John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana II
Already – I am reliably informed – the police are clearing homeless people from the Whitechapel Rd in advance of 2012 when this route will be transformed into the Olympic Mile. Meanwhile, the imminent opening of a new shopping centre made of sea containers, selling lifestyle brands to young professionals at the junction of Bethnal Green Rd and Norton Folgate, presages a rough time for the fly-pitchers who gather at this spot each Sunday morning to trade a few possessions on the pavement in the hope of earning a little spare cash.
When John Thomas Smith published his Vagabondiana in 1815, he included “remarkable beggars and itinerant traders and others persons of notoriety” and even two centuries later it appears that all manner of street people are treated with equal contempt. Yet there is an irony to Smith’s title because, in his unsentimental portraits, the street hawkers retain their self possession and dignity, revealed as resourceful individuals striving with brave tenacity to forge a modest living.
It was a year ago I first discovered John Thomas Smith’s etchings of vagabonds in the Bishopsgate Archive and yesterday I was excited to come across a further collection from which I publish these examples. Revisiting Smith’s work, I like it even more for the sharp eye and humane sensibility employed to such magnificent effect in these finely drawn images.
Living in Spitalfields, I am constantly aware of the drama of the street traders, arriving early to set up their wares, standing all day in the cold and wearily packing away their heavy goods when everyone else has gone home. Daily, this arduous ritual continues, yet these same traders are tireless in maintaining the buoyant good spirits that are essential in market life. Even so, they are not guaranteed of an income, their livelihoods are at the mercy of the weather, the whims of the passing crowd, or – in the case of the Bethnal Green Rd fly-pitchers – the loutish market inspectors moving them on.
If there is no job and you have no money, then selling things on the street can be a way to survive and achieve self -respect too, asserting your identity as a participant in the drama of urban life. This is why I find these drawings by John Thomas Smith so touching – because he witnesses the quiet heroism of the outcast poor who recreated themselves as street sellers. Equally, it fills me with regret to see their contemporary counterparts treated so poorly. Because this lamentable state of affairs – in which the most vulnerable are exposed to the most harassment – suggests that we have not progressed very far in two hundred years.
Images from Bishopsgate Institute
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