Luke Fildes is best known as a painter of the suffering of the poor, most notably with Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward. However, such pictures formed only a part of his output, his most prolific works being portraits and pictures of Venetian life. He was also a notable black and white illustrator.
Daphne, illustration from 1868
Fildes was born to a nonartistic family in Liverpool, and started modestly with evening classes in art and design in Chester, where he spent his youth. He then studied design at Warrington, and then turned completely to fine art, moving to London and enrolling at the South Kensington Schools in 1863. In 1866 he gained admission to the Academy Schools, and from 1867, while still a student, he earned his living by drawing on wood. When The Graphic started in 1869, he was invited along with others who became the important painters of the plight of the poor - Herkomer, Holl, Walker and also Pinwell - to contribute. In this magazine appeared his The Casuals, which later became the famous oil painting. Among various good things for the magazines and books, he illustrated Dickens's last work, Edwin Drood.
Fildes' first picture at the Royal Academy was in fact a Marcus Stone-like picture of lovers on a boat with accompanying swans called Fair, Quiet and Sweet Rest. In 1873 he exhibited Simpletons, and in 1874 Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward, which was the picture of the year, and required a rail and policeman to keep back the crowds of onlookers. In 1875 his Academy picture was Betty, 'a buxom milkmaid', but in 1876 came another important social picture, The Widower.
In 1877 Fildes moved into the artist's district centred around Leighton's house in Holland Park, with a house in Melbury Road designed by Richard Norman Shaw (who built a house for Marcus Stone in the same road). In 1879 Fildes was elected ARA, one year after Frank Holl and a year before Herkomer, and in 1887 he became RA (his diploma picture was The Schoolgirl).
Fildes took great pains to make sure that his pictures were authentic and of genuine people from the streets, and for example for the painting The Doctor (1891), recreated a whole poor bedroom in his studio. He was much praised for the 'Dickensian study of character' of his work.
Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward is in the collection of the Royal Holloway College, London. The Doctor is at the Tate Gallery, and one of his Italian ideal portraits, A Venetian Girl may be seen at the Russell Cotes Museum in Bournemouth. Two more Italian paintings are Venetian Girl with Flask and Venetian Market Girl in Brighton. Daughter of the Lagoons is in Warrington and a similar model features in Al Fresco Toilet is in the Lady Lever Gallery, Port Sunlight, where Fildes also has portraits of Lady and Lord Lever.
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