My grandad used to tell me about the hop-picking holidays his family would go on when he was a child. Thousands of poor Londoners would pack onto trains going from London down to Kent and Sussex, in September, to earn some extra money bringing in the hop harvest. It’s a particularly labour-intensive process. The tradition stretches back through the industrial era, but by the mid 19th century was such a popular late-summer trip for Londoners that special train services were created to transport the hop-pickers to the Southeast. Whole families (like my Grandad’s) would go - children missing school to help out. In Hampshire and Wiltshire, pickers would also travel the shorter distances from the cities Southampton, Portsmouth and Salisbury to the farms in the north of their counties. Pickers travelled from South Wales and the Black Country to farms in Herefordshire and Worcestershire.

With these temporary relocations of a large proportion of the population, inevitably tensions came between the urban hop-pickers and local people. In 1798 William Marshall, a prominent agricultural writer, wrote with disdain of hop-pickers that they were “living as much in a state of nature as American Indians or the savages of the Southern Hemisphere”1. Apart from the colonial racism of this statement, it seems that there is also a paradoxical view of the urban poor as both not belonging to the countryside, and as being too wild or primitive for it - it had unlocked the nature within them.

As well as Londoners and other city-dwellers, hop-picking labour was provided by the Romany gypsy community and Irish travellers, who would go from farm to farm through the spring, summer and autumn, to take up jobs like fruit-picking, hop-picking and potato-picking. This transient but expert labour was remarked upon by George Orwell, who spent a spell hop-picking in Kent in 1931 and was disappointed to only earn 9/- in comparison to the 14/- earned in a week by the gypsy pickers. He found that a ‘hop-picking holiday’ could be hard work in difficult conditions, not quite the idyllic retreat that other writers on pastoral England had described it as2.

Although hop-picking machines were developed in the USA in the late 19th century, by the 1960s most hop-picking in the UK was still done by hand. It was not until the 1980s that mechanisation took over the job and the popular working class hop-picking holiday came to an end.

When we think of seasonal agricultural labour in the UK today, it is often migrant workers from Eastern European states (though workers come from a wide variety of countries). Each year, tens of thousands of workers take temporary jobs on farms across the UK picking fruit and vegetables. Some of these are students, for whom the season still fits conveniently into the late summer holiday. Others are planning to use the comparatively good wages to save up money or to send money home, or explore more long term job options in the UK. Each summer since the 2016 referendum on EU membership, there has been a shortage of seasonal agricultural labour in the UK3, with many pointing towards Brexit as a reason for the growing reluctance of EU citizens to come to the UK (though a larger factor might be the growing strength of other currencies in relation to GBP and better employment opportunities at home). Though the UK government plans to issue 2500 seasonal farm work visas each year after Brexit, around 40,000 seasonal workers are actually needed yearly.   

Fruit Pickers 1 and 2, 2019. Oil on canvas, each 25x40cm


In her paintings of nail salon workers and hotel cleaning staff, Caroline Walker updates the realist tradition of painting peasant labour to document its contemporary equivalents, some of the lowest paid and lowest status jobs in the UK.

Caroline Walker, Service, 2018. Oil on linen, 180x140cm

She makes paintings of women working. Housekeeping, hairdressing, tailoring - the kinds of jobs which  are almost always done by women (even if those who become famous in these vocations are often men). What I like about her work is that, at the same time as choosing subject matter that is honest and relevant, she makes paintings that are full of abstract beauty. The two things, quite improbably, manage to coexist without conflict. I do not get the sense, looking at the painting above, for example, that anything has been added to the image for the sake of the painting which was not necessary. Yet the striations of reflected light on the steel cabinets, the small purple curves of a plant (or a mop?) at the top right corner, the flecks of turquoise and pink in the fire blanket, cleaning cloths and doorway all miraculously escape representation and create a beautiful surface. Artists have been taking important moments and significant people and elevating them for a long time. To see the same done for very ordinary moments and very ordinary people is a subversion, because it demonstrates that nothing makes one person or one occupation more worthy of recording than another, except our choosing.

There’s also an element of voyeurism to Walker’s work - perhaps inevitable, given that the people in her paintings are busy doing things. The connection that this mode gives to the historical norm for the female subject serves to underline the difference - which is that the women here are active and not passive. The paintings encourage us to consider again what is visible and invisible about women’s lives, what is a performance and what is not.
1. William Marshall, ‘England’s Rural Economy’, (T. Cadell: London, 1798)

2. George Orwell, ‘A Clergyman’s Daughter’, (Victor Gollancz: London, 1935)
3. Jamie Doward and Valentine Baldassari, “Red Alert: UK Farmers Warn of Soft Fruit Shortage”, Guardian Online, Food & Drink Industry Section, 27 May 2018 <> [Accessed 9 March 2020]