Wheatley’s Cries of London
Two Bunches a Penny, Primroses, Two Bunches a Penny!
Francis Wheatley exhibited his series of oil paintings entitled the “Cries of London” at the Royal Academy between 1792 and 1795. Two year earlier, the forty-one year old painter had been elected to the Academy in preference to the King’s nominee and, as a consequence, he never secured any further commissions for portraits from the aristocracy. Losing his income entirely, what should have been the crowning glory of his career was its unravelling – Wheatley was declared insolvent in 1793 and struggled to make a living until his death in 1801, when the Royal Academy paid his funeral expenses.
Yet in the midst of this turmoil, Wheatley created these sublime images of street sellers that – although seen at the time as of little consequence beside his aristocratic portraits – are now the works upon which his reputation rests. Born in Covent Garden in 1747, Wheatley was ideally qualified to portray these hawkers because he grew up amongst them and their cries, echoing in the streets around the market. You will recognise the old stone pillars of the market buildings that still stand today in a couple of these pictures, all of which could be located specifically in that vicinity. However, these pictures are far from social reportage as we understand it, and you may notice a certain similarity between many of the women portrayed in these pictures, for whom it is believed Mrs Wheatley – herself a painter and exhibitor at the Royal Academy – was the model. Look again, and you will also see that variants on the same ginger and white terrier occur throughout these paintings too.
In spite of the idealised quality of these pictures, I am drawn to these “Cries of London,” as a project that places working people at the centre of the picture, and represents them as individuals of stature and presence. The body language of subservience is only present when customers are in the frame, as you will see in the Knife Grinder and Cherry Seller below, whilst the lone Strawberry Seller, Match Seller and Primrose Seller all gaze out at us with assured status, as our equals. Taking this a stage further, the final three pictures, the Ballad Seller, the Gingerbread Seller and the Turnip Seller portray sellers and customers meeting eye to eye – dealing on a level – and with a discernible erotic charge in the air.
Although coming too late to save his career, Wheatley was well served by his engravers who created the prints which brought recognition for his “Cries of London,” as the most beautiful and most popular series of prints on this subject of all time, with editions still available into the early twentieth century. In fact, when I examined this set in the archive of the Bishopsgate Institute, I realised that many were familiar to me from chocolate boxes and biscuit tins, and once glimpsed in frames in the houses of elderly relatives and the seaside hotels of my childhood.
Luigi Schiavonetti, born in Bassano in 1765, engraved the first three plates, the Primrose Seller, the Milk Maids and the Orange Seller, with lush velvety stippled tones – a style that was maintained by the three subsequent engravers (Cardon, Vendramini and Gaugain), when Schiavonetti became too successful and expensive for such a modest project. The “Cries of London” were sold at seven shillings and sixpence for a plain set and sixteen shillings coloured, and the fact all thirteen were issued is itself a measure of their popularity.
It touches me to understand that Francis Wheatley chose to paint these “Cries of London” at the time he was losing grip of his life, struggling under the pressure of increasing debt, because they cannot have been an obvious commercial proposition. And I like to surmise that these graceful images celebrate the qualities of the ordinary working people, which Wheatley experienced first-hand, growing up in Covent Garden, and chose to witness in this subtly political set of pictures, existing in noble contrast to the portraits of aristocratic patrons who had shunned him when he was in need.
One cold Winter’s morning, tracing my way through the narrow alleys at the heart of the City of London recently, I came upon singing and it stopped me in my tracks. This was a recording of the “Cries of London,” installed there by a composer, and it was a welcome reminder of the beauty of these songs, exploiting the acoustics of the City to elegant and haunting effect. Already a year has passed since the newspaper sellers went, seemingly un-noticed, and now it lifts my spirits to hear the fruit seller in Sclater St Market each Sunday with his distinctive rhythmic cry, “Bananas, bananas, bananas,” - because in my mind this is the very last reverberation of that vast symphony of many thousands of voices echoing down the centuries and through the streets of London to our present day. The Cries of London.
Milk Below! - This is believed to be the origin of the more recent milkman’s cry, ”Milko!”
Sweet China Oranges, Sweet China.
Do you want any matches?
New Mackerel, New Mackerel
Knives, Scissors & Razors to Grind.
Fresh Gathered Peas, Young Hastings.
Round & Sound, Five Pence a Pound, Duke Cherries.
Strawberrys, Scarlet Strawberrys.
Old Chairs to Mend.
A New Love Song, only Ha’pence a Piece.
Hot Spiced Gingerbread, Smoking Hot.
Turnips & Carrots, ho!
Francis Wheatley R.A. looks askance.
Images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute
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