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The Song of the Shirt

Anna Blunden, 1854
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven


T.J. Edelstein explains how images such as Blunden’s The Song of the Shirt presented a falsified image of the seamstress:

“By far the most popular of all the examples of social themes in Victorian painting was the seamstress. Fostered by articles in newspapers and in periodicals, encouraged by attention in parliamentary reports, it received its greatest impetus from a literary source. In December 1843, Thomas Hood’s The Song of the Shirt was published …in…Punch. Overnight both the poem and the magazine became a sensation. Its publication is said to have trebled the circulation of the magazine…Quoted by nearly every paper (beginning with The Times), printed as catchpennies, set to music, dramatized by Mark Lemon (the editor of Punch), even printed on handkerchiefs, The Song of the Shirt soon echoed from the ranks of every social class. Hood’s lines became an enduring symbol for the Victorian populace generally and for reformers, painters, and illustrators specifically….

Barely six months after the publication of The Song of the Shirt, the first painting depicting this theme appeared in the annual summer exhibition at the Royal Academy. This work by Richard Redgrave, entitled The Sempstress…illustrates the most important and pervasive of the three visual types of seamstress iconography, the needlewoman working alone. “

“The census of 1841 listed a total of 106,801 people engaged in the trades of dressmaking and millinery, of which only 563 were men.”...

“On 27 October 1843, The Times…[noted]: Sometimes as many as five or six young girls occupy one small room in which they work and sleep and take their meals in common, plying their needles from morn to night…The wretched shirtmakers…cannot obtain a subsistence by the starving wages allowed them.’ Thus, Redgrave and those following his example made a conscious artistic choice to use the single figure. By ignoring some of the harsh actualities of the seamstress’s existence and by focusing attention on one protagonist, these artists created a stronger empathy in their audience…”

T.J. Edelstein, “They Sang The Song of the Shirt: The Visual Iconology of the Seamstress,” Victorian Studies, vol. 23, no. 2 (Winter 1980): 184-5, 186, 190.

Other Artists Representing Similar Subjects:

Henry Anelay, The Seamstress, published in Reynolds Miscellany (23 March 1850), wood engraving 

C.W. Cope, Home Dreams, 1869

G.E. Hicks, Snowdrops, 1858

Richard Redgrave, The Sempstress, 1844 (1846 version in Forbes Magazine Collection)

Albert Rutherston, The Song of the Shirt, 1902 (Bradford Art Gallery)

About the Artist

Born: London, 22 December 1829
Died: Birmingham, December 1915
Nationality: English