The Last In
William Mulready


1835
Oil on panel
Tate Gallery, London


 

Objective Description
     This composition revolves around a central image of a man who has removed his hat, and is bowing with his left hand held close to his chest. He is surrounded by young children, both male and female, in various positions. On the left, a disheveled and anxious looking young boy removes his hat as he enters the room. A heavily bolted door frames both the young boy and a little dog that follows him in. Framing the central figures, a large open window reveals a brightly-lit hill and trees. The floor is made up of large flat stones.
     The central figure, as he bows, reveals his balding head and spectacles. In front of him appears to be a podium that has a small blackboard and some rags hanging in front. A yellow pitcher rests on a tree stump in front of the podium. A bonneted and matronly looking woman sits in a corner behind the bowed man.
      The surrounding children affect various poses. The standing young girls look fairly placid. The tallest and most virtuous of them is wearing a white garment, and holds a book in her left hand. Her right hand held to her chest mimics the bowing figure. A younger curly haired girl bends to observe the action of the entering child. The three young boys in the right center do not face the viewer. Our attention is drawn to the entering child who does. He is standing in a slightly contrapostal pose, indicating movement. His eyes glance sideways to the bowed figure. His left hand grasps his book while his right reaches for his hat, revealing a flowing crop of blond hair. Two curious onlookers peer over his shoulder.

Subjective Analysis
     At a time when educational reforms were being recognized, this painting reflects a contemporary middle class view of a rural school. In the drama of the scene, the schoolmaster mocks the entering young boy by bowing, removing his hat and holding his hand to his chest. The boy, through his anxious looks, knows not only of his crime of lateness, but also of the sarcasm and ridicule that is sure to follow. The standing young girls are involved in the action of the schoolmaster, while the seated boys appear to make haste with their schoolwork. All attention is focused on this young boy and the outcome of his tardiness.
      The schoolroom holds more compelling information of the era and the idea of rural schools. The room is sparse and maintains an air of harshness due to the stone floors and dark rigid wooden walls. The door, fitted with several dead bolts, relays an attitude of the schoolroom being a fortress. The large window in the background contrasts this idea with its colorful idyllic natural scene. The generally overcrowded nature of the schoolroom itself is superseded by the drama being played out within.

Childishness in boys, even of good abilities, seems to me to be a growing fault, and I do not know to what to ascribe it, except to the great number of exciting books of amusements, like Pickwick and Nickleby, Bentley’s Magazine, etc., etc. These completely satisfy all the intellectual appetite of a boy, which is rarely very voracious, and leave him totally palled not only for his regular work… but for good literature of all sorts, even for history and for poetry.

Thomas Arnold; letter to the Reverend G. Cornish, 1839

The position of a schoolmaster in society… has not yet obtained that respect in England, as to be able to stand by himself in public opinion as a liberal profession; it owes the rank which it holds to its connection with the profession of a clergyman, for that is acknowledged universally in England to be the profession of a gentleman. Mere teaching, like mere literature, places a man, I think, in rather an equivocal position; he holds no undoubted station in society by these alone; for neither education nor literature have ever enjoyed that consideration and general respect in England which they enjoy in France and in Germany. But a far higher consideration is this, that he who is to educate boys, if he is fully sensible of the importance of his business, must be unwilling to lose such great opportunities as the clerical character gives him, by enabling him to address them continually from the pulpit, and to administer the Communion to them as they become old enough to receive it.

Thomas Arnold; Miscellaneous Works, 1845