Monday, 11 January 2010

Frederick Daniel Hardy's *The Volunteers* (1860)

[Click to enlarge]
I recently saw this picture in the flesh in York art gallery, and it seemed to me then that there's more to it than meets the eye. What meets the eye is a fairly sentimental, fairly patriotic, reactionary domestic image. But looking at it again, I had second thoughts. I think it is the way the old woman, seated on the right, has her back to us that interests me; suggestive of death, I'd say; or of the denial of life. I wondered if the whole image wasn't built around a left-right narrative line of dimunition. Look at the backdrop: the tall doorway, leading upwards; the middle-height of the window; the low sill of the black fireless fireplace, like a falling trajectory from birth, through life to death. (Which is to say: through the narrow door, into the wide & bright, and so on into the low & dark). The sense of this is reinforced by the way the young characters are all on the left, the old on the right (or more precisely, the picture represents youth overlapping age; howsoever playfully, it represents youth appropriating age). There is death everywhere, symbolically speaking. The window has been opened to let out the departed spirit.

So, there are seven skittlepins, of which six have fallen. (Is this the fate of the solitary redcoat sergeant? Did he alone return home from the wars? It's an image that invites that sort of speculation). Then the numbers intruded on me, and more specifically the sevens. There are seven complete planks between the left hand discarded backpack and the carpet; seven skittlepins (though six are fallen); seven roofbeams are visible; seven pieces of fruit on the table.

Good; seven's a nice number. But there are only six kids ... is one missing? (Has one died?)

Well, not to get too fanciful, we can at least say this: the kids are playing at being soldiers, using their dad's kit. Dad is an actual soldier. Part of a soldier's business is safeguarding hearth and home, yes; but part is death -- is killing others, and is being bereaved yourself. That is also a part of this image.

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