Volunteer archivist Ian Gregory discovers another curious image from the depths of Buxton Museum’s collection:

It’s been said that any portrait is a two-way dialogue between artist and sitter. We have, at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, photographs of people as well as landscapes and fossils. One of these dates from the late 19th or early 20th century. It shows an elderly woman at her spinning wheel. A wicker basket sits on the floor beside her and a fireplace can be seen. Washing hangs from the ceiling.

woman at a spinning wheel.png

The nineteenth century was a time of contradictions. Of course, The Industrial Revolution swept the nation, but this created nostalgia for a supposedly simpler more stable way of life. Some would argue that we still feel the effects of this. People revived Medieval styles in art and crafts. Musicians collected folk songs and wrote them down for the first time. Painters depicted thatched cottages with roses round the doors.

Returning to this woman at her spinning wheel, I wonder; did the photographer think he was recording an idyll? Did he imagine this lady as happy peasant? If so, then perhaps she didn’t share that perception. Agricultural work could be monotonous and physically demanding. The late Victorian era saw a depression in agriculture that drove people to the new industrial cities.

Then again, perhaps I’m being too hard on the photographer. The woman isn’t smiling and she doesn’t meet his eye. Her attention is all on the job. Did photographer and subject understand each other? Or did they face one another across a social chasm?