Socialist Worker

Rank: Portraits of inequality

Steve Cannon is impressed by an exhibition charting 500 years of class divisions

Issue No. 2153

Detail of Derby Day (1856-58), by William Powell Frith. The painting 
shows what was described as “a gathering clearly subversive of the proper distinctions which should always in a well-governed country 
exist between class and class.”

Detail of Derby Day (1856-58), by William Powell Frith. The painting shows what was described as “a gathering clearly subversive of the proper distinctions which should always in a well-governed country exist between class and class.”

The new exhibition, Rank: Picturing the Social Order 1516-2009, is a rich exploration of social hierarchy, division and inequality.

The exhibition, which is at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art in Sunderland, is exhaustive in its historical scope and the range of visual work.

This includes cartoons, book illustrations, billboards and video installations – along with a small selection of paintings and a vast array of graphs, charts and maps.

This exhibition is so rich that my lunch hour-and-a-bit was not nearly enough to do it justice.

I would have liked to spend a lot longer in close proximity to the prints, which are by the likes of 18th century satirists William Hogarth and James Gillray and 19th century French artist Gustave Doré.

This is partly because their form and visual language presents difficulties in a gallery setting, particularly alongside huge billboard-like canvasses and video screens.

One fascinating aspect of seeing the old and the new is the question of how different practitioners, at different times, have attempted to illustrate abstract concepts using the forms of the time.

You don’t often see maps in galleries, but there are all sorts of conceptual mappings of social ­division and spatial inequality on display here.

These range from Charles Booth’s attempt to categorise London streets in the 1890s by colour-coding their poverty and criminality, to world maps showing the relative size of national economies.

The latter are visually distorted to reflect the other distortions that shape our view of the world, a view that is usually centred on certain places and marginalises others.

There are also informative and imaginative graphs and charts. There’s a football league of British cities, ranked according to various social indicators.

This runs from a “Champions League” down to a “Conference North” – Sunderland was in the Conference but above Liverpool.


There is a great painting by William Powell Frith, entitled Derby Day which is a panoramic social portrait from the 1850s.

Since it gets so much attention in every other review, I’d rather mention two excellent sets of photographs.

In the first Daniela Rossell has created glossy blow-ups of the hyper-rich in Mexico, set against backdrops of kitsch excess.

The text reveals, however, that the subjects chose the settings themselves, showing – if the behaviour of expense-claiming MPs hasn’t already – that the rich really are beyond parody.

The other project by Nina Beier and Marie Lund asked groups of people such as workmates, family groups, a football team and others to arrange themselves according to who is the “most outstanding”.

The photos are naturalistic but also demonstrative of a deep-rooted egalitarianism.

It becomes comic to see the lengths that people went to to make sure that no one should stand out.

The exhibition has also taken care to link the global and the local, with items from Sunderland library’s archives, which occupies the same building as the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art.

These include photographs of striking miners in Durham being evicted from their houses by police, as their homes were the property of mine owner Lord Londonderry in 1892.

Alongside that sits the photo album of the Londonderry family, at leisure in Wynyard Hall.

Visitors have left comments on postcards about the exhibition. As well as the traditional abusive comments from school students there was a recurring theme of “anger” and “disgust”.

There is one evocation of Douglas Hogg and “moatgate” that shows the contemporary relevance of this exhibition. See it for yourself either when it moves on to Blackpool, or come to Sunderland.

Rank: picturing the social order 1516-2009 is on at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art in Sunderland until 11 July. Go to » It then moves to Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool from 24 July-12 September.

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Tue 26 May 2009, 18:19 BST
Issue No. 2153
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