This blog has been written by Stephen Thomas, a volunteer at West Lothian Archives and Records Centre, who uncovered an interesting story while indexing our poor law records.
There is often a feeling of sadness while committing the West Calder Registers of the Poor onto an Archive database. Each page records a glimpse of lives brought to the point of dependence by illness and injury; of broken limbs, fever, lunacy, bronchitis and almost endless widows who list their disability as “children”, too young to work and therefore subsidise the family income. Of people sent to the Poorhouse which some, perhaps through pride or fear, refuse. Turn the registry page and that brief glimpse is over, onto the next name, the next short story.
However, through a chance recognition and remembrance of a surname we have a chance to continue at least one of these stories. John Kane; who is listed as one of seven dependant children when his father Thomas, a labourer from Galway in Ireland, is registered and granted relief in 1870. After his father’s death in 1871, John worked in the shale mines and Young’s Paraffin works. After his mother remarried he emigrated to Western Pennsylvania, USA in 1879 and worked in various labourer jobs including as a “gandy dancer” stamping down stones between railroad ties. He settled in Pittsburgh in 1890 and began to draw in his spare time, attending art classes when money permitted. He lost his leg in a railroad accident around 1891 and supported himself by painting freight cars, sketching landscapes on their sides during his lunch breaks. He continued to paint portraits, religious subjects, the city’s urban landscape and memories of his childhood. In 1927, and after two previous refusals, the Carnegie International Exhibition, Pittsburgh, accepted an example of his work. In doing so he became the first self-taught painter in the 20th century to be recognised by a museum. His paintings are now held by major museums throughout America.
Perhaps his most famous picture is a self-portrait painted in 1929. It depicts himself, stripped to the waist and in a pose that exhibits power and self-assurance. It shows a man who has worked and lived hard, and man who has risen from difficult and humble beginnings through labour and art.
To see the original poor law entry for Thomas Kane, click on the image below.