In our class discussion on visual culture, class, and poverty in the 19th century, we looked at the painting Found Drowned by George Frederic Watts. This painting featured a young woman washed up underneath the Waterloo Bridge in London after taking her own life. Watts, being a socialist artist, used this image to comment on the ‘taboo’ topic of suicides of working-class citizens and how women who were seen as ‘fallen’ were treated by society.
Watts had to ‘censor’ his painting in some respect, by excluding the gory truth of what suicides really entailed for viewers. This enabled him to get his message across to society without much public backlash or heavy critique from the British Royal Academy. This is a similar situation to Crowe’s depiction of the prevalence of domestic slavery and how an artist must make conscious choices in producing art so that they may become ‘established’ in the eyes of the ruling art institutions. A critical awareness of suicide is raised here, without shocking 19th century viewers so that a conversation could be opened where people are able to address a topic reluctant to discuss as suicide was illegal. The fact that suicide was a crime suggests why Found Drowned was the expression used to describe this situation so that the deceased could be buried and have a funeral through the church.
The woman depicted in Found Drowned would have been described as a ‘fallen woman’. In 19th century society, an unmarried woman who was pregnant or had been known to have had sexual relations would have been deeply frowned upon. A sense of beauty and tranquillity is conveyed in the painting, yet bleak tones and the dichotomy between the cold night and the body’s pale skin gives a heart-wrenching sadness to the image. Watts uses the inclusion of a locket in her hand to suggest a male love interest who has left her, indicating that she is unmarried yet knowledgeable about sexual behaviours.
This reminded me of a play that we studied in our GCSE English Literature class called An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley. Priestley’s socialist beliefs are clearly demonstrated through this three-act thriller released around the end of WWII, in 1945. The plot is as follows: an inspector visits the wealthy Burling family to inquire about each family member’s involvement in what drove a young working-class woman to suicide. The fictional character, Eva Smith, is fired by the father, verbally abused by the daughter, heartbroken by the fiancé to the daughter, raped and pregnant by the son, and denied support by the mother – each event leading to her drinking harmful solvents. The moral of the play is that we are all responsible for one another and are members of the same society, as each had a role contributing to the woman’s poor quality of life.
Although Priestley’s play is set in a slightly different time frame to Watt’s 1867 painting, they discuss the same issues of the treatment of lower-class ‘fallen’ women. The intense marginalization of these women and lack of means to support themselves resulted in their deaths, as strict values held by society deem these women as immoral and unworthy. Watts and Priestley use socialist perspectives in media to reveal the injustice behind these deaths. Priestley’s intention of the woman’s death via consuming bleach products plays upon this same idea that ‘fallen’ women are seen as dirty and unworthy by society.