Revolution – Art & Artists
By Denis Taylor
A three part series of articles about the story of how a very few number of Artists chose to represent one of the most important era’s in modern history. An era that even today continues to affect our planet. It’s a story of how the artists, ignored by the art world establishments for several decades, finally became recognised in their own country as Master artists within a genre that is rapidly becoming of visual and artistic importance beyond the limited borders that these artists once lived and worked in. The term ‘Northern Artists School’ has been coined to describe their art.
When you think of the word ‘revolution’ another word automatically springs to mind to precede it. American is one, French is another, perhaps Russian depending on what part of the world you live in. Few people automatically put the word ‘Industrial’ in front of it, maybe because the industrial revolution was more of a ‘slow burn’ and happened over centuries, rather than a dramatic instant thrust of social change. Yet the industrial revolution was by far the most important thing that has happened to civilization since someone in the middle east discovered that a seed bearing plant (wheat) could be turned into food (bread), which enabled mankind to develop skills and a society beyond the limitations of living as nomadic hunter gatherers.
Let’s start at why the industrial revolution came about. Without laboring on the specifics too much, you could say it was the need for ‘energy’ to drive machinery to increase productivity for goods to trade. Initially, energy was provided by manual labor and mules or horses to haul wood, then came water power and then the most important source of energy of all, Coal. This was a fuel that was cheap, plentiful, efficient and England had plenty of it. The use of coal (in the late part of the 17th century) was the ideal energy source to expand production of goods. This new energy source combined with the new steam machines and a political policy that allowed entrepreneurs to build an industry free from interference or hindrance, from governmental legislation, it gave impetus for the entrepreneurs to invest in the new technologies, but it was Coal that provided the vital cheap energy source that fanned the fires of the Industrial Revolution, a metaphorical fire that is still burning even today.
The driving force of profit gave rise to an elite establishment of industrial Barons, who concentrated workers in purpose built Cities. Unskilled workers who traded their labor for wages. The workers kept the wheels of industry churning out the Manufactured goods for the export trade. Raw materials and goods were effectively distributed by new infrastructures, ones that remade the whole environment (i.e. Interconnected Ports and Cities by way of Canal and River systems and new Road networks). Once this mass Revolution began in earnest, there was little stopping it and the entrepreneurs (and the State) became wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. It was this system of unstoppable industrialization of a country that continues globally, as we can now see in the industrialization of China, India, South America, etc.
Yet, industrial wealth comes with a heavy and a high social price. By the Victorian period (1836-1901) and well into the Edwardian era (1901 to 1914) in England, terrible disease was at epidemic levels in the new Cities.
Killer diseases were typhoid or scarlet fever, they spread rapidly, caused by overcrowding of populations who lived in unsanitary conditions. Workers had poor nutrition and were generally overworked. It was only one of the many negative spin-off’s of the drive for more profit for the industry Barons, who ran this brave new industrialized Britain. Un-natural mortality rates of infants was endured by mothers and the life expectancy of fathers plummeted. Not to mention genetic mutations, consequences of the out of control industrial pollution of the environment.
Having been born and raised in a City like this myself (Manchester) I can assure readers that nothing you may have read, seen on YouTube videos or heard about the poor health, dire living conditions and the consequences of pollution on the inhabitants of Victorian industrial British city life, has been under-played or over-stated. It is only in relatively recent decades that conditions have improved and a cleaner environment has been enjoyed by the Northern inhabitants of Britain.
So what has all that to do with Northern Art and the Artists, the ones that I wish to bring to your attention, you may well ask. Well, absolutely everything, for without this background information it will be difficult for you to understand how an Art, that has essentially a very ugly subject matter, has now become highly valued. A value of rising monetary levels associated with perhaps, only say, the early paintings of the French Impressionists.
One of the painters who admired and emulated the impressionists style was to play a major role in the birth of the ‘Northern School of Artists’ in Manchester.
His name was Pierre Adolphe Valette.
Born 1876 in Saint Etienne, France. He was enrolled as an Art student at the age of fifteen years old at the Ecole Régionale des Beaux Arts. Here he developed his natural ability in art, design and engraving. He proved to be an exceptional talent of all of the specialist art skills and seemed destined to become an important contributor to the local small industries of southern France. He moved to Lyon (a large City with employment opportunities) where he supported himself as an engraver. By 1900, (after the important Paris World Fair) he decided to take evening classes at the Ecole Municipal des Dessins de la Guillotiéres in Bordeaux. Whilst working as an engraver during the day.
Valette travelled to England in 1904, where he studied at the Birkbeck College (of Art). We can guess that he was following in the footsteps of Claude Monet, who only five years earlier had spent time in London (1899). Monet seemed enraptured by how the effect the fog and smoke of London dissipated the light & altered color.
Monet’ paintings of the Charing Cross bridge and the Houses of Parliament (1903 & 1904) being exceptional examples. Valette, who was greatly influenced by all the impressionist work (and later the post impressionist), must have been aware of Monet’s extraordinary paintings of London.
Valette’s instinct for light, color and subtle tonal values was the perfect combination for the ‘smog’ laden environment of the UK Cities, (smog is a word invented in 1905 that describes the mixture between fog and
smoke). An instinct he put to good use.
No one quite knows why Valette travelled to Manchester from London in 1905, although an assumption could be made Manchester, was one of the most wealthy Cities of the industrial revolution, and offered an untold opportunity for a young and gifted Artist/Designer. The City had already gained a nickname of ‘Cottonopolis,’ because of the sheer number of the immense cotton processing mills that were built and nestled between a labyrinth of man made waterways (canals) and rivers.
Manchester’s thriving industries welcomed and attracted immigrants from all over Europe, including Ireland, Italy, France, Poland, etc, all of whom were employed by many of the textile manufacturing companies or helped provide the labor for the expansive construction of this ambitious Victorian industrial City.
Industrial Revolution Art and Artists: concept and articles ©DenisTaylor 2016.