Give back their future

If you were young, how would you be feeling about your future, decided by your elders in a badly informed opinion poll last year?

Past and Present, No. 2 1858 by Augustus Leopold Egg 1816-1863Augustus Leopold Egg Past and Present, No 2 1858. Image: Tate

Two orphaned sisters are reduced to poverty and despair because of the actions of their parents. The elder girl is now responsible for both their fates, and neither she nor we see any hope for her as she looks yearningly at the moon.

On Saturday’s Unite For Europe march, the intelligence and passion of three speakers (Ismaeel Yaqoob, Elin Smith, Felix Milbank) representing Students for EU moved the crowd in Parliament Square and along Whitehall as in turn they pleaded eloquently for isolationist, zenophobic Brexit to be reversed so they can have their futures back.

The New Cosette, marching to Unite for Europe on 25 March, 2017 © Martin Hübscher

In 1858, Egg told another tale of an older generation’s betrayal of the young. A whole family, father, mother and two children, are victims of unfair, unnatural social rules designed by patriarchy to benefit itself.

Egg (a friend of Dickens and Wilkie Collins and a fellow enthusiast of amateur theatricals) painted a triptych showing the disintegration of a middle-class family after the husband’s discovery of his wife’s adultery.

Augustus Leopold Egg Past and Present No 1 1858. Image: Tate

The shamed mother’s abasement is observed by her elder daughter, and though she is still as tiny and prettily dressed as a doll, the intensity of her expression as she looks directly into the abyss of adult life shows childhood is over. That penetrating glance of the girl’s raises the painting above run of the mill domestic melodrama into the sphere of compassionate understanding for children that distinguished the great Victorian social reformers.

The husband throws his wife out of the comfortable family home on to the streets. With no money or home of her own, and no legal rights to her children, the woman is destitute. In the third painting she leans out from under the squalid arch of a Thames bridge to look at the same moonlit sky her daughter sees in another part of the city. The bond between them is unbreakable, but they cannot help each other.

Augustus Leopold Egg Past and Present No 3 1858. Image: Tate

Rather than give his genre paintings individual titles, Egg chose to exhibit them using a caption of dramatized narrative immediacy, characteristic of contemporary Victorian novels on the theme of the fallen woman: ‘August the 4th – Have just heard that B – has been dead more than a fortnight, so his poor children have now lost both parents. I hear she was seen on Friday last near the Strand, evidently without a place to lay her head. What a fall hers has been!’

Through the written words, not an image, we learn that the injured, intransigent father has ultimately failed in his role as provider and protector of his progeny. The moral and legal system has failed the people entirely.

A contemporary phrenologist, like George Combe, would have wanted to examine the woman’s head for a prominent Organ of Amativeness to explain the controlling influence of sexual passion on her character.

Egg’s triptych is cited by the brilliant social and cultural historian Kate Summerscale in her account of Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, a paradigm of the hypocrisy and injustice meted out to unhappily married or highly sexual women, before later 19th century legislation gave married women rights to their own property, and 20th century divorce acts, under pressure from rising feminism, freed them from legalized prostitution and social ostracism.

“Augustus Egg I’d put among the highest [of painters]” said Evelyn Waugh.

Today we usually overlook this thoroughly good Egg – a reminder that popularity is influenced more by branding than substance, that Juliet was wrong, things do smell less or more sweet by any other name..

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