The theme of labour occurs often in Vaughan’s work and especially during the years following the war. The present work was probably painted around 1950. He had developed a healthy respect for hard work, having been a member of the Non Combatant Corps during the war, and this attitude stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Over the course of his career Vaughan represented all types of labourers engaging in every manner of grueling physical activity. These included quarrymen, gardeners, coalmen, farm workers, woodmen, fishermen, tree cutters, ploughmen, harvesters, shearers, metal workers and hod carriers. He was attracted by the look and attitude of these manual workers, their physical prowess and their masculine appearance. Not only did he admire them but, as his journal reveals, he also envied them. As a middle-class intellectual and a successful artist, Vaughan harboured a deep-rooted sense of guilt that his professional life was of the ‘easy’ variety. He grew increasingly self-conscious that his artistic talents brought him significant rewards compared to those who engaged in strenuous labour to earn their daily bread.
Four years after the war and during a period of significant optimism and patriotism in Britain, Vaughan executed a series of gouaches of steel workers, of which the present work is an example. He took his sketchbooks to the steelworks and filled them with ideas for possible paintings, working them up into gouaches and paintings in his studio. One of these sketchbooks, dating from 1950, is now housed in the Keith Vaughan Archive at Tate Britain. This was a time when toil and labour were associated with social progress and civic rejuvenation.
The spontaneous, direct handling and interesting combination of pen, ink, gouache and wax crayon is typical of Vaughan’s unique ‘volatile medium’, as he liked to call it (see, unpublished interview with Dr. Tony Carter and Keith Vaughan, 1963).
Gerard Hastings, 2018.
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