Arthur Boyd Houghton’s City of Strangers

25 February 2012

Arthur Boyd Houghton Itinerant Singers

Arthur Boyd Houghton, Itinerant Singers, c1860 (detail). Click to Open Full Image in New Window.

Arthur Boyd Houghton was known to paint glowing images of happy families on seaside retreat and beneficent old men at play with their grandchildren, but in 1859-1865 he also produced a series of weirdly unsettling London street scenes. Their composition is chaotic and fragmentary, depicting complex scenes of urban bustle. His figures, though densely intermingled, appear eerily disconnected from one another.

In Itinerant Singers, a ragged family serenades a disinterested crowd. The sickly, clown-faced wife and children wear the absent, otherworldly expressions of passing phantasms, yet bystanders seem to be making no conscious effort to ignore them. They are strange, but not out of place.  


Arthur Boyd Houghton Recruits

Arthur Boyd Houghton, Recruits, c1859 (detail). Click to Open Full Image in New Window.

The detached observers who flank three “toy soldiers” in Recruits are pale, unhealthy and slightly nefarious. The men wear tight, hardened expressions, or hide their eyes behind hat brims and sunglasses. In the foreground, children play on the ground; their counterparts in Holborn in 1861 dig through a pile of dirt recently displaced from an excavation.  

In London in 1865 a woman in a blue shawl wears a curiously transfixed expression as she pushes two children in a pram. They carry toys, but do not play. There is no narrative. Figures do not make eye contact with one another. To the middle left, a nauseous-looking woman grimaces absently. 

London in 1865, Click for Full-Sized Image

Arthur Boyd Houghton Holborn in 1861

Holborn in 1861 (detail), Click for Full Image

Narrow congested streets, endemic disease and pollution, wealth and comfort coexisting alongside scenes of extreme poverty; these are images of a city struggling to meet the demands of modernity. In 1861, London was the largest city in the world with some 2.8 million persons inhabiting nearly 383,000 houses, formed into a labyrinth of over 10,000 streets, squares and lanes. Massive public works projects were underway to open up its sewers and thoroughfares, to realign its streets a somehow manage a swelling populace. In the meantime, its inhabitants had cholera, crowds and destitution to contend with, and they persevered in ways that were frequently inventive, sometimes sinister, and often strange.   

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One Comments to “Arthur Boyd Houghton’s City of Strangers”

  1. Paul Hogarth’s masterpiece on Houghton is well worth a look!

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