Reflections on the Industrial Revolution in Britain: William Blake and J. M. W. Turner

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Reflections on the Industrial Revolution in Britain: William Blake and J. M. W. Turner
Catherine Mein

Ballard High School

Huxley, IA
2008 NEH Seminar for School Teachers

Interpretations of the Industrial revolution in Britain

From this review of the…kingdom, I apprehend there is no slight reason to conclude, that England is, at present, in a most rich and flourishing situation… Andrew Young, 17701

Judge, then, of the change that has taken place in the condition of these labourers! And be astonished, if you can, at the pauperism and the crimes that now disgrace this once happy and moral England. William Cobbett, 18302
These two men, separated by sixty years, were both commenting on the changes that were being wrought by the Industrial Revolution in England. Both men were witnessing a changing economy, but each man interpreted those changes quite differently. Like the blind men describing the elephant, Cobbett and Young expressed very different emotions at the changes they were witnessing. Young was excited by the growing wealth and prosperity which he saw being shared by most. After listing the various accomplishments of the new economy, he concluded, “If these circumstances do not combine to prove a kingdom flourishing, I must confess myself totally in the dark.”3 Young viewed the changes as Progress while Cobbett believed that the greater wealth and luxuries were undermining society. He feared for the moral integrity of a country in which profit counted for more than personal relationships. For Cobbett, social relations based solely on an exchange of labor for wages would result in moral bankruptcy.4

Other writers have added their commentary to the discussion of the Industrial Revolution, expressing their approbation for or their fears of the changes they saw. Some like Robert Southey and Richard Oastler challenged the failure of manufacturers to adhere to good Christian values.5 Others like T.B. Macaulay and T.S. Ashton emphasized how the benefits of the Industrial Revolution outweighed the disruptions and difficulties that individuals faced.6 Artists also contributed their impressions of the Industrial Revolution, and like the commentaries, essays, and histories, each painting and poem added another dimension to the ‘elephant’.

While historians continue to debate the start of the Industrial Revolution, by the 1780s the first stage of the Industrial Revolution was in progress. The changes in cotton spinning and iron and steel manufacture that have come to represent the Industrial Revolution were on their way. Richard Arkwright had installed his water frames and “apprentices” at Cromford, the workshops around Sheffield were making crucible steel and the Iron Bridge had been erected in Shropshire using wrought iron from the Coalbrookdale Company with a new process using coke.

Even at this early stage, when most commentators were focused on the hopeful possibilities of these new developments, William Blake was questioning society’s treatment of its most vulnerable, the pauper and orphaned children. At the end of the 1780s, William Blake published an illustrated book of poems Songs of Innocence (1789). The poems in this book, while dealing with important issues of the day, demonstrate a faith in the future. In “The Little Black Boy,” for example, Blake describes a world in which race no longer matters and all children are gathered at God’s knee. (Illus. 1) In 1789, Blake had some reason to be more hopeful. Parliament had passed an Act in 1788 to protect chimney sweeps.7 The Anti-Slavery Movement was working to end the slave trade. And in France, revolution was underway. In 1794, Blake published a second book of poems, Songs of Experience, in which his optimism was gone. The tone of these later poems and their illustrations were darker. In the poem “London”, for example, Blake condemned both the Church and the government for their failures to live up to their responsibilities—

How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry

Every black’ning Church appalls;

And the hapless Soldier’s sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls.8

Neither the Chimney Sweeps Act nor the French Revolution were living up to expectations, and in 1794 William Pitt suspended habeas corpus.9 Blake’s vision of a world where all would gather “round [God’s] golden tent” and “like lambs rejoice” had evaporated.

In both Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, Blake published poems entitled “The Chimney Sweeper” and “Holy Thursday”. By themselves, each pair of illustrated poems indicates Blake’s dissatisfactions with the treatment of chimney sweeps and pauper children. Placed within the economic context of Poor Law relief and the lives of apprenticed chimney sweeps, Blake’s poems can take their place alongside Southey’s or Oastler’s writings.

