Appendix 3: The Industrial Revolution.

Perhaps the earliest and most famous voice to be raised against the ‘godless’ Industrial Revolution was that of William Blake, whose “dark Satanic Mills” featured in those famous verses beginning, “And did those feet in ancient time”, prefaced to his poem “Milton” (dated 1804). It seems likely that Blake was inspired by the monstrous Albion Mills, near which he lived – steam-powered flour-mills established in 1786 near Blackfriars Bridge in London. The Mills were the wonder of the age, at least to the upper and middle classes, who used to drive out in their carriages to view the spectacle. But to the local millers and mill workers, the prodigious output of the Mills spelt disaster. The Mills unaccountably burnt down in 1791, never to be rebuilt – arson was suspected but never proved.

An excellent illustration of just how easily the Industrial Revolution came to be associated with Satan and Hell is provided by Philip de Loutherbourg’s painting “The Ironworks at Coalbrookdale” (1801). De Loutherbourg was a something of a mystic with apocalyptic leanings – witness his painting “The Vision of the White Horse” (1798) – so it is quite possible that his painting of the ironworks carries some hellish symbolism. Certainly the fiery imagery of John Martin’s apocalyptic painting “The Great Day of His Wrath” (1852) was inspired by a trip Martin made through the Black Country, with the red blaze of its furnaces and their liquid fire. (For Martin’s paintings see Gallery 4, Fig.1, and for de Loutherbourg’s see Gallery 6, Fig.2.)

Thomas Carlyle, though not an orthodox religious man (Nietzsche dubbed him an English atheist who made it a point of honour not to be one!), nevertheless saw religion as a sort of binding force for a good society, and railed against the godlessness and materialism of his age. People needed to look beneath the surface appearance of things to give meaning to life.  At the end of Book 3, Chapter 3 of his essay Past and Present, first published in 1843, he cited the following curious Moslem tale:

“Perhaps few narratives in History or Mythology are more significant than that Moslem one, of Moses and the Dwellers by the Dead Sea. A tribe of men dwelt on the shores of that same Asphaltic Lake; and having forgotten, as we are all too prone to do, the inner facts of Nature, and taken up with the falsities and outer semblances of it, were fallen into sad conditions – verging indeed towards a certain far deeper Lake. Whereupon it pleased kind Heaven to send them the Prophet Moses, with an instructive word of warning, out of which might have sprung ‘remedial measures’ not a few. But no: the men of the Dead Sea discovered, as the valet-species always does in heroes or prophets, no comeliness in Moses; listened with real tedium to Moses, with light grinning, or with splenetic sniffs and sneers, affecting even to yawn; and signified, in short, that they found him a humbug, and even a bore.”

Moses withdrew defeated and as a result the Dwellers by the Dead Sea were changed into Apes, and to this day they sit in their trees “gibbering and chattering” away in superficial nonsense. And yet, Carlyle adds,

“…every Sabbath there returns to them a bewildered half-consciousness, half reminiscence; and they sit, with their wizened smoke-dried visages, and such an air of supreme tragicality as Apes may; looking out through those blinking smoke-bleared eyes of theirs…..They made no use of their souls, and so have lost them. Their worship on the Sabbath now is to roost there, with unmusical screeches, and half remember that they had souls.”

Carlyle concluded, somewhat acidly:

“Didst thou never, O Traveller, fall in with parties of this tribe? Meseems they are grown somewhat numerous in our day.”

Carlyle howled against the modern industrial world like a prophet in the wilderness.

