Samuel Luke Fildes was born in 1844 in Liverpool, England. He was adopted by Mary Fildes, his paternal grandmother. To talk about Luke Fildes is essential to cover some of his grandmother’s life as well, for she was a key influence on his future work.
Mary Fildes was a very engaged political activist and early Suffragette. She was a prominent speaker at the Manchester meeting that would lead to the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. Her engagement, concern for the poor, and political consciousness would surely pass on to her grandson.
Fildes joined the weekly publication of the London Graphic in 1869 when he published the Houseless and Hungry, a realistic and striking engraving depicting a line of several homeless people waiting for a chance to receive tickets that would admit them temporary entrance to the workhouse. This picture was aimed towards the middle class to draw attention to the everyday plight of poor people that were forced to look for shelter in Workhouses. At this time, Fildes was also commissioned to execute illustrations for the English translation of The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo.
Whilst Fildes was working at The Graphic, Charles Dickens was desperate to find a new illustrator, a task that aided by the artists William Powell Frith and John Everett Millais, that promptly recommended Fildes. The choice was based on Fildes’ combination of new aesthetic ideals allied with a keen social consciousness of an older generation, such as George Cruikshank, Hablot Knight Browne, and Robert Seymour.
By the late 1870s, Fildes was already established as an artist, much so he was able to leave illustrating books to devote himself entirely to oil painting. In 1877, he was elected as an Associate Member of the Royal Academy.
He achieved recognition among English painters with many distinguished paintings, such as The Wedding, Alfresco, Applicants for Admission To a Casual-Ward, and The Doctor. The latter is especially noteworthy, for it is inspired by the death of his son, Philip, a victim of Typhoid in 1877. The painting carries a crushing atmosphere, depicting a doctor looking upon his dying offspring. This picture is now at the Tate Britain Museum.
One of his sons also became a distinguished figure. Sir Paul Fildes was a microbiologist and pathologist. At the World War II, Paul Fildes worked developing chemical-biological weaponry.
Sir Samuel Luke Fildes died in 1927.