J.L. and Barbara Hammond described this context in The Town Labourer. Two chapters in the book explicate the lives of child workers as mill “apprentices”, coal miners, and chimney sweeps. Better care of pauper children with the passage of Hanway’s Act in 1767 led to an increased population of children who needed to be placed to learn a trade.10 Many were transported to cotton mills to work twelve to sixteen hour days six days a week until the age of twenty-one.11 Others were apprenticed as chimney sweeps to climb increasingly smaller and more complex chimneys.12 The Hammonds described children put at the mercy of society who were treated mercilessly. Some men did attempt to protect these children, but when Blake was writing his poems in the late 18th century, only one Act had been passed to protect the sweeps and it lacked any means of enforcement. 13 The first attempt to protect the “apprentices” came in 1802, but like the Chimney Sweeps Act, it lacked a strong enforcement component.14

Like Robert Southey and Charles Dickens in the 19th century, William Blake questioned the economic achievements of a society which failed to maintain its Christian morals. Blake took particular exception to society’s failure to protect the least of Christ’s children. While the poems from Songs of Innocence have a more hopeful tone, both have an edge. In “The Chimney Sweeper,” the orphaned sweeper is too young to properly pronounce ‘sweep, sweep’ and Blake ends the first stanza with an accusation—“So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.” And while the middle of the poem speaks of a paradise where the sweeps are clean and allowed to play in a meadow, Blake ends with the ironic line of “So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.” The accompanying illustration focused on the boys’ release from their lives of dark toil. (Illus. 2) The stanzas of the poem are entwined with green vines, and in the bottom right corner, an angel lifts a boy from his “coffin of black” to join his fellow sweeps who dance on a plain of green.

“Holy Thursday” includes a similar message of saving the innocents. The illustrations showed two columns of pauper children marching to church service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. (Illus. 3) Blake describes the children as the “flowers of London town” whose pure song raises them above their wardens. The children have a “radiance all their own” and are numbered in “multitudes” like angels. Blake implicitly questions why a wealthy society has so many poor children with his use of “multitudes” and “thousands” in reference to the pauper children and with an illustration which suggests an endless procession of poor children. His final point, however, is more direct: “Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.” Blake reiterates Christ’s caution on the treatment of the least of his children.

The poems from Songs of Experience lack any visions of hope. The first line of the “The Chimney Sweeper” suggests something frozen in the snow—“A little black thing among the snow”—but it is another sweep who is too young to pronounce the word. The illustration showed a young boy in the street with his eyes turned towards heaven, but the sky is full of dark clouds and snow falls all around him. (Illus. 4) In this poem, Blake makes no distinction between “God and his Priest and King” for they “make up a heaven of our misery.” Parliament may have passed an Act to protect the sweeps, but the smallest children were still being sent up too small chimneys where drowning in soot was all too possible. Blake’s little sweep may still have hoped for deliverance, but Blake himself had lost his assurance in society’s goodness.

The illustration for “Holy Thursday” is dominated by a woman who stands under a barren bough and who peers at a dead child upon the ground. (Illus. 5) Another dead child is sprawled at the bottom of the page and two children weep over their dead mother. The text explicitly asks how Britain could consider itself a rich nation when there were so many poor and dying children:

Is this a holy thing to see

In a rich and fruitful land,

Babes reduc’d to misery,

Fed with cold and usurious hand?15
Blake’s commentary challenged Andrew Young’s optimism of a flourishing kingdom. Blake’s ‘elephant’ lacked a social conscience and had failed in its Christian duty.

J.M.W. Turner’s vision of the Industrial Revolution showed a very different beast. His paintings of steamships and industrial activity suggest a fascination with the possibilities of these innovations. Turner was a popular and successful Romantic painter in the first half of the 19th century. His abilities were recognized early and he achieved full membership in the Royal Academy at age twenty-six. His industrial paintings are only a small portion of Turner’s total work, but they represent the first time that an artist of his stature included such aspects in his work.16 At a time when pastoral landscapes were favored by the establishment (and Turner painted his fair share of them), artists questioned whether steamships and furnaces were subjects of art.17 The Romantic emphasis on nature would suggest they were not, but Turner never divorced his industrial images from nature:

The result was a body of art that embodied a romantic vision of the Industrial Revolution in its totality—part recognizable articles of the early 19th century, part sensed realizations of those energetic objects that spoke to the expectations and anxieties of the age.18
While men like Macaulay and Andrew Ure were heralding the great accomplishments of the Industrial Revolution in their writings, Turner painted his own commentary.

