John Player’s Cries Of London
It is my great pleasure to show you these beautiful specimens of John Player’s cigarette cards illustrating the Cries of London, dating from 1916 – as the latest in my ongoing series of portrayals of the street life of our great metropolis down the ages. John Player & Sons put collector’s cards in their cigarette packets from 1893 and it is a measure of the popularity of the Cries of London that the series shown here was the second which was issued.
The jaunty charisma of these gaudy cards with their cheerful hawkers in colourful dress is irresistible, even if historical veracity is sacrificed for the sake of popular appeal. Old London is transformed into a city of swashbuckling romance in these cards, where the streets are as bright as pantomime backdrops and the traders swagger like music hall acts, ready to burst into song – a notion that reached its exuberant apogee in Lionel Bart’s “Who will buy?”
Yet, thumbing through these modest little cards with their corners rounded from use, no-one can deny the affectionate quality of these images and the fond significance that collectors gave to these ephemera, investing them with an emotional meaning which is far beyond mere sentiment or whimsy. The Cries of London celebrate the ingenuity and stamina of those with nothing, who for centuries could eek out a living upon the streets of London by hawking, and use their wits to do it with panache, transforming commerce into popular culture in the process.
In this respect, the Cries of London is the history of poverty retold as the brave and self-respecting history of resourcefulness. And that is why I treasure these lovely cards, enjoying even their quaint self-conscious archaic spellings, their curious anecdotal texts, their grubbiness and their crude printing. Once collected by schoolboys in class and soldiers in the trenches, as minor tokens of intangible value, they passed through so many hands before they arrived in mine – they are rare keepsakes to evoke an entire world.
Two hundred years after Francis Wheatley – the Cries of London tea caddy. When portrait painter Francis Wheatley was elected to the Royal Academy in 1790 in favour of the King’s candidate, it destroyed Wheatley’s career and, when the aristocratic patrons deserted him, he took to painting sympathetic portraits of his wife in the guise of street hawkers instead. He was bankrupt within three years and died in 1801, yet his poignant Cries of London have been celebrated ever since in innumerable prints, cigarette cards, and on biscuit tins and tea caddies – such as mine, shown here.
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