“Ah me, into what waste latitudes, in this Time-Voyage, have we wandered; like adventurous Sinbads; – where the men go about as if by galvanism, with meaningless glaring eyes, and have no soul, but only a beaver-faculty and stomach! The haggard despair of Cotton-factory, Coal-mine operatives, Chandos Farm-labourers, in these days is painful to behold; but not so painful, hideous to the inner sense, as that brutish godforgetting Profit-and-Loss Philosophy and Life-theory, which we hear jangled on all hands of us, in senate-houses, spouting-clubs, leading articles, pulpits and platforms, everywhere as the Ultimate Gospel…” (end of book 3, chapter 9)  

Elsewhere in the same work he wrote:

“There is no longer any God for us! God’s Laws are become a Greatest Happiness Principle, a Parliamentary Expediency: the Heavens overarch us only as an Astronomical Time-keeper; a butt for Herschel-telescopes to shoot science at, to shoot sentimentalities at: – in our and old Johnson’s dialect, man has lost the soul out of him; and now, after the due period, – begins to find the want of it! This is verily the plague-spot; centre of the universal Social Gangrene, threatening all modern things with frightful death.” (beginning of Book 3, chapter 1)    

He goes on:

“There is no religion; there is no God; man has lost his soul, and vainly seeks antiseptic salt. Vainly: in killing Kings, in passing Reform Bills, in French Revolutions, Manchester Insurrections, is found no remedy.”

According to Carlyle, society had forgotten God, and remembered only Mammon (end of Bk. 3, Ch.1) – amidst gross atheism, men did not hear the Voice of God, but only “a Voice of earthly Profit and Loss.” (end of Bk.3, Ch.6) Carlyle asked, as so many have since, is “selling manufactured cotton at a farthing an ell cheaper than any other People” (beginning Bk.3, Ch.9) really what it is all about? And how can an English Prime Minister suddenly find “a Hundred and Twenty Millions Sterling to shoot the French” and yet not find “the hundredth part of that to keep the English living?” (Bk.4, Ch.3) Is War really more important than Education? Carlyle was probably the first to actively promote State Education, and more, the preservation of green-belts in the midst of Industry:

“Every toiling Manchester, its smoke and soot all burnt, ought it not, among so many world-wide conquests, to have a hundred acres or so of free greenfield, with trees on it, conquered, for its little children to disport in; for its all-conquering workers to take a breath of twilight air in?” (Bk.4, Ch.3)

To the voice of Thomas Carlyle we should add that of John Ruskin, who in many ways was a disciple of Carlyle’s. Ruskin’s Oxford lectures to undergraduates were, by all accounts, both entertaining and unconventional:

“Pouncing on Turner’s presentation of the ancient bridge at Leicester, he would splash with his paint-brush across the glass that covered it, his version of the ‘improvements’ that the present age demanded – an iron bridge and factory chimneys, an asylum and a prison building. Then he would seize a sponge and, with a single dramatic sweep of the hand, obliterate these hideous proofs of nineteenth-century vileness.” (Peter Quennell,  John Ruskin,: the Portrait of a Prophet (1949), p.241; compare Pugin’s Contrasts in Appendix 4g, & Pugin’s illustration in Gallery 6, Fig.1.)

As an aside here, there is a rather interesting painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Alfred William Hunt, entitled “Travelling Cranes, Diving Bells &etc at the Extremity of Tynemouth Pier”, painted in 1867. Whether intentionally or not, it echoes Ruskin’s disdain. Viewed through the modern industrial apparatus being used the build the Tynemouth Pier, we see, in the distance, the ruins of the 12th century Tynemouth Priory (on the right), with Tynemouth Castle on the left. (See Allen Staley and Christopher Newall, Pre-Raphaelite Vision (2004), p.205 and Gallery 6, Fig.4.)

Again, in the Preface to the third edition of his great work The Stones of Venice, published in 1874, Ruskin described the view from his bedroom window at the Greyhound Inn, Croydon:

“…my bedroom window commanded in the morning what was once a very lovely view over the tower of Croydon Church to the woods of Beddington and Woddon. But no fewer than seven newly erected manufactory chimneys stood between me and the prospect, and the circular temple of the Croydon Gas Company adorned the centre of the pastoral and sylvan scene.

