It intrigued me to spot several paintings in this year’s Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours 208th Exhibition depicting a washing line, writes Liberty Rowley, Marketing Manager at Mall Galleries.
It got me thinking. Thinking about what seeing a line full of washing blowing gently in the breeze makes me feel, and why so many painters have painted it as a subject.
Geoff Butterworth A Day Like Any Other Pure watercolour, 74 x 57 cm, £1,800
Geoff Butterworth says it “sums up the mundane life of the times”. His painting is titled A Day Like Any Other, but for those of us who grew up in a world of tumble dryers and city living, it seems another time and place. A time and a place where the air was cleaner, you didn’t fear your neighbours stealing your socks, and the sun always shone. He describes this painting as showing “Beautiful light, gritty reality.”
So, thinking again, the time and the place, in this case the Lancashire border towns in the Pennines of several decades ago, is one that is easy to view through rose-tinted nostalgia goggles, but the reality for many was ‘gritty’. At the heart of the Industrial Revolution, some of Lancaster’s population was rich, but more were extremely poor.
The tenement houses depicted were built for families working long hours down mines and in mills, and then much of that industry departed.
Geoff Butterworth says he is using his watercolours to “record the northern scene as it is today, emerging from its grimy industrial past.”
Anne Ware’s Windy Day, Boulby Works also looks to grimy industry.
Anne Ware Windy Day, Boulby Works Watercolour, 50 x 62 cm, £640
The potash mine at Boulby, North Yorkshire is just a smudge on the horizon and almost the whole scene is filled with sunshine and clean sheets. The barefoot blonde hanging out the washing gives the impression of a rural idyll, far removed from the mine shafts and underground laboratories of the Works over her shoulder.
Washing hanging on the line starts to seem a comfortable, welcoming and almost universal sign of sunny domesticity. Andy Lee’s Colourful Old Houses, Sospel, Provence shows washing hanging from the balconies in the south of France.
Andy Lee Colourful Old Houses, Sospel, Provence Watercolour, 58 x 78 cm, £1,500
Kate Bentley’s Fresh Warm Linen could be almost anywhere in the world. The universality of the sight of a woman hanging out the washing is emphasised in also not being able to tell what period in history this particular scene is taking place.
Kate Bentley Fresh Warm Linen Pure watercolour, 53 x 65 cm, £895
In David Howell’s painting of a Hindu temple in Udaipur, we can see a line of brightly coloured clothing hung out to dry, giving a jolly as well as homely feel to this scene that could otherwise seem remote from my everyday experience.
David Howell PPRSMA Rada Krishna, Udaipur Watercolour, 51 x 43 cm, £1,550
Likewise, Paul Banning's Hanging Out the Washing, Trinidad shows what to me is the srange activity of hanging the washing underneath the house. Chattel houses are built to be movable, so home owners could disassemble, move and rebuild their houses where they could gain employment.
Paul Banning RI RSMA Hanging Out the Washing, Trinidad Watercolour, 25 x 30 cm, £900
Rosa Sepple’s Venice is draped with washing lines, giving a pleasant overtone of domestic bliss to the city known for romance, flirtation and debauchery disguised behind Venetian masks.
Rosa Sepple PRI Lavanderia Watercolour, gouache & ink, 28 x 76 cm, £2,450
Rosa Sepple PRI Venice I Watercolour, gouache & ink, 56 x 76 cm, £4,250
Julija Skudutyte’s depictions of domestic washing lines are a little less idyllic.
She explains: “These works are depictions of the home of an older lady in Lithuania, who is a hoarder."
Julija Skudutyte Mindset Watercolour, 90 x 120 cm, £2,900
“It has become a norm amongst older people in Lithuania. After independence from the Soviet Union was won, some mindsets, like living in the Culture of Poverty (terminology started by O. Lewis), have stayed.
For these seniors, everything needs to be kept just in case they will need it one day, and it's important for them not to use anything new because ‘why buy something new when you have an old thing that is still working’.
They want to keep the unused things for their children even though after they are dead the children always throw everything out.
The money is not important because in Soviet times even if you had the money you just couldn't buy anything. Objects had more value than money. You couldn't really have anything nice because the government would be suspicious that you had contact abroad.
It's hard for people who are living in this mindset to change. They are not rich, neither are they poor, but they still live as if they are victims and have no choice.”
Julija Skudutyte American Beauty Watercolour, 95 x 75 cm, £1,900
“This particular lady collects plastic bags. After using them, she washes them and then leaves them to dry out. After they are dry she folds them and puts them in a pile next to other plastic bags. That‘s why I chose to call this artwork American Beauty, after the 1999 film directed by Sam Mendes.
The best-known scene from the film is a plastic bag dancing in the wind as Thomas Newman's soundtrack is playing in the background. That scene really was a perfect connection to the old lady who is collecting those plastic bags because it looks as if she wants to collect all that beauty and have it to herself.”
I hadn’t expected the simple washing line to speak to me so powerfully of social and political history. Nor to link me with so much familiarity and recognition to people spread all across the world.
But that’s why art is exciting.
What will you find in the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours 208th Exhibition that will surprise you?
Visit the exhibition from 2 to 17 April, 10am to 5pm (closes 1pm on final day) Closed on Easter Sunday, 12 April.
Admission £5, Free for Friends of Mall Galleries.