The Drawing Room – Rickard Sisters
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The Drawing Room

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a book about work and the meaning of life. It is full of metaphor and allegory, and no image demonstrates Tressell’s feelings about the meaning of work more completely than the drawing room at Mr Sweater’s house, which Owen decorates so magnificently.

The house is named The Cave, an allusion to Plato’s cave where the entrapped see reflections and perceive them to be the whole of reality. Tressell wanted the working class to turn around and gaze directly into the fire that casts those shadows – the capitalist system. Mr Sweater is a wealthy businessman and the mayor of Mugsborough. He pays his friend and fellow councillor Mr Rushton to renovate The Cave, who employs the talented artist and signwriter Frank Owen as a painter and decorator.

Sweater may be wealthy and well-travelled but it doesn’t make him educated or cultured. He wants his drawing room to be done out ‘in a Japanese style’ like a room he’s seem in Paris, but is unwilling to pay for an artist from London to do the work. Rushton negotiates with Owen to take on the financial risk, by preparing plans and designs in his own time for Sweater’s approval. Owen is so delighted at the chance of some meaningful, creative and challenging work to do, he goes out of his way to make sure Sweater likes the plans by giving up his own time. He recognises the style as Moorish and gets reference books from the public library to help him plan an authentic design. Rushton benefits from that labour without having paid for it.

From the minute Sweater agrees to have the work done, Rushton and Hunter try to make Owen skimp or rush it. They lobby for fewer coats of white undercoat, and gold paint instead of gold leaf to finish. Owen sticks to his guns and, despite considerable pressure, he takes great pride and care over the work. At the unwaged apprentice’s request, he includes young Bert and teaches him more than anyone has in years. Rushton benefits from all that labour for the cost of a painter’s day-rate.

The foreman Crass feels threatened by this opportunity for Owen to demonstrate his talent, and is petty enough to hope it will go badly. There is no nurture or encouragement here, nor pride in the job as a whole. No-one congratulates Owen on his triumph, they only complain about how long it took or how much it has cost. Mr Sweater gets his fancy room done for less than ‘London prices’ because Owen was desperate for the opportunity to make something he cared about.

We often hear rhetoric from capitalists that work is good for us, and it’s true. Unemployment is thoroughly miserable and bad for your health. Soul destroying, repetitive, meaningless work for low pay is also miserable and bad for your health, but it does subsidise your employer. How many of us have been ragged trousered philanthropists at some time in our lives, doing depressing work for low pay and dreaming of an opportunity to do work that makes better use of our talents?

It reminds me of a graphic I saw recently (shared online by American socialist Alexandria Occasio Cortez) about the true cost of wage theft. If you’re lucky enough to have meaningful work that you enjoy, what would happen if you started claiming pay for all the hours you work? Do you even consider it work when you lie awake at night mulling over a problem? For the solution to this predicament, we refer you to Barrington’s suggestions outlined in Chapter 17: The Great Oration. We can’t wait for you to read it.

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