Reginald Brill



Not on display

Reginald Brill 1902–1974
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1985 × 989 mm
Presented by Helen Mignano 2019


Unemployed c.1934–6 is a large oil painting that depicts four men in shabby overcoats and hats walking in a line alongside a brick wall and pavement. The second of the men holds his cap in his hand as if about to ask for money and the man behind him appears to be chanting or singing, implying that they may be part of a larger group. The work is painted in a sombre palette of browns, greys and dark reds. The subject of the work is the Hunger Marches that took place in Britain in the 1930s and which Brill witnessed first-hand, an experience that deeply affected him. Although the Jarrow March of 1936 is the most famous of these, there were many others including the ‘National Unemployed March to London’ in 1932. Brill first started working on this subject matter in 1933 and showed another painting titled Unemployed in his exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in London in 1933.

Brill began work on a second version of the subject in 1934 as part of his planned cycle of four large paintings on the human condition (Bumpus 1999, p.20), and it is this painting that is in Tate’s collection. Although he hoped to exhibit it at the Royal Academy, it remained unsold at his death and was shown for the first time in his memorial exhibition at the Phoenix Gallery in Lavenham in 1975, under the title Men on the March. Other works planned in the series were Sleep (perhaps the work now known as Corn in the Hills c.1934 [Kingston University]), Dance 1936 (whereabouts unknown) and The Operation 1934–5 (Wellcome Collection, London). Brill made a considerable contribution to the visual culture of realism in Britain between the wars. He was deeply engaged with working-class subject matter and intended his paintings to illustrate social injustices. Unemployed tackles one of the key social concerns of the 1930s, conveying the despair of its out-of-work subjects.

Brill trained at the Slade School of Fine Art and became Principal of Kingston School of Art in 1934. Teaching and administration absorbed much of his time, but he maintained a painting career in parallel, despite exhibiting rarely again until the 1950s. Although Brill was not a member of any of the left-wing artists’ groupings of the 1930s, Unemployed has thematic links with the work of artists who were members of the Artists International Association, such as Clive Branson (1907–1944), Cliff Rowe (1904–1989) and Peter Peri, who dealt with similar subject matter in the 1930s in an attempt to address social problems and make art accessible to a wider public. Brill’s preoccupations with the lives of ordinary workers continued into the 1950s, but in paintings such as Rest 1956 (Tate T07440) his treatment of subjects from everyday life evolved from a gritty low-toned realism to highly composed tableaux inspired by Renaissance frescos. With his students he contributed a mural to the Festival of Britain in 1951.

Further reading
Reginald Brill: A Retrospective Exhibition, Phoenix Gallery, Lavenham, 1975, no.70 (as Men on the March).
Judith Bumpus, Reginald Brill, Aldershot 1999, pp. 17, 19–21.

Emma Chambers
June 2019

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