There is not the remotest possibility of any success being obtained in any of the arts by a nation which thus delights itself in the defilement and degradation of all the best gifts of its God; which mimics the architecture of Christians to promote the trade of poisoners; and imagines itself philosophical in substituting the worship of coal gas for that of Vesta.”

The second of the two paragraphs just quoted refers to one of Ruskin’s primary objections to the Industrial Revolution: the aesthetic. In volume 2 of The Stones of Venice, in his chapter “The Nature of Gothic”, he devoted much space to this. A typical example of his disquiet is this:

“And now, reader, look round this English room of yours, about which you have been proud so often, because the work of it was so good and strong, and the ornaments of it so finished. Examine again all those accurate mouldings, and perfect polishings, and unerring adjustments of the seasoned wood and tempered steel. Many a time you have exulted over them, and thought how great England was, because her slightest work was done so thoroughly. Alas ! if read rightly, these perfectnesses are signs of a slavery in our England a thousand times more bitter and more degrading than that of the scourged African, or helot Greek. Men may be beaten, chained, tormented, yoked like cattle, slaughtered like summer flies, and yet remain in one sense, and the best sense, free. But to smother their souls with them, to blight and hew into rotting pollards the suckling branches of their human intelligence, to make the flesh and skin which, after the worm's work on it, is to see God, into leathern thongs to yoke machinery with, — this is to be slave-masters indeed ; and there might be more freedom in England, though her feudal lords' lightest words were worth men's lives, and though the blood of the vexed husbandman dropped in the furrows of her fields, than there is while the animation of her multitudes is sent like fuel to feed the factory smoke, and the strength of them is given daily to be wasted into the fineness of a web, or racked into the exactness of a line.”

According to Ruskin the artificial exactitude of machine-produced wares rendered them soulless, and nor was Ruskin alone in his disquiet. A number of artists and sculptors feared that the developing ability to mechanically mass-reproduce art-work would lead to the eclipse of individual creations. The likes of John Flaxman’s designs for Wedgwood pottery were seen by many as the beginning of the end, for example. (See Werner Hofmann’s essay “The Death of the Gods” in John Flaxman, edited by David Bindman (1979), p.14-16.)

Ruskin – who was probably the first to hint at climate change as a result of industrial pollution (Quennell p.211) – was disturbed by the poverty and overcrowding in London brought on by the Industrial Revolution’s demand for cheap labour:

“…the myriads imprisoned by the English Minotaur of lust for wealth, and condemned to live, if it is to be called life, in the labyrinth of black walls, and loathsome passages between them, which now fills the valley of the Thames…not one could hear…any happy bird sing, or look upon any quiet space of the pure grass…” (Quennell p.252)

Like Carlyle, Ruskin proposed the equivalent of today’s green-belts. He was also way ahead of his time in advocating the use of wind and water as power sources, not steam, which involved “a furious waste of fuel.” Gunpowder and Steam-Hammers were, according to Ruskin, “the toys of the insane and the paralytic.” (Penelope FitzGerald, Edward Burne-Jones: a Biography (1975), p.143.)

Ruskin was an odd combination of Imperialist and Socialist (Quennell p.239), and might best be described as a Tory with Socialist leanings (Quennell p.163) In 1871, in no. 8 of a series of letters addressed to the working men of England, entitled Fors Clavigera (the meaning of which must have been lost on most workmen, and even Ruskin’s own explanation of it is obscure!), he announced the foundation of his Guild of St. George:

“ aimed at nothing less than the reformation of the entire social system, the destruction of the industrial dragon, and the replacement of industrial society by a hierarchy of masters and servants, of artists, artificers and manual labourers, planned to include all that had been best in the civilisation of the Middle Ages.” (Quennell p.261)

In this ideal society, needless to say, there would be no steam-engines and no railways! It was rather a naïve utopian scheme, of course, in the midst of which Art could become a healing force for an ailing society. William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones held similar views (FitzGerald, p.163). But as Esther Meynell put it in the case of Morris, he just could not understand that beer and betting meant to the average working man what Art meant to him! (Portrait of William Morris (1947), p.164.) Even so, there are many today who would agree with the lines with which Morris opened the Prologue of his epic poem The Earthly Paradise:

Forget six counties overhung with smoke,
Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town;
Think rather of the pack-horse on the down,
And dream of London, small and white, and clean,
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green.

