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Thomas Onwyn’s London

January 22, 2018
by the gentle author

Born in Clerkenwell in 1813, as the eldest son of a bookseller, Thomas Onwhyn created a series of cheap mass-produced satirical prints illustrating the comedy of everyday life for publishers Rock Brothers & Payne in the eighteen forties and fifties. In his time, Onwhyn was overshadowed by the talent of George Cruickshank and won notoriety for supplying pictures to pirated editions of Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby, which drew the ire of Charles Dickens who wrote of “the singular Vileness of the Illustrations.”

Nevertheless, these fascinating ‘Pictures of London’ that I came upon in the Bishopsgate Institute demonstrate a critical intelligence, a sly humour and an unexpected political sensibility.  In this social panorama,originally published as one concertina-fold strip, Onwhyn contrasts the culture and lives of rich and the poor in London with subtle comedy, tracing their interdependence yet making it quite clear where his sympathy lay.

The Court – Dress Wearers.

Dressmakers.

The Opera Box.

The Gallery.

The West End Dinner Party.

A Charity Dinner.

Mayfair.

Rag Fair.

Music of the Drawing Room.

Street Music.

The Physician.

The Medical Student.

The Parks – Day.

The Parks – Night.

The Club – The Wine Bibber.

The Gin Shop – The Dram Drinker.

The Shopkeeper.

The Shirtmaker.

The Bouquet Maker.

The Basket Woman.  (Initialled – T.O. Thomas Onwhyn)

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to take a look at

George Cruickshank’s Comic Alphabet

The London Alphabet

Paul Bommer’s Cockney Alphabet

9 Responses leave one →
  1. January 22, 2018

    Very poignant. He may have been a naughty boy re: pirated copies, but he and Dickens were singing from the same penny-sheet.

  2. Shawdian permalink
    January 22, 2018

    A fine collection. It is the Park Night that hits out for me in this collection. The poor woman and child cold hungry and homeless in the dark scary night whilst the merry rich have a jolly old time in the light of the day. These prints hit home just how different life was without much middle balance on the wealth scale. Excellent detail in each one. Does any body know if this type of print is available in a book? Thank you Gentle Author.

  3. Michael.Knight permalink
    January 22, 2018

    Thank you for drawing attention to the work of the Victorian artist Thomas Onwhyn. As you rightly point out his social commentary on mid 19th century London, as expressed through his distinctive and subtle draughtmanship, is both satirical and at times poignant. Anyone interested in seeing further into his work, as well as into his political attitudes might be interested in his “1856 Treaty Map”- commenting on the Treaty of Paris that resulted from the conclusion of the Crimean War in that year. An article with a reproduction of this annotated map is at :

    http://www.barronmaps.com/…/thomas-onwhyns-1856-treaty-map

  4. Michael.Knight permalink
    January 22, 2018

    PS

    If the link to Barron Maps does not work as given, then use simply http://www.barronmaps.com and navigate from there to Thomas Onwhyns’ 1856 Treaty Map.

  5. Helen Breen permalink
    January 22, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, delightful images. Yet “The Parks-Day” and “The Parks – Night” provide a powerful social commentary for sure.

    Interesting how Thomas Onwyn “won notoriety for supplying pictures to pirated editions” of Dickens’s work, a problem the novelist fought all his life. Much to his chagrin even “A Christmas Carol” was performed without copyright on stage within months of the novella’s success. But even Dickens had to chuckle at one version in which Scrooge marries his old flame Belle at the end.

  6. Richard Smith permalink
    January 22, 2018

    A good commentary on Victorian Life! Anyone agree with me that the shopkeeper bears a remarkable resemblance to Stan Laurel?

  7. January 22, 2018

    Interesting material but why are there only 2 dogs but no cats? No doubt he was avoiding images of the cats’ and dogs’ meat sellers!

  8. Marcia Howard permalink
    January 22, 2018

    Every picture tells a story. Wonderfully perceptive.

  9. stephanie permalink
    January 23, 2018

    More interesting blasts from the past. For which I am very grateful.

    Would be interesting to capture and view London life 2018 through the same captions. The charity dinner for one would look similar but so different thanks to our national collection of food banks. Today’s physician would be on a stretcher, in a corridor of course due to overwork with privatised sharks hovering, tails poised in the background…

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