The Victoria & Albert Museum
This 1857 painting by Alfred Provis depicts the wholly Victorian concept of “the respectable poor”—members of the lower class who were perceived as industrious and thrifty, and who were applauded for making the best of their situations.
Provis has represented this idea by showing us the interior of a humble cottage and its plain but well-maintained contents. A young woman watches over an infant while she’s knitting. Unlike wealthier women, this woman is not knitting as a hobby, but most likely as a means of bringing in extra income or to make durable clothing for her family. Odds are, this is an older daughter of the family watching a sibling, and not the child’s mother. In families such as this, a mother would have to go back to work immediately to help keep food on the table. An older child or sometimes a neighbor would be charged with watching the smaller children. She is barefooted and her clothes show signs of having been mended. Still, she’s clean and well-groomed and carries a dignified expression.
The cottage is depicted as being hewn of rough stone with few furnishings. A large book is prominently placed on the window ledge. Provis likely means for us to assume that this is a bible—probably the only book owned by most families and the book from which most learned to read, if at all. The only other visible items are those of pure necessity. A kitchen grate is visible in the distance up the stairs.
This is not the painting’s original frame, but rather a modern reproduction for the original which was too badly damaged to maintain.