When examining a selection of Turner’s industrial paintings, several themes become apparent. Turner’s interest was not in the objects themselves, but in their essence.19 In “Rain, Steam, and Speed” (1844), the details of the train are obscured in order to show the power and the energy of the train. (Illus. 6) His vision of “Dudley, Worcestershire” (1832) focuses attention on the power and heat of the furnaces and flame. (Illus. 7) Everything else is hidden by a haze of smoke and steam. All these works contain a sense of dynamism not possible before. The speed of the train and the blast of coke fires are palpable.

Turner typically juxtaposed the traditional and the modern, with attention focused on the modern. A ruined abbey overlooks Dudley, but the energy of the painting is found along the waterfront in all the industries. In “Newcastle-on-Tyne” (1823), church towers rise out of the haze, but they can only be glimpsed through the great activity moving up and down the River Tyne. (Illus. 8) Turner accompanied this painting with the text “the great emporium of the coal-trade” to add emphasis to his focus on Newcastle’s present reality rather than its history.20 Turner used color in “The ‘Fighting’ Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up” (1838) to distinguish between past and present. (Illus.9) The ghostly paleness of the Temeraire provides a foil for the energy and blackness of the steamboat, and only the steamship and its smoke catch the light of the sun. Turner’s commentary seems most clear in the painting. The possibilities offered by this nameless steamship have greater importance than even the Temeraire’s history in the defeat of Napoleon.

Despite his fascination with these aspects of the Industrial Revolution, Turner always gave prominence to nature, often highlighting the superiority of nature’s power over human effort. Over half the canvas is dominated by a sunset in “The ‘Fighting’ Temeraire.” The train in “Rain, Steam, and Speed” appears out of a canvas covered by a rainstorm and only a small portion of the train is visible. All the rest is obscured by nature’s power. In “Keelmen heaving coals by night” (1835), the activity of the men highlighted by burning coal is peripheral to the moon and its light. (Illus. 10) The implacable power of nature is seen clearly in Turner’s paintings of steamships in a storm. In several of these paintings, man’s efforts are literally being swallowed by nature’s vortex.21 Turner’s commentary lacks the full congratulatory tone of Andrew Young or T.B. Macaulay. Turner’s work suggests that while men may hope and aspire to greater control, Nature is still beyond man’s power.

A final theme in all these paintings is Turner’s neutrality on the issue of the Industrial Revolution’s effects on the lives of individuals. Turner’s paintings are populated by figures more or less obscured. The keelmen are shadows against the coal fires. The workers in Dudley disappear into the haze, and while the figures in “Newcastle-on-Tyne” are more clearly seen, they neither highlight the greatness of the Industrial Revolution nor its harshness. They, like the viewer of the painting, only watch the action on the river below. Blake viewed the conflict within society, but for Turner, the conflict was between nature and man’s delusions of control.

The Industrial Revolution engendered different reactions from people. Turner’s paintings and Blake’s illustrated poetry reflect the reactions of these two men. Blake critiqued the values of a society whose greatest achievement seemed to be the accumulation of wealth, even at the expense of the weaker members of the society. His commentary places him with men such as Southey or Cobbett or Oastler, all of whom questioned the moral values of the Industrial Revolution. Turner’s commentary is more unique. His paintings display a curiosity in the innovations of the Industrial Revolution, but without either questioning the morals of those innovations or celebrating their achievements. Men like Young and Macaulay believed the Industrial Revolution was a sign of Man’s Progress, and while Turner could see the achievements that men were making, his paintings suggest that Nature could still frustrate men’s aspirations.

In the Indian folk tale, the blind men must share their separate experiences to build a full understanding of the elephant. The Industrial Revolution provides a similar challenge. The commentators on the Industrial Revolution can generally be grouped by those who were critical of its moral underpinnings and those who celebrated its economic achievements, but even within these groups, explanations and descriptions of the Industrial Revolution vary. By examining multiple commentaries, such as those of Blake and Turner, a greater understanding of the Industrial Revolution can be achieved.


