Monday, August 6, 2012

A Communard in Dickensian London: Auguste Lancon

In 1986 I edited, with my friend Victor E. Neuburg, a collection of Charles Dickens's social criticism, under the title A December Vision. One of the pleasures of that project was researching visual images to match Dickens's texts on London's workhouses, prisons, and ragged schools. Illustrators such as George Cruickshank, Phiz, Watts Phillips, W.G. Mason, Kenny Meadows, William M'Connell, A. Henning, and various Punch cartoonists, enlivened the pages, along with work by two French artists, Gustave Doré and Gavarni. But I don't recall ever coming across the searing etchings of Auguste Lançon, created around 1880 to accompany the text La Rue à Londres by his friend Jules Vallès, published in 1884. It's a shame as many of them perfectly illustrate the scenes of poverty and desperation that so strongly roused Dickens's sense of injustice and inequality.

Auguste Lançon, Un abreuvoir dans Tottenham-Court-Road
Etching, 1884

Auguste Lançon, Une ruelle dans Spitalfields
Etching, 1884

Auguste Lançon, Pauvresses accroupies contre le mur du "Workhouse" de Saint-Giles
Etching, dated 1881 in the plate

Both Vallès and Lançon were Communards, exiled in London after the fall of the ill-fated Paris Commune in 1871. Vallès was actually condemned to death, but escaped to England. Lançon spent six months imprisoned in the Satory camp - presumably in a similar cell to that of Philippe Cattelain - before joining Vallès in exile in London. Men such as Jules Vallès and Auguste Lançon were primed by their own experiences and deeply-held political beliefs to side with those in the underbelly of Victorian society, and rage against their plight. Both the text and etchings are very powerful evocations of the pitiful condition of the London poor, at the height of Britain's power and wealth, and it is a shame that La Rue à Londres seems so little known, presumably because it was never translated into English.

Auguste Lançon, Le soir dans un "Lodging-House" de Drury Lane
Etching, dated 1880 in the plate

Auguste Lançon, Un ménage d'émigrants Irlandais dans un "Lodging-House" de Drury Lane
Etching, 1884

Auguste Lançon, La salle basse d'un "Lodging-House" de femmes dans Drury Lane
Etching, 1884

Auguste Lançon is an artist I had previously come across largely as an accomplished etcher of animal scenes, so these London etchings come as something of a revelation. They are beautifully observed, often quite dark, and full of telling details. As records of the life of the London poor at this period, these remarkable etchings stand comparison with the wood engravings of Gustave Doré for Blanchard Jerrold's London.

Auguste Lançon, La servante "The General Servant"
Etching, 1884

Auguste Lançon, La cuisine
Etching, dated 1880 in the plate

Auguste Lançon, Types de petites ouvrières dans leur intérieur
Etching, 1884

Auguste André Lançon was born in 1836 in Saint-Claude in the Jura, the son of a carpenter. Lançon was first apprenticed to a lithographer in Saint-Claude, then studied at the École des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, and finally went to Paris to study under Picot. He first exhibited at the Salon de Paris in 1861, under the name André Lançon, which he continued to use until 1870.

Auguste Lançon, Un campement de "Gypsies"
Etching, 1884

When Lançon began exhibiting again in 1872, after the interruption of the Franco-Prussian War, the Commune, and imprisonment, it was as Auguste Lançon, and this switch of first names has led to confusion, with some writers assuming that André and Auguste were two different artists. La Rue à Londres credits him as A. Lançon, though most of the etchings are signed in the plate Aug. Lançon.

Auguste Lançon, Chez Painter le marchand de tortues - Les réservoirs
Etching, 1884

La Rue à Londres was published by Georges Charpentier in an edition of 600 copies: 50 on Whatman with the etchings in two states, 50 on Japan, also with the etchings in two states, and 500 on wove paper, with the etchings in their final state. In all cases the etchings themselves were printed by either A. Salmon or F. Liénard on Hollande wove paper. The front cover claims 23 etchings, the title page 22, the latter being the correct total.


Atelier Conti said...

These etchings are really marvelous and could even say pertinent! It seems to me that very few people today use etching as an illustration tool. It is such a perfect story-telling medium. Thank you for introducing me to these wonderful prints which definitely evoke a time and place!

Neil said...

So glad you like them, Nancy. I think at that date there wasn't such a firm division between illustration and fine art - so many of the painters of the time were trying to tell stories about society rather than express their inner being. I think of these etchings by Lançon as equivalent to, say, Luke Fildes' painting Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward, which dates from 1874. We used that on the cover of A December Vision.

Jane Librizzi said...

I enlarged "Workhouse" as much as I could and looked and looked. And the longer I looked the more each woman appeared as a fully rounded character, although I can also see the art of Lancon's arrangement. Each woman's hands tell a story in themselves. Such a beautiful rendering of such hardship is hard to describe, so I won't try. This seems to me one of the finest things you have.

Neil said...

Jane, I'll send you the workhouse jpeg - it used to be that if you clicked on pictures on blogger you got a really great enlarged image, but now it all seems a bit murky to me. As for your response to that image, I am really touched, and I agree with you. I thought I was well versed in the iconography of Victorian London. I wrote a book called Victorian Village Life, and was poised to write one on the Victorian city, but I don't think I ever came across one of Lançon's images - it's as if they were never made.

Philip Wilkinson said...

What stunning images. Such characterful rendering of faces and hands. Such a strong sense of the surface textures of walls and fabrics. They're certainly worthy of Dickens, but that turtle seller could be a character described by Henry Mayhew too.

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rugged breed said...

you did another good job Neil, I've been following your blog and these images are somehow alive into my eyes, I wonder what is it with these images, It feels like it has a soul! Very interesting.

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Unknown said...

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