The blog and me

This blog will be erratic and seldom follow themes. It will make no claims to being structured or logical. It will, I hope, be fun and occasionally insightful. I do still publish more coherent work (though in economics, and in very strange places) but that may take some believing after reading these pages. I've a PhD in economics/economic history from Cambridge, I've taught in several universities (and still do, when I get the chance) but now focus energy and attention on commercialization for a large London university, and dealing with the daily commute.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Harry Burrard Farnall (1802-83)

Harry Burrard Farnall (1802-83) was an example of that extraordinary Victorian ideal, the gentleman civil servant defending the patrician notion of a generous, caring state in the absence of any very firm evidence that the state was routinely either of those things. What made me interested in him this week was picking up the picture below - an undated, unsigned, pencil drawing marked, in a small neat hand on card below the drawing itself, as 'Water Mill near Lyme Regis, H.B. Farnall'.

It's a tidily produced, finely drawn if clearly amateur evocation of the Dorset countryside. The cows, placidly grouped at the bottom right of the picture, are the least satisfactory element but there are some keen touches to the execution - notably the shadow on the front of the cottage, beneath the eaves overhanging the watermill itself and on the gateway leading to the cottage. Great care has been taken, but there is no vestige of real country life in the drawing. It is devoid of any life, and certainly of any human society.

The artist was the son of Captain Harry Farnall RN, himself the son of a 60th Regiment of Foot Lieutenant. The notion of service must have been absorbed at the dinner table, and the family motto, 'Persevere', must have provided a stimulus to hard work. He was educated first in Bristol and then at Charterhouse, where contemporaries would have included the Secretary of State for War during the Crimean campaign (Maule-Ramsey) and the Chief Justice of New South Wales (Stephen). At Cambridge he attended the then very new Downing College from 1825, having come from Brasenose College Oxford at which he had matriculated in 1820 - but, in an age of almost notorious academical laxness, probably doing very little more than was required to remain in residence and keep terms before his departure for Cambridge. As a Fellow-Commoner in Downing he would have enjoyed the benefits of a status considerably above that of the pensioners and sizars at the common tables in hall, but some way still below that of the sons of the aristocracy - comfortable and richly provided for certainly, but with a sense of a long way to travel yet to achieve absolute distinction. A good marriage helped. In 1829, almost three years after graduating, he married Dorothea, the daughter of Alan Bellingham of Bellingham Castle, Louth and thus married into a rich and established family which was returning MPs to Westminster both before and after the Great Reform Act. 

His career as a civil servant was not without incident, and most notably included (in 1866 while acting as the Metropolitan Inspector of Poor Laws, a post he held for some years) a critical reception from liberal critics and the press alike for his apparent blindness to the conditions in workhouse infirmaries. On the other hand, he along with Florence Nightingale had instituted, voluntarily, the first enquiries into nursing quality in workhouse hospitals the previous year. Occasional blemishes in an otherwise clearly dutiful if not occasionally prejudiced career included his inability of tell truth from fiction in the notorious Bethnal Green Workhouse case of the devious Theobald Meyrick, the master of what was perhaps the most appalling of the Victorian workhouses in London at the time. Meyrick seems to have got away with a light inspection by Farnall - and eventually it was the Board of Guardians, and not the Inspector, who brought Meyrick to book, a man so clearly guilty of a litany of crimes against inmates as to make a mockery of the idea that those in public service were at all obliged to offer compassion and care. 

My drawing, bought in a fit of enthusiasm for the inevitable puzzle (who was the artist?) seems most likely to be the product of some time before the Bethnal Green scandal, and a sign of a more retired and bucolic nature. Farnall moved to Dorset but continued to live in Kent and London too (wealth had its advantages). He was able to play the role of Deputy Lieutenant for the County and be Mayor of Lyme Regis, so the eye that saw and the hand that drew the watermill were not unfamiliar with the environs of the town. 

Finally what impresses one about this very minor amateur drawing is the artfulness of it. Constructed so as to leave no hint of the reality of country life (watermills were hard, noisy, places to live and work in and a miller's life was tough throughout the year) it displays a conventional regard for the landscape as a part of the settled order of Victorian England. Perhaps, ultimately, a public servant brought up and trained in the way that had shaped Farnall would not have thought otherwise about the rural world.   

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