Illustration 1. William Blake. “The Little Black Boy.” Songs of Innocence (1789)

Illustration 2. William Blake. “The Chimney Sweeper.” Songs of Innocence (1789)

Illustration 3. William Blake. “Holy Thursday.” Songs of Innocence (1789)

Illustration 4. William Blake. “The Chimney Sweeper.” Songs of Experience (1794)

Illustration 5. William Blake. “Holy Thursday.” Songs of Experience (1794)

Illustration 6. J.M.W. Turner. “Rain, Steam, and Speed” (1844)

Illustration 7. J.M.W. Turner. “Dudley, Worcestershire.” (1832)

Illustration 8. J.M.W. Turner. “Newcastle-on-Tyne” (1823)

Illustration 9. J.M.W. Turner. “The ‘Fighting’ Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up.” (1838),_J._M._W._-_The_Fighting_Téméraire_tugged_to_her_last_Berth_to_be_broken.jpg/800px-Turner,_J._M._W._-_The_Fighting_Téméraire_tugged_to_her_last_Berth_to_be_broken.jpg

Illustration 10. J.M.W. Turner. “Keelmen heaving coals by night” (1835)
Blake, William. “Holy Thursday: Is This a Holy Thing to See.” June 6, 2000.
—“London.” June 6, 2000.
Cobbett, William. Rural Rides, 1830, in J.F.C. Harrison, ed., Society and Politics inn England, 1780-1960. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
Hammond, J.L. and Barbara. The Town Labourer, 1760-1832: The New Civilization. London: Longman, Greens, and Co., 1917.
Rodner, William S. J.M.W. Turner: Romantic Painter of the Industrial Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Young, Arthur. A Six Months Tour Through the North of England, IV (1770), pp. 493, 515-516, 517-520, 543-547; in D.B. Horn and Mary Ransome, eds., English Historical Documents, Vol. X, 1714-1783. N.Y: Oxford University Press, 1969.

1 Arthur Young, A Six Months Tour Through the North of England, IV (1770), pp. 493, 515-516, 517-520, 543-547; in D.B. Horn and Mary Ransome, eds., English Historical Documents, Vol. X, 1714-1783, N.Y: Oxford University Press, 1969, pp. 425-29.

2 William Cobbett, Rural Rides, 1830; in J.F.C. Harrison, ed., Society and Politics inn England, 1780-1960, New York: Harper & Row, 1965, pp. 44-46.

3 Young, 1770.

4 Cobbett, 1830.

5 In Sir Thomas More: or Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (1829), Robert Southey questioned the sustainability of a society in which profit was the ultimate goal rather than sustaining social relations. Southey particularly condemned the failure of Christian values in the search for profit and material wealth. Richard Oastler in 1830 wrote a letter to the Leeds Mercury challenging Parliament to end “slavery” in the cotton mills and factories in the same way that Parliament had just ended African slavery. Oastler challenged the abolitionists to have as much Christian charity for the workers in the mills as they did for African slaves.

6 T.B. Macaulay wrote a rebuttal to Southey’s Colloquies in 1830, arguing that the benefits of the Industrial Revolution would improve all of society and that in the long run, everyone would benefit from the changes. T.S. Ashton’s history of the start of the Industrial Revolution (1968) shared a similar opinion about the effects of the Industrial Revolution. Ashton recognized that some people had faced difficulties, but he argued that in the long run, the Industrial Revolution had greatly benefited society.

7 J.L. and Barbara Hammond, The Town Labourer, 1760-1832: The New Civilization. Pp. 181.

8 William Blake, “London” June 6, 2000.

9 Hammond, 98.

10 Hammond, 144.

11 Hammond, 145.

12 Hammond, 178. The recommended size of chimneys was twelve inches square, but chimneys were often much smaller, even down to seven inches square.

13 Hammond, 181-182.

14 Hammond, 151, 153.

15 William Blake. “Holy Thursday: Is This a Holy Thing to See.” June 6, 2000.

16 William S. Rodner, J.M.W. Turner: Romantic Painter of the Industrial Revolution, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Pp. 10.

17 Rodner, 10.

18 Rodner, 19.

19 Rodner, 15.

20 Rodner, 97.

21 In “Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth” (1842), a steamship struggles in heavy seas. The smoke, clouds, and waves form a vortex around the ship, raising the question of the ship’s survival in this storm.

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