Museum of London: Street Cries

Paul Sandby, "Ink Seller," watercolour, ca. 1759 © Museum of London

Museum of London, 25 March — 31 July 2011 Curated by Francis Marshall

Street Cries uses the Museum of London’s extensive art collection to consider how the urban poor were depicted from the 17th to the 19th century. Some of the earliest visual records of the urban poor were prints showing street traders. These first appeared in 15th-century Europe and continued to be made well into the 19th century. The market for this type of imagery was a flourishing one, particularly in London.

Many of these images presented an idealised vision of the poor. However, some artists, attempted greater realism. In 1760, for instance, Paul Sandby sought to redress the sanitizing tendency with his etchings Twelve London Cries Drawn from the Life. However, he anticipated a much larger set running to around forty images. He made watercolour drawings for these, of which the museum has an important group, but they were never published, probably because Sandby’s work was too realistic. Sixty years later, the French artist Théodore Géricault produced a print series depicting London’s poor. These powerful prints where a commercial flop largely because the imagery was too hard hitting to appeal to collectors at the time.

Images of street vendors, and the urban poor generally, pose interesting questions about how society was organised, the motives of those making, selling and buying the prints, and the status and identity of the people depicted. Amongst other things, they can be seen as precursors of Mayhew’s efforts to produce a taxonomy of the London poor. The exhibition explores these issues as well as showcasing some of the Museum’s most important 18th- and 19th-century prints and drawings. Amongst the artists included are Paul Sandby, Gustave Doré, Théodore Géricault, and Thomas Rowlandson.

April 27, 3:00 — Curator Francis Marshall speaks on the exhibition at the Museum of London.

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Writing for The Independent (21 March 2011), Matilda Battersby reviews the show:

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 full review — plus a video with Francis Marshall discussing three images from the exhibition — is available here»

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