The Image of the Beggar in Britain 1760-1820

Leeson, Margaret Ann (2021). The Image of the Beggar in Britain 1760-1820. PhD thesis The Open University.



The years between circa 1760 and 1820 saw the sudden appearance of a substantial body of beggar images in British art, yet by the end of the period such images had all but disappeared. This thesis aims to investigate this phenomenon, which has never before been systematically studied. It will be argued here that the image of the beggar assumed a symbolic significance as a result of the rapid socio-economic change that Britain underwent as it moved from a broadly paternalistic model of social relations to one increasingly based on laissez-faire principles. As the traditional signifier of poverty, the figure of the mendicant functioned at once to express and to contain elite concerns about these developments.

This thesis starts by examining the emergence of beggar imagery around the middle of the century before analysing its function in a range of genres. It argues that sentimental images in which the beggar is depicted as an object of sympathy and benevolence served to embody a new secular morality. At the same time, however, the beggar became an increasingly problematic presence in landscape imagery because mendicancy's inevitable association with poverty and suffering made it impossible to view the figure in a purely aesthetic light. Likewise, beggars feature only rarely in satirical images of the period because the moral and social issues raised by their plight meant that they could not readily be depicted as comic figures. Only as attitudes towards mendicity hardened in the years around 1800 did a more detached perspective become possible, such that the beggar came to be viewed in a comic and/or aesthetic spirit, either as a deviant or a rogue.

By exploring the tensions that surrounded the begging figure, this thesis helps to shed light on transformations in British culture and society in this period.

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