"Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward", Sir Luke Fildes RA

“Dumb, wet, silent horrors! Sphinxes set up against that dead wall, and none likely to be at the pains of solving them until the general overthrow.”

- Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens wrote these words to describe what he saw outside of Whitechapel Workhouse in 1855. By 1874, they were printed alongside Sir Luke Fildes’ successful painting, “Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward” in the Royal Academy’s catalogue for the Summer Exhibition. Nearly a decade earlier, Fildes encountered this scene while wandering the streets of London and the resulting sketch, “Houseless and Hungry”, appeared in the very first publication of The Graphic.

During the work’s transformation from engraving to canvas, Fildes returned to the same area, finding members of London’s poor to pose for him in exchange for money. The character who remains in both versions is the widow, shown at the forefront of the scene. She’s well lit by the lamp above, the easiest to make out amongst the darkness of the painting. Families and singles lay against the wall filled with missing and wanted persons posters, huddled together for warmth on a what’s presumably a cold winters night.

Press reviews of the painting were quick to commend Fildes’ portrayal, applauding his ability to avoid theatrical effects and succeed in an objective presentation of reality. To the modern eye, this painting is far from objective. Though based in reality, the viewer is guided by Fildes' presentation. For example, our eyes are initially drawn to the impoverished widow. She’s an easy character to sympathise with, amongst the "deserving characters" in the Victorian imagination. For a sight so commonplace on the streets of London, I wonder why swarms crowded around this painting, instead of outside real workhouses, just a stone throw’s away.

What do you think?