July 2017 - For the few not the many
Robert Tressell’s book The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was completed in 1910 and published in 1914, three years after his death. It has been the inspiration for many socialist writers and activists including Tony Benn, George Orwell and Alan Sillitoe and has recently inspired the artist, Howard Morrison (from the Paper Piano collective) to produce a visual artwork which he has kindly added to the Working Class Movement Library’s diverse collection of radically themed creative works.
Tressell was a painter and decorator whose experience of poverty and exploitation gave rise to this, his only book. In it he uses the context of a group of workmen, the “philanthropists” of the title who generously toil for pitiful wages in order to enrich their employers. Through the powerful explanations to his fellow workers of Frank Owen, the central character, about the fundamentals of the capitalist system, Tressell provides a weighty indictment of the greed of the employers and the inertia of the workers in the face of it.
In a recent talk for the Library’s volunteers Howard Morrison explained how he responded to his reading of Tressell’s book by producing the powerful artwork which now hangs here. Being an artist, he instinctively responded to a striking image which Owen uses to explain the gross inequalities of wealth in the society of the early 20th century. This was a simple drawing of “a circle about two feet in diameter containing two squares, one much larger than the other. These two squares he filled in solid black with charcoal”. The small square represented the capitalists, “the few”, and a larger one represented the workers, “the many”. The relevance to our current situation could not be stronger.
Howard talked us through the steps he took to produce this work. Initially he experimented by producing a variety of linotypes based on squares, before settling on one with a small square at the top and a larger one underneath. All these are now part of our collection. He then placed a set of prints of this on a background of pasted newspaper cuttings, where the contrasting black squares stand out strongly. (Robert Tressell chose his pen name after the trestle table which he used for his work as a decorator). Howard’s talk stimulated a lively discussion and we all hope that we might see him again when he produces his next piece of work.
Veronica Trick, volunteer co-ordinator, WCML