Recently we asked SHCY member Dr Simon Sleight (King’s College London) to reflect on a source that he had found especially compelling in the writing of his new book, Young People and the Shaping of Public Space in Melbourne, 1870–1914 (Ashgate). Here Simon offers his thoughts on a painting, which you can see either here or on the walls of Bendigo Art Gallery in Australia.
Homeless, helpless, a passive victim of the urban environment—this is a dominant image of youth at large in the late-Victorian city. Raised up from wet paving stones by a compassionate passer-by, this fallen child appears feeble, an object for pity and necessary rescue. The portrait’s tone is elegiac: the female figure is dressed in “widow’s weeds,” the garments of mourning, and the child’s limp posture and vacant gaze suggest that death may be near at hand. In the distance the grey gasworks, belching chimney and diagonal crane frame the location as industrial. Nature is a sparse commodity here; even the solitary tree in the painting is leafless, its lower branch snapped, its stone casing restricting room for future development. Nothing, we are invited to infer, can grow normally in this setting. No visual clue is given by the artist regarding the precise whereabouts of these characters. It could be any street in any industrial city of the Victorian era.