Manchester Art Gallery.
The Dinner Hour, Wigan.
By Eyre Crowe (1824-1910).
Oil on canvas, 1874.
This scene shows the workers of Victoria Mill in Wigan and is a rare visual record of Lancashire mill life, painted nearly a decade after the Lancashire cotton famine. It shows a group of mill girls, dressed in clogs, shawls and aprons, as they relax during a lunch break.
Crowe’s painting of working class life is almost unique, addressing a subject that no artist had ever painted before, in a straightforward and unsentimental way. When it was first exhibited, one commentator wrote that ‘it was a pity Mr Crowe wasted his time on such unattractive materials’. The Times thought it a ‘praiseworthy attempt to find paintable material in the rude life of some of the most unlovely areas of Lancashire’. By the 1870s, Lancashire factory and colliery girls were well known to newspaper readers as ‘types’ from the industrial north, and Wigan attracted many tourists curious to see them.
To modern eyes, the girls look clean, well-nourished and neatly-dressed – only one is barefoot. Their robust good looks and cheerful appearance are in contrast to photographs and descriptions of the reality of the Lancashire cotton trade. It is hard to believe that the typical mill worker’s diet, of tea, bread and potatoes, could produce such healthy-looking young women. In spite of low wages and appalling working conditions, however, many young women preferred the tough life of the mill to the subservience of domestic work.
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