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Clennell’s London Melodies

August 15, 2018
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 identified them for me as the work of Thomas Bewick’s apprentice Luke Clennell.

I will be speaking about the Cries of London and showing favourite pictures on Tuesday 21st August at the meeting of London Historians at Sir Christopher Hatton in Leather Lane, EC1. The theme of the evening is London Retail and includes Tina Baxter on Leadenhall Market, Jane Young on Co-operative Stores, Dave Whittaker on Gamages, Andrea Tanner on Fortnum & Mason and Diane Burstein on St James’s – Locke & Co, Lobb and Floris. Click here to book a ticket

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 at long last, I can publish them with the artist’s name beside them.

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

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The Curious Legacy of Francis Wheatley

At Samuel Pepys Library

6 Responses leave one →
  1. August 15, 2018

    This is absolutely fascinating – thanks so much! I had heard of Clennell and his sad life, but never knowingly seen more than a few of his works. Am I right in seeing Bewickian influences in the depictions of the two donkeys? Much less so in the faces, which I first read as harsh, if not cruel caricatures, but then realised that part of the ‘problem’ was that unlike (I think) so many sets of ‘Cries’, these actually show the people shouting, with their faces therefore of necessity distorted?

  2. August 15, 2018

    Reminds me of The Cries of London music CD by the Theatre of Voices.

  3. Gary Arber permalink
    August 15, 2018

    Would anyone eat food from so unhygienic a source ?
    The mind boggles !

  4. Vince Price permalink
    August 15, 2018

    I posted your blog on Facebook, Morpeth History Matters, given his birthplace.
    Replies I received include:
    He came from Ulgham, pronounced Uffham. 4 years after his death
    a tablet by a local sculptor, R Davies, was erected
    to him in St. Andrew’s Church, Newcastle.
    A Catholic establishment still there.
    I need to check this out. PLUS:
    Someone knew his great neice who she went to
    school with. Family lore suggested it was the
    chemicals in the engraving material that contributed
    to his illness? Full name Fenwicke-Clennel?

  5. August 16, 2018

    How sad that he was overwhelmed by the stress of his big commission to the point of madness.

    I love how these woodcuts take me back to late Georgian England in my imagination like a pictorial time machine.

  6. peter morris permalink
    August 16, 2018

    God only knows what their underwear must have looked like!

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