George Elgar Hicks: Woman’s Mission was painted in the 1860s. The central panel, companion of manhood, is in the Tate, their exhibition “Victorian Sentimentality”. The other two panels, guide of childhood and comfort of old age, had been thought lost but the last was acquired by the Tate in 2014.
“Mission” sounds onerous, but the childminding is made to look delightful. The mother’s face, looking down on the child, glows like the sun. Supporting the husband as he hears of his bereavement, she has wonderful nobility but no particular financial worries. She comforts the old man, patting his hand and listening to his fretting, but does not look as if she cleans him up.
Now, a taste for art galleries is Highbrow, but these works are pretty, for the growing middle class rather than the educated aesthete. So they had a lower status than other Art. I would not necessarily have seen that in the paintings themselves, had I not picked it up somewhere. I note the scene captured as a camera might, which requires technical skill. I needed the black edge of the letter and envelope explained to me, too. The husband in his manly grief is supported by the loyal wife.
I find the paintings lovely and unchallenging. They are pleasant to look at. They are “genre paintings”- scenes of everyday life, and now a curiosity: what might they have said to the original viewer? I wonder, rather than, what do they say to me? What do I learn of the Victorian bourgeoisie, rather than what do I learn of life?
From “Companion of Manhood” I went into the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition, and spent some time looking up at King Cophetua as he looks up at the Beggar-maid. I am moved by it, now. It speaks to me.