The purpose of this paper is to investigate the correlation between the textual construction of the West London suburb during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, as developed through fictional and non-fictional commentary, and the paintings of suburban street scenes, also located in West London, produced during this period by the artists John Atkinson Grimshaw. In particular this paper will focus on Grimshaw¿s use of the solitary female figure, often positioned in the immediate foreground of a number of these paintings, who, functioning as a rückenfigur, observes the suburban setting. This paper will argue that this figure provided Grimshaw with a means to pictorialize a critical aspect of suburban experience during this period that of the desire for, and consequent encroachment upon, established middle class suburbs by the aspiring working class.
This issue was regularly addressed during the 1880s and 1890s, receiving its most famous treatment in Diary of a Nobody (1892) by George and Weedon Grossmith. The writer of this diary, Charles Pooter, represents a member of the lower middle class whose desire for social improvement is achieved by moving to the suburbs. This marginal and ill-defined space, situated spatially between the unhealthily, congested (and often contested) metropolitan centre and the healthy, spacious (and often idealized) rural setting, also functioned as an economic buffer between the working class, located in the inner city, and the elite who occupied locations on the fringe of the city. Through Pooter¿s struggle to mark out a life of gentile improvement the authors were able to offer the reader an index of perceived suburban characteristics, many of which still survive: its monotony and conformity, but also its association with privacy and the elevation of the family and the domestic space as both secure and feminised.
This ascription of meaning undertaken by contemporary text provides an interpretive device through which Grimshaw¿s pictorializing of the suburb can be considered. The lone female figure, whose gender reflects that of the location and whose solitary presence, signifying the social outsider, can now be read as part of a wider discourse concerning this desire for social improvement. The nocturnal setting, often deployed by Grimshaw, emphasises both the isolation of the figure and also the presence of family and security, signified by the illuminated windows of homes that offer a suburban dream that she can observe but cannot yet access. Her status as dreaming outsider, amplified by her moment of arrested observation, is often underlined by Grimshaw through his placement of this figure near the kerb and therefore close to the gutter, a space whose connotative code often indicated the socially marginal, but which, like the suburb through which it travels, also carries associations with health and urban improvement. The simple, un-assumed manner of her dress further confirms her social position as a member of that class who sought to exchange the contested space of the metropolitan centre for a life in the suburbs.