MY WATTS - Song of the Shirt

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Posted 29th March 2021


Song of the Shirt, 1850, G F Watts

The combined reflections from Art for All Community Programme participants about Song of the Shirt, featured in the Art and Action exhibition.

We see this woman in a moment of despair, her sewing lying on her lap in the dwindling light. G F Watts was not the only artist to make a painting of this title after poet, Thomas Hood, anonymously published the poem, Song of the Shirt in 1843. As the following expert shows, the poem told of the suffering of a seamstress and was based on the true and sad story of a seamstress called Mrs. Biddell;

With fingers weary and worn, With eyelids heavy and red, A woman sat, in unwomanly rags, Plying her needle and thread — Stitch! stitch! stitch! In poverty, hunger, and dirt, And still with a voice of dolorous pitch She sang the "Song of the Shirt.

When comparing Watts's depiction of the seamstress with other artists' Song of the Shirt, we feel that Watts was the most truthful in his painting. While other artists romanticised portrayals of the story; painting healthy-looking women in bright rooms, Watts's painting is darkly lit, the yellow light falls on her sallow skin and her posture is one of defeat. We want to rescue her; it is easy to understand her feeling of being overwhelmed – worries of where the next meal is coming from, not knowing how to make things better and the tiredness of motherhood. This painting is one of Watts's four social realism paintings. Next to Watts's society portraits of the wealthy, paintings like the Song of the Shirt are shocking because of the sadness they show. We feel empathy for her. As a group, we have talked about how feeling empathy for others can trigger change – we are more likely to help someone if we can see and understand their stories. Perhaps by showing these stories of poverty Watts hoped action would come and changes would be made to prevent such equalities, which are sadly still happening today over one hundred years on.

Thanks from the participants from Woking Women's Support Centre.

Photograph: Luke Hayes