John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana III
I keep returning to the Bishopsgate Institute to look at John Thomas Smith’s “Vagabondiana” – the collection of his magnificent etchings of street people in London, drawn from life two hundred years ago. The delicate, vivid lines and vigorous hatching of this rare artist evoke an entire world for me, and the closer I examine his work, the more I become in thrall to his compassionate yet unsentimental vision of existence.
In Spitalfields, there is a ceaseless street pageant that is never less than engaging. You do not have to walk down a street many times for the leading characters to emerge and, oftentimes, I drift – as if in dream – engrossed by the elaborate panoply of life, as familiar faces appear and disappear, emerging like figures from a mechanical clock and then passing by upon their business to vanish from my gaze. Looking at John Thomas Smith’s portraits, I know he had the same experience and became fascinated, as I have been, to speak with those whose paths he crossed frequently in the city and discover the stories of those who might otherwise remain strangers.
Among his work, I found plates of figures in the clothing of the early seventeenth century, where he had redrawn images of the lost street life of an earlier London. While I look back two centuries to his work at the beginning of the nineteenth century, speculating upon our contemporary street life as the echo of that former age, John Thomas Smith looked back two centuries to another London. And, for both of us, the street cries form a continuum.
Just as I am familiar with the presence of Tom the Sailor, Molly the Swagman, Mick Taylor, the peacock feather sellers, the Bengali trolley men (and the many others I have written of in these pages), as constant inhabitants of the street – always present somewhere in the edge of my consciousness while I am walking round Spitalfields – so, “Vagabondia” records those who impinged daily upon the attention of John Thomas Smith in London two hundred years ago. Thanks to him, those that he knew live for me to the degree that I would not be entirely surprised, glancing from my window upon an empty midnight street in Spitalfields, to see one of these people coming trudging out of the shadows.
Of all the calamities with which a great city is infected there can be none so truly awful as that of the plague, when the street doors of the houses that were visited with the dreadful pest were padlocked up and only accessible to surgeons and medical men, whose melancholy duty frequently exposes them even to death itself.
Ratcatcher – The bite of the rat is keen, and the wound it inflicts painful and difficult to heal, owing to the form of its teeth, which are long, sharp and irregular.
The floors were not wetted, but rubbed dry, even until they bore a very high polish, particularly when it was the fashion to inlay staircases and floors of rooms with yellow, black and brown woods. These floors were rubbed by the servants who wore brushes on their feet, and they were, and indeed are, so highly polished, in some of the country mansions, that in some instances they are dangerous to walk upon.
It appears from the extreme neatness of this man and the goods that he exhibits for sale that they are of a very superior quality, probably of foreign manufacture. England can boast of superiority in almost every description of manufacture but it never rivalled the basket-makers and willow-workers of France and Holland. They have a great selection of wood and the females are taught the art of twisting it at a very early age.
Saloop, the subject of this etching, has superseded almost every other midnight street refreshment, being a beverage easily made, and a long time considered as a sovereign cure for headache arising from drunkennesss. It is a celebrated restorative among the Turks, and with us it stands recommended in consumptions, bilious cholics and all disorders stemming from acrimony in the juices.
Smithfield Pudding – It would be almost criminal to proceed in my account without a due encomium on the subject of it. The good qualities of an English pudding, more especially when it happens to be enriched with the due portion of enticing plums, are well known to most of us. The places where this excellent commodity is chiefly exposed to sale, in the manner described in the engraving, are those of the greatest traffic such as Smithfield on a market morning, where waggoners, butchers and drovers are sure to find their pence for a slice of hot pudding. Fleet Market, Leadenhall, Honey Lane and Spitalfields have each their hot pudding men.
A journeyman Prickle-maker who works in a cellar on the western side of the Haymarket. A Prickle is a basket used by the wine merchants for their empty bottles, and it is made loose with open-work so that when it is filled with bottles, it may ride easily in the wine merchant’s caravan, and without the least risk of breaking them.
Daniel Clarey, an industrious Irishman, well known to the London schoolboy as a gingerbread-nut lottery office keeper. Every adventurer in his scheme is sure of having a prize from seven to one hundred nuts, and some of his gingerbread shot are so highly seasoned, they are as hot as the noble Nelson’s balls, when he last peppered the jackets of England’s foes.
A lad who occasionally sweeps the crossing at the end of Princes St, Hanover Sq, and wears a long waistcoat surmounted by a soldier’s jacket.
Images courtesy © Bishopsgate Institute
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