Old associations signed and dated 'GEHicks.1858. (lower left) oil on canvas 53 x 43.5cm (20 7/8 x 17 1/8in).
Provenance: Purchased from artist by W.G.Herbert, Liverpool, £40; His daughter Miss Eliza Duckworth by 1890; Christies, 2 February 1879, sold by executors of G.Mawdsley, as 'Snowdrops'; Lawrence of Crewkerne 2 April 1981, lot 64, as 'Early Snowdrops'; Private collection, UK.
Exhibited: RA, 1858, no. 285.
Literature: T. J. Edelstein They sang 'The song of the shirt' Victorian Studies 23 (Winter 1980), p.183-210; J. P. Casteras The Substance or the Shadow, Images of Victorian Womanhood, Yale Centre for British Art, 1982, p.32 and p.67. Ill. Country Life, 4 June 1981, p.1570. (Ex. cat.) R. Allwood, George Elgar Hicks: Painter of Victorian Life (Geffrye Museum, London 1893), no. 19.
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
The Song of the Shirt, verse 1, Thomas Hood.
This poem, published in Punch in December 1843, was the inspiration for one of the most frequent images in Victorian literature and art, the seamstress in her Garret1. The painter Richard Redgrave responded to Hood's poem by producing The Seamstress, a melancholic representation of a young woman sitting alone late at night in a cold garret, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in May 1844. In Old Associations, Hicks paints a rather happier scene. The snowdrops replace a spindly plant and serve as a concrete reminder of the seamstress's happier past, her Old Associations. The clear implication is that the woman, like the snowdrops before her, has been uprooted from her natural home in the country - an idea Hicks may have developed from a later verse in The Song of The Shirt:
Oh! but to breathe the breath Of the cowslip and primrose sweet - With the sky above my head, And the grass beneath my feet, For only one short hour To feel as I used to feel; Before I knew the woes of want And the walk that costs a meal!
The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1858, and was understoon by the Art Journal as 'a pretty and not unnatural conception: a poor seamstress, the tenant of a garret, has before her a pot of snowdrops, which she regards with affectionate care. She may be the native of a some flowery land in the provinces, but must now content herself with the cheapest luxury in the way of floriculture: and what makes the episode more pointed is, that she is without a fire, and the tops of the houses are covered with snow.'2 Snowdrops are generally seen as a symbol of hope and consolation. Mythologically, the flower is thought to have been a snowflake which was transformed to comfort Adam and Eve after they had been expelled from the Garden of Eden. Hicks may well have been aware of these connections while painting the present lot.
1. See T.J.Edelstein, art. cit., for a thorough discussion of the image of the seamstress in Victorian art. 2. Art Journal, 1 June 1858, p.166.