Street Cries: depictions of London’s poor

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A new exhibition of prints and paintings at the Museum of London presents a diverse spectacle of the Capital's impoverised circa 1800.

Put them all together and they resemble the cast of Oliver Twist: street urchins, prostitutes, beggars and street vendors all carefully drawn, painted or printed in the 17th and 18th centuries. They are some of the earliest depiction of London’s poor and are due to go on show at the Museum of London this week.

It is an interesting body of work for two reasons. Firstly, it encapsulates the diverse roles, functions and perceptions of Britain’s ‘underclass’ during those two centuries as well as giving insight into what was eaten, sold and readily available. Secondly, it shows an increased, although for the most part snobbish, awareness of what was then the ‘undeserving poor’ and an anthropological, if not exactly philanthropic, interest in them.

The exhibition is drawn from the museum’s some 20,000 collection of artworks, many of which are rarely seen for conservation reasons. All the artists included were major names in their day, like Théodore Géricault, Thomas Rowlandson and Paul Sandby. But the collection bafflingly omits the artist who characterised a popularist view of London’s poor most memorably in ‘Gin Street’: William Hogarth.

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The new exhibition will run concurrently alongside the London Street Photography show which opened in February. It likewise presents scenes of hardship some would rather turn their wrinkled-up noses away from. “What we have done here is similar to the London Street Photography exhibition,” says Francis Marshall, senior curator of paintings, prints and drawings. “The works being exhibited really are the first serious record of London’s impoverished. It is the first time that the poor are in the picture.”

Despite spanning two centuries, many of the professions, postures and expressions of London’s poor remain consistent over time within the artworks. Marshall remarks that Marcellus Laroon was one of the first artists to “particularise” the poor in his series, The Cryes of the City of London, drawne after the Life. Before him artists largely stereotyped. Laroon gave the poor character and representative features – a fish for the mackerel woman’s belt, a barrow for the oyster man, a beauty spot for a prostitute and so on.

Laroon captured real historic faces from the streets too, like the Squire of Alsatia and Madam Creswell. The Squire was a famous womaniser, thought to have been “Bully” Dawson, who frequented the Alsatia region in London (a place of sanctuary for criminals between Fleet Street and Temple), dressed like a dandy and seduced wealthy ladies out of their riches. Madam Creswell was a brothel madam and influential Whig with lots of friends in the party (they were probably clients). Both figures are unlikely to have sat for Laroon, but his drawings, which became popular prints, are the closest to a true portrait of either of them that exists in modern day.

It was unwise, at that time, to portray the real difficulties of London life, because such works didn’t sell and print making was a big business. Francis Wheately’s saccharine Cries of London series in oil became very popular prints after they were exhibited at the Royal Academy in the 1790s. His pastoral visions of ruddy-cheeked children and contented privation are the sort to grace chocolate boxes nowadays. But, as Marshall attests, “The less realistic they were the more commercially successful they were.”

Another reason not to portray the threatening face of Britain’s poor was that the French revolution had Britain’s upper echelons quaking in fear of a proletariat uprising. Consequently, Géricault’s wonderfully evocative, and starkly realist, series of cries -“There’s nothing like his pictures for a century until he made them,” Marshall says- were a complete commercial flop. Similarly, Sandby’s vast collection of drawings indicates he intended to do a large series of street figures. But he only produced 12 street cries paintings in the end, suggesting it was not commercially viable to continue.

“With the onset of the Age of Reason and science, the educated upper and middle classes in Britain began looking at society and finding ways to taxonify the poor,” Marshall says. If you could no longer ignore the poor, it became more palatable for buyers if artists took Thomas Rowlandson’s approach and mocked them in caricature; or ignored the possibility of a threat and presented them in idealised way like Wheatley did.

The contrasts between the pseudo realities presented in each case are just as revealing as if the truth had been laid bare. Géricault’s ‘Paralytic Woman’ (above) might be the bleakest viewpoint on offer at first glance, but a second look at the grotesquely grimacing faces in Rowlandson’s work soon become as repellent as they are comic. A mop seller, a shrimp girl, a cane hawker or a purveyor of offal- the truth of all the situations depicted are coated in stylisation of one form or another to shield the eyes of the wealthy buying public. But viewed as a collection, you can pinpoint the varying shades of veneer to understand, sociologically, why they are in place which is very intriguing.

Watch curator Francis Marshall discussing three examples from the exhibition above.

'Street Cries: depictions of London's poor' opens at the Museum of London 25 March to 31 July 2011, free entry

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