Ruskin, Morris and Burne-Jones believed that industrial society was too monstrous, and advocated living in smaller communities “the village idea instead of the town idea” (Meynell, p.197.) Morris wanted “little communities among green fields”, and Burne-Jones “began to talk, even less probably, of a little town with only one street, where everyone knew each other and which ended in corn-fields at one end and woods at the other.” (FitzGerald, p.155) (Burne-Jones had been brought up in industrial Birmingham, and been quite adversely affected by it.) Nor was this the full extent of their naïve ivory-tower, idealism. Morris always wrote with a quill pen – “he could not endure or use the typewriter because of its mechanical quality.” (Meynell p.120); Ruskin sought a return to illuminated manuscripts in reaction to “the abominable art of printing”, which he put on a par with gunpowder as a curse of the age! (Quennell p.123.)

The imprint on Art of the Industrial Revolution is interesting. In addition to Alfred William Hunt’s painting mentioned above, is J.M.W.Turner’s painting “Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway”, completed in 1844. In an extraordinarily impressionistic style for its time, it shows a steam-train battling through a storm on the railway bridge across the Thames at Maidenhead:

“Turner contrasts the forces of technology and the elements, and adds a nostalgic echo of the pastoral and classical Thames of his youth in the distant ploughman and rustic dancers. A hare running before the train contributes its own poignant comment on the mixed blessings of ‘Steam and Speed.’” (David Blayney Brown, The Art of J.M.W.Turner (2002), p.140.)

The painting, which Brown describes as “an icon of the machine age”, was based on actual experience which, fortunately, was recorded for us by a witness:

“An old friend of Ruskin’s told him that she was travelling to London on the Exeter express when an old gentleman in the carriage asked permission to open the window. He put his head into a rainstorm for nine minutes, observing and memorising; and next year she saw the picture at the Academy.” (Graham Reynolds, Turner (1969; 2000), p.197.)

It is ironic that the elderly Turner, who was Ruskin’s idol, should have had more enthusiasm for the railway than his much younger worshipper! The painting is illustrated in Gallery 6 (Fig.5.)

One of the best examples of an artist who was greatly disturbed by the effects of the Industrial Revolution was G.F.Watts, whose paintings on the theme are covered, with further commentary in Gallery 6 (Figs. 6 to 9 - to browse, click here). His extraordinary painting “Mammon” (1884) (Fig.6) is a visual counterpart to Carlyle’s verbal protests about the worship of wealth quoted above, and his painting “Progress” (1888-1904) (Fig.7) is effectively a complaint that despite Man’s increased learning and physical prosperity, he is nevertheless not making the progress of which he is capable. Under the heading of progress Watts would have included the eradication of the slum dwellings – Ruskin’s “labyrinth of black walls, and loathsome passages between them” – for Watts was very much concerned with social issues. It is not commonly realised, for example, that his painting “The Minotaur” (1885) (Fig.8) was a protest against the prevalence of child prostitution – the Minotaur of lust crushes an innocent bird in his hand, whilst looking out to sea for his next victim. One of his oddest paintings, though, is “Can these bones live?” (1897-8) (Fig.9), which, unlike Henry Bowler’s painting of the same title (Gallery 4, Fig.13) is not about skepticism concerning the promise of resurrection, but about the overthrow of traditional forms of labour by the Industrial Revolution.

Also of interest is the Belgian Symbolist Henry de Groux’s strange painting, “The Great Upheaval”, painted in 1893. It shows a group of medieval figures leaving a scene of utter devastation, in the centre of which is a toppled cross. The painting is said to represent the collapse of traditional values in the face of rapid modernising change (again, illustrated in Gallery 6, Fig.10.)


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