Art and Industrial Society: The Role of the Toronto Mechanic's Institute in the Promotion of Art, 1831-1883

By Ramsay, Ellen L. | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Art and Industrial Society: The Role of the Toronto Mechanic's Institute in the Promotion of Art, 1831-1883


Ramsay, Ellen L., Labour/Le Travail


Ellen L. Ramsay, "Art and Industrial Society: The Role of the Toronto Mechanic's Institute in the Promotion of Art, 1831-1883," Labour/Le Travail, 43 (Spring 1999), 71-103.

"Man is a being of mysterious complexity; and he who in subjugating his powers, to menial tasks, overlooks or blinks this fact, commits a sacrilege upon his nature. Whilst there is nothing too low or grovelling for him to stoop to, there is, at the same time, nothing too high to be unattainable by his ambition. While his feet tread the grounds--while his brow fronts the sky--while his hands turn the sod, tug at the oar, or ply the loom, his soul, in its spiritual outgoings, may be roaming among the stars" (Mr. Quentin - a mechanic)

"And now, I will venture to say to those gentlemen, who look upon the working classes as nothing but mere machines, that I know a machine more powerful than that constructed by Watt--and still more important than that made by Arkwright, and capable of attaining much higher perfection... What then is this machine? Must I pronounce it?--Must I adopt language to express it?--it is Man!"

Walter Eales (painter), Lecture on the Benefits to be Derived from Mechanics' Institutes, delivered to the Toronto Mechanics' Institute, 1851.

The lords of earth are only great,

While others clothe and feed them

But what were all their pride and state

Should labour cease to heed them?...

We toil, we spin, we delve the mine,

Sustaining each his neighbour;

And who can hold a `right divine'

To rob us of our labour?

The tyrants chains are only strong,

While slaves submit to wear them,

And who could bind them on the throng

Determined not to wear them.

W.L. Mackenzie, The Constitution (Toronto), 27 November 1837, stanzas 1, 2, and 4.

TO THE HISTORIAN, the speeches delivered before the Toronto Mechanics' Institute by Quentin and Eales are a familiar reminder of the relationship between labour and the desire of the working class to break the bonds of its alienation in 19th-century Canada. The stanzas by William Lyon Mackenzie, then, add a necessary political component to the transformation of feeling in the context of the Upper Canadian Rebellion. To the art historian, however, the address by Eales, who is described as a "painter" (sign painter) on the published pamphlet, conjures up an unfamiliar age when instruction in fine art was seen as central to the advancement of the working class in Canada, as opposed to the more middle class "moral" improvement of its citizens.

As Sandford Fleming's design (1850) for the Toronto Mechanics' Institute prize certificate suggests (fig. 1), the vision of the Institute for working-class education could be symbolized by the figure of Atlas carrying his globe over the inscription Knowledge is Power (after Francis Bacon), supported by the dual faculties of science and art. These two faculties are then driven forward into the modern age by the railway (beneath the pillar of science) and extended through the industry of mind (beneath the pillar of art) into the modern world. The analogy is completed with the celebration of the material achievements of the industrial age with the construction of the railway bridge (transportation) and the power loom (manufacturing). Fleming's conception of the cosmos, therefore, sets the classical ideals of human knowledge and self-improvement upon the material foundations of industry mediated by the human capacity to reason.

The relationship between art and industrial society has only intermittently received the attention of art historians, despite the fact that this relationship has provided the central dynamic for artistic activity since 1750. The marxist scholar Francis Klingender was perhaps the first art historian to seriously consider the significance of modern industrial society to artistic technique, art patronage, and subject matter in his small volume Art and the Industrial Revolution (1947) although here, as Bernard Smith has pointed out, Klingender largely reduced the problem of art and industry to an iconographic matter. …

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