In The lesson of “How The Other Half Lives”: Visual Culture, Class, and Poverty in the 19th century”, we studied the social realism painting called Found Drowned, by George Frederic Watts.1 In his social realist work, he painted the dark side of society, revealing what many would cover up as a different death, rather than suicide. In this particular painting, the scene is of a beautiful, pregnant young lady, found deceased under a bridge. This was not an unknown occurrence, since it was something that happened quite a bit. Found Drowned truly highlighted the topic of where a woman would take her own life because of a broken promise of marriage or love; a child out of wedlock.2 A false statement of how they passed would allow their loved one to have a Christian burial, which would otherwise not be applicable to them; suicide was illegal in the 19th century in London.
I decided to look further into the law against “self-murder” and in this research, I found that the suicide rates were extremely high in England at this time. A British medical journal article titled “Self Murder in England” stated, that “… since 1858 [suicide has] slowly but steadily increased to 1,592 [cases] in 1874.”3 It was 1,275 in 1858.4 The medical journal even tells us how many people died of drowning, which was 280 of the 1, 592 deaths by self-murder in 1872. Of that number, only 388 were female, which is still a lot.5
This painting inspired a poem by Thomas Hood titled “The Bridge of Sighs”.6 I assume it is in reference to the location of the painted woman found under London Bridge, in Waterloo. He asks questions about the woman: “who was her father? Who was her mother? Had she a sister? Had she a brother? Or was there a dearer one still, and a nearer one yet, then all others?” The ending of the poem kind of sounds like a reference to her being potentially pregnant. He also talks deeply about her beauty and how she’s part of Eve’s family, which is in reference to her womanhood, I assume. The poem mentioned that even God couldn’t have helped, because the relationship was estranged, like a family member. Hood states how we should not be rough with her even if she is dead because she is still human and should be mourned. Suicide is a very hard topic to approach or interpret in art or writing, and Watts painted this beautifully mournful image, which shows a glimpse into the truth of the situation. Watts’ Found Drowned illustrated this epidemic of a brokenhearted woman with a story that can be weaved together. The locket lays in her hand, a hand in which has the most colour in her whole body, it tells us this locket is important. The fact that the locket is still woven between her fingers, even after jumping into seemingly rushing water, the painting shows the conviction of this woman.
Something that I found very interesting was when I was looking for references to this painting, to incidents like this, I stumbled upon a poem called “A Poem Occasioned by the Late Sudden and Awful Death, of a Young Woman, Who Was Found Drowned, in Medford-River, July 14, 1771″.7 In 1771 the poem was produced, talking about the death of a young maiden who was supposed to be pregnant, and it was also suggested to be suicide. The woman’s identity was not given, more than likely because self-murder had been illegal since the 13th century. I assume they wanted8 that “luxury”, for her family.9 Regardless of whether a woman became pregnant out of wedlock, or fell on hard times; they would throw themselves off a bridge, or by other means to end it all. This was not solely a problem of the 19th century but also the 18th century, and it probably still happens today. The poem talks about a young, happy maid who falls in love with a man. It was presumed within the poem that she was pregnant and had drowned due to self-murder. The ending also touches on how much men are lustful and that they should restrain themselves because they’re going to get someone else hurt, not just themselves.10
Suicide will always be a touchy topic, but it is very beneficial to know the background behind pieces based on it. If we don’t look deeper into it, we won’t know what truly was happening. I personally didn’t know how much suicide was happening in the 19th century or even the 18th century; it’s baffling. Bringing awareness to these topics through paintings highlights a message that still holds true.