Italian ‘banditti’ in the public rooms, glamorous figures striking poses, outlaws in landscapes of Classical allusion, ruins and piled up cloudscapes over beautiful mountains. The frisson of danger at a safe distance for former Grand Tourists³.
There has always been this searching after the authentic ‘native’ in Britain shared by generations of intellectuals since the end of the 18th century. It has always been about replacement; replacing the actual with a acceptable framed projection of the deserving poor. The actually poor always wanted to leave poverty behind. There is nothing celebratory about poverty at all, unless you are an artist or run a museum.
Recently, the British white working class have disappointed their liberal patrons. In 2016 these ‘Red Wall’ constituencies voted Conservative.
Few who watched Labour shift its focus away from its heartland vote towards the metropolitan cities and its discourse from core principles towards minority and fractional issues could be surprised in truth.
Following Brexit the liberal belief in the utility of the ‘workers’ collapsed. It was common to hear liberals call the once reliably placid fellow travellers as ‘gammons’ and ‘knuckle draggers’ in comments placed beneath articles of lamentation and reproach in The Guardian. As this writer remarked (until cancelled), insulting people seems a strange tactic to win them to your cause. In truth the split was coming long before. The destruction of the industries that typified the working class, coal and steel making, engineering and manufacture had been swept aside by Thatcherism without being replaced by New Labour. Despite this by the turn of the century, life had changed. Anyone touring the heartlands could see this; solidarity had morphed into aspiration. What had happened to Essex Man, Mondeo Man, now came north4.
1. Chris Killip 1946-2020. From 1991-2017 Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies, Harvard University U.S.A. Tish Murtha (1956-2013) worked as photographer around the same time and part of the same artistic collective centred on The Side photographic and film co-operative. She split with this group over what she perceived from her background was their essentialising view of what the working class was; as Murtha put it “poverty is beautiful, maaan” attitude. Murtha died young. Her daughter has promoted her mother’s legacy with typical Geordie verve: http://www.tishmurtha.co.uk/
2. Ways of Seeing John Berger 1972. A television series and book based upon it.
3. Bandits in a Landscape William Gaunt 1937. One of the most highly prized by connoisseurs at that time was Salvator Rosa (1615-73), almost unknown now.
4. Thatcher’s claim to fame was conquering the formerly sold white working class county of Essex by latching on to the innate conservatism of working people accelerated by her Barrow Boy economy. (Barrow boys were street wise traders, not to say crooks; Mondeo was a poplar marque of Ford motor car that had a certain appeal across the demographic Thatcher captured – white, patriotic and hard faced).