Regency Benefits Street: How images of the poor fascinated the 18th century rich

By Jeremy Knight, Museum and Heritage Manager, Horsham Museum Published: 22 September 2015

Our fascination with the poor via TV programmes like Benefits Street is nothing new, says Horsham Museum's Jeremy Knight

a drawing of a man pouring pig swill for a pig into a bucket
A George Morland etching from his drawing book (published 1798)© Courtesy Horsham Museum
During the height of the recession, 6.5 million people watched Benefits Street – a television programme about the poor in Britain in 2014. Two hundred years earlier, at the height of the war with Napoleon, the nation was similarly gripped by the sight of pictures featuring the poor and dispossessed.

Nowadays the poor are shown on flat screens, tablets and computers. Back then it was oil paintings, prints and fully illustrated books. So popular were they that the metal plates wore thin through so much use.

Today, such paintings by Morland, Barker and Ward are seen as old fashioned, clichéd and out of date. Yet Horsham Museum and Art Gallery's powerful new art exhibition, Portraying the Poor and Industrious in the Age of Waterloo, shows that we are not so distant from the age of Jane Austen in our fascination with the poor.

an etching showing a woman with basket on her head holding a lobster and man proffering a fish from a basket to a woman
George Morland (1790)© Courtesy Horsham Museum
Many of George Morland’s prints have become the backdrop to a slap-up meal in today’s rustic pub, as images adorning walls and place mats. This has neutered the impact of what they actually portray: the harsh reality of life when the nation had been at war for 20 years and starvation stalked the land. In 200 years’ time would we imagine place mats with images of ‘Benefits Street’ on them?

Artists responded to the growing insatiable demand for poor people.

One of them, Thomas Baker, used cutting the edge technology of lithography to portray the poor of Bath. His 40 drawings of the destitute, worn down and starving children and adults were published in 1813 and sold in numbers to the very wealthy.

Another artist’s work on show is William Marshall Craig, whose striking watercolour of wood gatherers in the snow shows the response to Regency ‘fuel poverty’, with the family possibly collecting wood from the unenclosed commons.

a painting showing a family of woodcutters
William Marshall Craig, The Woodcutters (1795). Watercolour© Courtesy Horsham Museum
The artist George Morland had ready access to the very poor and those on the margins of society due to his own dissolute life and William Henry Pyne captured the life of the poor and the industrious in his celebrated book Microcosm, which is on display in the exhibition, to allow the rising number of amateur artists to populate their pictures.

The exhibition also shows other aspects of the poor: how they were used in four remarkable prints issued in 1799 to show a united nation, 215 years earlier than our conversations of what a United Kingdom means.

It also reveals how phrases such as “hard working families” and the “working poor” were portrayed, when William Marshall Craig painted and then turned the street sellers of London into one of the most successful range of prints ever published, The Cries of London.

a painting of a cowshed with two people and a cow being milked
The Cow House, drawn and engraved by James Ward (1793)© Courtesy Horsham Museum
The exhibition has a small annex which shows the flip side of the tale, the side that is reflected in the very wealthy and the sense of ‘bling’, just as the media today fixates on luxury food, cars and art.

But what the exhibition really shows is how our fascination with the poor is nothing new.

While not contemporary, here is art that is current and that reveals how in a time when the Duke of Norfolk bought the town of Horsham for £93,000, artists were portraying the poor for the aspiring classes to hang on their walls and for polite society to converse about.

A 200-year-old version of the water cooler moment the day after the programme was aired.

an etching of a woman with two baskets filled with porcelain
William Marshall Craig, from The Cries of London (drawn 1815, published 1837)© Courtesy Horsham Museum
a pastoral painting of a village cottage with a family
Evening by Francis Wheatley (published 1800)© Courtesy Horsham Museum

  • Portraying the Poor and Industrious in the Age of Waterloo is at Horsham Museum & Art Gallery from until November 28 2015. Admission free.

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Three exhibitions portraying poverty

Museum of London
The social divide of mid-19th century London is reflected in the galleries of the current exhibition, People's City: 1850s-1940s. A room wallpapered with Charles Booth’s poverty maps sits alongside a stunning art deco lift from Selfridges, a glamorous symbol of the emerging West End.

Tate Modern, London
Artist Cao Fei spent six months with the employees of a lighting manufacturing plant in China’s Pearl River Delta region, an industrial megalopolis that in the past two decades has attracted great numbers of migrants from poor rural areas. The artist documented the workers’ daily life, from the factory floor to their humble living quarters. At the same time she conducted interviews about their passions and ambitions beyond their day job, and invited some of the workers to be filmed performing scenes based on their responses. Until October 25 2016.

Vestry House Museum, London
Between 1730 and 1841 the building, which now houses Waltham Forest’s local history museum, was a parish workhouse. Conditions were harsh and it was a place of last resort for many. Yet for the unemployed, sick, elderly, pregnant or orphaned children who lived there, it provided a place of refuge when there was nowhere else to turn. Find out more in the exhibition, The Workhouse: Life on the edge in 18th Century Walthamstow. Until January 17 2016.
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: