More John Player’s Cries of London
Since I showed you my set of John Player’s Cries of London from 1916 last week, I found this earlier set issued in 1913. The same appealing pantomime aesthetic prevails, and these crudely printed cards portray a surreal idealised old London in which the cats’ meat is as pink as the spots on a hat box and the hawkers are resolutely cheery as they go about the the streets plying their wares -although the clouded skies that accompany each vendor will strike an unexpectedly familiar note of authenticity for any Londoner.
I cannot deny there is a little moralism in the text on the reverse of these cards, apparent when we are told that these itinerants, “were then a more respectable class than at present,” evidenced by the basket seller’s family who made “better kinds of baskets… some of them being neatly coloured and decorated.” Elsewhere we encounter “the cleanly housewife who strews sand plentifully over her floor,” and “the London housewives” who place Lavender in their linen cupboards. Player’s Cries of London are a model of decorum, lacking the playful eroticism of Francis Wheatley’s set from 1790, the celebration of Vagabondia in John Thomas Smith’s set of 1817 and the subversive irony of John Leighton’s set of 1851.
Yet the last two cards are exceptions to this, the Dust Man (whose title still lingers in the vocabulary to describe Refuse Collectors) and the Chimney Sweep – who are missing their implicit companion, the Night Soil man, as presumably too scatological. The Dust Man looks distracted while the Chimney Sweep is overly cheerful verging on the demonic. So, even if these charismatic gaudy images have been more than a little sanitised, in the wicked grin of this bratty little urchin we are reminded of the witty libertarian spirit of the old Cries of London.
All Cries of London are fascinating to me – whether prints, cigarette cards, biscuit tins, plates or playing cards, because the changing nature of these images traces evolving perceptions of the urban poor. It is a genre that delights me by celebrating the infinite resourcefulness of people in creating a living out of nothing.
Cries of London – the biscuit tin.
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