Why was it that in the nineteenth century for such a great percentage of the population it suddenly became no longer a privilege to live in the city (as opposed to the country or the village)? It’s a question that is not unrelated to Brexit and to the tyrannical shenanigans engineered by Boris Johnson today. Especially given we are just about to give up (on October 31st) some major privileges in terms of the standard of life and relations with the rest of Europe and the world. In medieval times and in the Renaissance to live in the city was a privilege which was controlled by the feudal institutions of the aristocracy and the church and the practices of the trade and craft guilds –and duties had to be paid, of course, to enjoy those privileges (hence the city walls and gates even in times of peace).
With the industrial revolution and the rapid urbanisation that all changed massively of course. The best standard place to look for a macro-scale explanation of the phenomenon –linking the Highland Clearances and the expropriation of the peasantry in general, with the expansion of empire and creation there of new markets, and the industrialisation of the cities and the creation of slum conditions for the masses entering the urban arena – is still Chapter 27 of Marx’s Capital. In a few short pages the whole panorama of global laissez-faire capitalism is laid out before us –and it is breathtaking in its destructive path for the majority of the population. In terms of actually viewing for oneself the effects of that deregulation of employment conditions, and the consequent rapid urbanisation, one of the most vivid expositions of conditions for the urban poor is to be found in the photography of Thomas Annan (1820-87) and his images of the overcrowded old closes on Glasgow’s originally medieval High Street.
In a brilliant history of Annan’s work and its influence tonight at National Library of Scotland at Kelvin Hall Anne Lyden showed us how Annan faced massive social and technical difficulties to document the frightful conditions people lived in during that capitalist free for all before there was truly any humane state regulation of employment, housing conditions or welfare.
Annan stayed at the forefront of technical developments in his art, and as Emily JL Munro of NLS pointed out not only was his photography influential, but in many ways his composition skills also showed the way for early film documentaries of urban Scotland.
We can be optimistic about Annan’s documentation of 1860s and 70s poor Glasgow because he was recording conditions that were about to start changing for the better with Glasgow Corporation’s gradual engagement and involvement in housing, in transport, in employment and so on. Things took a long time to change and people suffered awfully and needlessly but with pressure from mobliisations like the later Women’s Rent Strike of 1915 things were moving in the right direction –away from the laissez faire conditions of nineteenth century business with no protections for the working people.
It seems that at our current day we stand on the threshold of similar momentous change. But this time it appears to be going in the opposite direction for ornery folks! ,Are we really about to accept meekly Johnson and his Tory mob throwing away all the regulations and protections –all the privileges we enjoy and which protect us from the unregulated ravages of the open competition of advanced capitalist markets? Can we learn nothing from the past? Even our own city’s past? From the finest exposition and documentation of this city’s artists?