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John Thomas Smith’s Remarkable Beggars

April 17, 2015
by the gentle author

John Thomas Smith drew compassionate portraits of the beggars of London at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He was fascinated by the different ways in which the outcast poor scraped an existence out of little more than resourcefulness in the city streets and there is a dramatic equivocation in his acute portrayals, simultaneously witnessing the need and celebrating the spirit of his subjects.

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to take a look at

John Thomas Smith’s Ancient Topography

John Thomas Smith’s Antiquities

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana II

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana III

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Nick Whitsun-Jones permalink
    April 17, 2015

    Fascinating, thank you. No Welfare State, just the Poor House, which these people obviously wanted to avoid. Similar characters sometimes seen today.

  2. April 17, 2015

    These illustrations are quite fascinating. Some, though not all, look desperately poor. And their resourcefulness as you write does shine through. I particularly love the image of the man wearing a ship on his head, rather like an early David Shilling hat!

  3. Joan Bailey permalink
    April 17, 2015

    These drawings are amazing. So characterful and what a sense of a previous life shines out: the injured sailor, the war veterans, the unemployed clerk, the fairground hustlers. Stories waiting to be told.

  4. April 17, 2015

    A touch of Goya about these , not just the melancholy and fantastical but the simple techniques used to such effect .

  5. Suzanne Keyte permalink
    April 17, 2015

    Fascinating pictures. I really admire the way that you find such interesting stories every day – seven days a week. Truly amazing. Thank you.

  6. April 17, 2015

    Remarkable drawings!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  7. Ros permalink
    April 17, 2015

    You are right – these are marvellous and powerfully convey both the need and the spirit of each individual. Interesting portrayals of black beggars, the one with with the ship and the fez-type hat on his head, and the one with the judge’s(?) wig. The circumstances in which black people arrived in England at that time meant that they had a high chance of becoming outcasts. In every portrait the details are exquisite, clothes,hats, hair, footwear, dogs and much more.

  8. Clive Jennings / Fitzrovia Flaneur permalink
    April 17, 2015

    Some of the most interesting drawings that you have ever posted. Such a sensitive line.

    Your blog brightens my every day and provides cheering relief from the relentless tyranny of email.

    Well done, Sir / Fitzrovia Flaneur

  9. anne gray permalink
    April 17, 2015

    You have introduced me to so many people and places. Thank you. Have been bowled over by John Thomas Smith’s drawings…. both the buildings and the vagrants.

  10. April 20, 2015

    Thank you for this outstanding selection. We are in your debt. Now I am consumed with interest about this artist & want to see more. Sadly, things are much the same; clothes may have changed, but the poverty & hopelessness remain. Have you seen the ‘mug’ shots of the criminals in the Guildhall Library? I know of them because my great-grandfather was there, sentenced to 7 years hard labour for fraud in 1877.

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