The Industrial Age in the Lowlands: a painting by John Levack.
I have recently become the proud owner of this painting. Perhaps not everyone's cup of tea for hanging on the sitting room wall, but nevertheless, an interesting work. I had watched it for sale for some time, and thought it an important artwork, particularly as I am not aware of vast numbers of Scottish paintings depicting the Industrial Age.
The oil painting is by John Levack (1823 - 1874), an artist based in Airdrie, to the east of Glasgow.Levack's oeuvre is not vast (he died aged 51 from an excess of laudanum), but there is a fine painting, "The Curlers at Rayward" owned by Lanarkshire County Council. My painting was titled "Hard Times". Possibly the dealer's title for I can't see it on the painting or frame, but it is a suitable title as the Dickens' novel was first issued in 1854, and this painting has a date of 1857.
Airdrie exhibited a typical expansion as it became more industrialised. The population was some 2,500 at the start of the 19th century, and by 1820 it had nearly doubled. By the 1830s, it was more than 7,000. Those years saw a shift from light (mainly home-based weaving) to heavy industry. Grome's Gazetteer of 1882 states that there were 50 mines working in the Monkland district, while Lewis (1846) mentions a tan-works, a brewery and "extensive distillery" as well as a large cotton factory.
Levack therefore witnessed the expansion of his home town, and the wealth as well as the misery that industry brought with it.
The painting depicts a family group coming into the town. Perhaps they live outside, and are coming in to sell their wares. A boy carries eggs, another flowers, and all have heavy sacks on their backs. Sheep dogs (theirs?) accompany them. The poverty is obvious: the clothes are torn, and the children have bare feet. In the background, chimneys fume, and miners make their way to work. Coal is strewn on the road, and the mother in the centre carries coal in her bag.
Where has this family come from? As Tom Devine makes clear in his book The Scottish Clearances, shifting population that is recorded in the Highland Clearances and Migrations was not confined to the Highlands. It occurred in the Lowlands too, and indeed in some form or other throughout Britain. But it is by no means impossible that this is a family removed from their land further to the north, arriving with their belongings on their backs to seek a new life in the Industrial south. Whatever, it is a powerful depiction of the Industrial Age in Scotland, indeed of "Hard Times."