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Luke Clennell’s London Melodies

September 19, 2015
by the gentle author

Of all the dozens of woodcuts of CRIES OF LONDON I have come across, this anonymously-published set is my favourite – so I am very grateful to historian Dr Ruth Richardson who has identified them for me as the work of Thomas Bewick’s apprentice Luke Clennell.

Self-portrait by Luke Clennell (1781–1840)

The hawkers in Luke Clennell’s woodcuts look filthy, with bad skin and teeth, dressed in ragged clothes, either skinny as cadavers or fat as thieves, and with hands as scrawny as rats’ claws.You can almost smell their bad breath and sweaty unwashed bodies, pushing themselves up against you in the crowd to make a hard sell.

Luke Clennell was apprenticed as an engraver to Thomas Bewick and then moved to London in 1804 as a young man, seeking a career as a painter and winning a major commission in 1816 from the Earl of Bridgewater to do portraits of more than four hundred guests at dinner in the Guildhall. The impossibility of getting all these subjects to sit for him drove Clennell to a nervous breakdown and he was committed to Salisbury Asylum. Although he recovered sufficiently to continue his career, he was afflicted with mental illness for the rest of his life and died in Newcastle Asylum in 1840.

The distinctive quality of Clennell’s Cries, first published as ‘London Melodies & Cries of the Seasons’ in 1812, stands out among the hundreds of anonymous woodcuts published in chapbooks in the early nineteenth century by virtue of their lively texture and unapologetic, unsentimental portraiture.

Clennell’s hawkers are never going to be framed on the parlour wall and they do not give a toss. They own their defiant uncouth spirit. They are a rough bunch with ready fists that you would not wish to encounter in a narrow byway on a dark night. Yet they are survivors who know the lore of the streets, how to scratch a living out of little more than resourcefulness, and how to turn a shilling as easily as a groat.

With unrivalled spirit, savage humour, profane vocabulary and a rapacious appetite, Luke Clennell’s woodcuts are the most street-wise of all the Cries. He gloried in the grotesque features and unrestrained personalities of hawkers, while also permitting them an unbridled humanity that we can only regard with esteem. They call to me across the centuries, crying, “Sweet and Pretty Beau-Pots – One a-Penny” and “Buy my Live Scate.”

It is wonderful to learn the name of this artist who captured the vigorous life of these loud characters with such art. For a contemporary eye these are portraits that sit naturally alongside the work of Ronald Searle and Quentin Blake. Luke Clennell gloried in the grotesque features and unrestrained personalities of street people, while also permitting them a humanity which we can recognise and respect. Now I can publish them with the artist’s name beside them for the very first time in my book of CRIES OF LONDON.

Rabbit, Rabbit – Nice fat Rabbit

All Round & Sound, Full Weight, Threepence a Pound, my Ripe Kentish Cherries.

Buy my Fresh Herrings, Fresh Herrings, O! Three a Groat, Herrings, O!

Buy a Nice Wax Doll – Rosy and Fresh.

The King’s Speech, The King’s Speech to both Houses of Parliament.

Here’s all a Blowing, Alive and Growing – Choice Shrubs and Plants, Alive and Growing.

Hot Spice Gingerbread, Hot – Come buy my Spice Gingerbread, Smoaking Hot – Hot Spice Gingerbread, All Hot.

Any Earthen Ware, Plates, Dishes, or Jugs, today – any Clothes to Exchange, Madam?

Hot Mutton Dumplings – Nice Dumplings, All Hot.

Buy a Hat Box, Cap Box, or Bonnet Box.

Buy my Baskets, a Work, Fruit, or a Bread Basket.

Chickens, a Nice Fat Chicken – Chicken, or a Young Fowl.

Sweet and Pretty Beau-Pots, One a-Penny – Chickweed and Groundsel for your Birds.

Buy my Wooden Ware – a Bowl, Dish, Spoon or Platter.

Six Bunches a-Penny, Sweet Lavender – Six Bunches a-Penny, Sweet Blooming Lavender.

Here’s One a-Penny – Here’s Two a-Penny, Hot Cross Buns.

Lilies of the Valley, Sweet Lilies of the Valley.

Cats Meat, Dogs Meat – Any Cat’s or Dog’s Meat Today?

Buy my Live Scate, Live Scate – Buy my Dainty Fresh Salmon.

Mackerel, O!  Four for shilling, Mackerel, O!

Hastings Green and Young Hastings. Here’s Young Peas, Tenpence a Peck,  Marrow-fat Peas.

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

Alongside my book of CRIES OF LONDON published on 12th November, Bishopsgate Institute is staging a festival around the history and politics of markets and street trading, and Spitalfields Music is opening its Winter Festival with a concert of Cries of London by Fretwork on 4th December at Shoreditch Church.

You may also like to read about

The Curious Legacy of Francis Wheatley

At Samuel Pepys Library

3 Responses leave one →
  1. September 19, 2015

    Gentle Author – on the subject of Cries of London, I wonder if you know the book ‘London’s Pavement Pounders’, comprising descriptions and sketches by Geoffrey Fletcher, published by Hutchinson in 1967. Included are chestnut sellers, sandwich-board men, pavement artists, spoon players, escapologists, tricksters, blind buskers, scavengers…

  2. Jacqueline Sarsby permalink
    September 19, 2015

    Ah yes, this is us hawkers to the life: ragged, filthy, toothless: thank goodness we pedlars have got better dentists, bathrooms and charity shops nowadays. And thank goodness they haven’t managed to stop us selling our wares in the streets!

  3. September 19, 2015

    These have all been extremely interesting, and entertaining. I had not thought they were so rare or unusual as I have a couple of similar volumes and thought that surely, if I had one or two, everybody must have a couple. The volumes I have are:

    1. Portrait & Times of Remarkable & Eccentric Characters (Vol I only) pub by J Arnett, 5, Smith Square, London (18th c)

    2. The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts, Fourth Edition, pub 1811 in London for R. Phillips

    Both are illustrated. Are they of interest, use or value?

    Gilbert O’Brien

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