University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Cambridge Classical Reception Seminar Series  > 'Flirting Classical Colours!* Greco-Roman figures, forms and structures in Victorian Trade Union Emblems'.

'Flirting Classical Colours!* Greco-Roman figures, forms and structures in Victorian Trade Union Emblems'.

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The banners and certificates of the developing Trades Union movement provide us with a visual history of 19th century working class aspirations. The imagery TU leaders adopted and adapted for their emblems was very much influenced by the elaborate and at time downright fussy ‘flags’ of freemasonry and friendly societies. Classical motifs were part of the package, but the tensions within the ideologies of organised labour (skilled and unskilled) found expression in apparently respectable and reassuring cultural references, from Greco-Roman architecture to classically garbed female figures like Virtue, Justice and Truth. One question we ask in our forthcoming book Emblems of Hope (in which Annie Ravenhill-Johnson gives detailed analyses of key certificates and banners) is whether Classics corrupted the representation and the proletarian consciousness of the toiling masses in struggle. I shall end the talk with a focus on the figure of Hercules – the use of an heroic muscular male at the centre of the 1889 Dockers’ Strike banner seems to be a much more militant statement about working class strength and a fine companion for Marx’s concept of ‘new fangled men for new fangled machinery’. However, this demi god (or his Doppelganger) turns out to be a problematic and complex classical icon, suggesting the simultaneously anti Capitalist and pro Imperialist stance of British labour.

[*’Flirting colours’ is a suffragette phrase, equivalent to ‘flying the flags’.]

This talk is part of the Cambridge Classical Reception Seminar Series series.

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