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December 2013

Posted on 02/12/2013

Sir (Samuel) Luke Fildes, Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward, 1874


Oil on canvas, accession number THC0021

As Christmas is the time of year when we are often encouraged to think of those less fortunate than ourselves, I thought it was appropriate that I choose Luke Fildes’ Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward as the item of the month for December.

Fildes was one of a number of social realist painters who became prominent in the 1870s. The scene itself is somewhat Dickensian, and in fact it was a similar engraving completed by Fildes, entitled Houseless and Hungry, that inspired Dickens to hire Fildes to illustrate his novel Edwin Drood in 1869. The novel unfortunately remained unfinished due to Dickens’ death in 1870, but Fildes’ acquaintance with Dickens encouraged him to return to painting and to complete a number of social realist works.

The Houseless Poor Act of 1864 stated that those seeking shelter could apply for a ticket at a police station, which would grant them a night’s stay in the casual ward of a workhouse.  Those who queued early stood the best chance of entry, although Fildes noted that “the Inspectors used their discretion in selecting those for reasons they thought most deserving.”[1] The painting depicts the most destitute members of society: a young widow and her children, who have perhaps fallen from a more respectable standing; an unemployed artisan and his family; a crippled soldier; as well as the more stereotypical image of the drunken tramp. Fildes used genuine homeless people as models for the painting, stating, “It was a deeply interesting, yet most painful picture for me to work on for so long – for I made many more studies than appear in the picture – enough for a much larger picture, my material being boundless…”[2] Satirical posters, attacking the false values of society, can be seen on the wall in the background. One poster advertises a £20 reward for a lost pug dog, whilst a missing child is valued at only £2. Another, stating that the Royal Artillery is looking for “smart young men,” is almost comic when compared to the degraded condition of those waiting in line.

Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward was painted at a time when society’s fascination and fear of the urban poor was at a height; rapid industrialisation and the growth of cities had led to squalid living conditions and a dramatic growth of poverty. There were fears amongst the upper- and middle-classes that the poor could potentially infect the rest of society, with their diseases, their immoral behaviour and their potential political radicalism. Such was public interest in the subject that during the painting’s exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1874 the painting had to be railed off and a policeman posted beside it in order to protect it from the crowds of people pushing for a glimpse. However, despite the public’s interest in the painting, it received a mixed reaction from critics. The Saturday Review claimed that the subject was “too revolting” for art, a criticism echoed by The Times, who stated that the painting depicted “unrelieved squalor and hopeless misery,” and that they “doubt[ed] the justification of inflicting such pain through painting.”[3]

Considering that the college’s early students were privileged young ladies, it is interesting that Holloway chose such a bleak painting to be included in the collection. Perhaps he intended it to be a reminder to the students, that they should always consider those less fortunate than themselves, especially as social standing was far from secure during this period. As Fildes himself wrote, it was painted with the intention of being “one to be looked at and thought over.”[4]

Michaela Jones, Art Collections Volunteer


[1]Fildes, “Catalogue Raisonné of the Published Reproductions of Luke Fildes’ Drawings,” National Art Library, V&A, revised 1965.

[2] Fildes to Charles Carey, 1 June 1888, RHUL Archive, (AR/500/221/2).

[3] “The R.A.,” Saturday Review, May 2 1874, 562; The Times, 26 May 1874, 6.

[4] Fildes to Henry Woods, 12 June 1874, National Art Library, V&A


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