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April 25, 2020
by the gentle author

This is William Conway of Crab Tree Row, Bethnal Green, who walked twenty-five miles every day, calling, “Hard metal spoons to sell or change.” Born in 1752 in Worship St, Spitalfields, he is pictured here forty-seven years into his profession, following in the footsteps of his father, also an itinerant trader. Conway had eleven walks around London which he took in turn, wore out a pair of boots every six weeks and claimed that he never knew a day’s illness.

This is just one of the remarkable portraits by John Thomas Smith collected together  in a large handsome volume entitled “Vagabondiana,” published in 1817, that it was my delight to discover in the collection of the Bishopsgate Institute. John Thomas Smith is an intriguing and unjustly neglected artist of the early nineteenth century who is chiefly remembered today for being born in the back of a Hackney carriage in Great Portland St and for his murky portrait of Joseph Mallord William Turner.

On the opening page of “Vagabondiana”, Smith’s project is introduced to the reader with delicately ambiguous irony. “Beggary, of late, has become so dreadful in London, that the more active interference of the legislature was deemed absolutely necessary, indeed the deceptions of the idle and sturdy were so various, cunning and extensive, that it was in most instances extremely difficult to discover the real object of charity. Concluding, therefore, that from the reduction of metropolitan beggars, several curious characters would disappear by being either compelled to industry, or to partake of the liberal parochial rates, provided for them in their respective work-houses, it occurred to the author of the present publication, that likenesses of the most remarkable of them, with a few particulars of their habits, would not be unamusing to those to whom they have been a pest for several years.”

Yet in spite of these apparently self-righteous, Scrooge-like, sentiments – that today might be still be voiced by any number of venerable bigots – John Thomas Smith’s pictures tell another story. From the moment I cast my eyes upon these breathtakingly beautiful engravings, I was captivated by their human presence. There are few smiling faces here, because Smith allows his subjects to retain their self possession, and his fine calligraphic line celebrates their idiosyncrasy borne of ingenious strategies to survive on the street.

You can tell from these works that John Thomas Smith loved Rembrandt, Hogarth and Goya’s prints because the stylistic influences are clear, in fact Smith became keeper of drawings and prints at the British Museum. More surprising is how modern these drawings feel – there are several that could pass as the work of Mervyn Peake. Heath Robinson’s drawings also spring to mind, especially his illustrations to Shakespeare and there are a couple of craggy stooping figures woven of jagged lines that are worthy of Ronald Searle or Quentin Blake.

If you are looking for the poetry of life, you will find it in abundance in these unsentimental yet compassionate studies that cut across two centuries to bring us a vivid sense of London street life in 1817. It is a dazzling vision of London that Smith proposes, populated by his vibrant characters.

The quality of Smith’s portraits transcend any condescension because through his sympathetic curiosity Smith came to portray his vagabonds with dignity, befitting an artist who was literally born in the street, who walked the city, who knew these people and who drew them in the street. He narrowly escaped a lynch mob once when his motives were misconstrued and he was mistaken for a police sketch artist. No wonder his biography states that,“Mr Smith happily escaped the necessity of continuing his labours as an artist, being appointed keeper of prints & drawings at the British Museum.”

Smith described his subjects as “curious characters” and while some may be exotic, it is obvious that these people cannot all fairly be classed as vagabonds, unless we chose instead to celebrate “Vagabondiana” as the self-respecting state of those who eek existence at the margins through their own wits. One cannot deny the romance of vagabond life, with its own culture and custom. Through pathos, John Thomas Smith sought to expose common human qualities and show vagabonds as people, rather than merely as pests or vermin to be driven out.

A Jewish mendicant, unable to walk, who sat in a box on wheels in Petticoat Lane.

Israel Potter, one of the oldest menders of chairs still living.

Strolling clowns

Bernado Millano, the bladder man

Itinerant third generation vendor of elegies, Christmas carols and love songs

A crippled sailor advertises his maritime past

George Smith, a brush maker afflicted with rheumatism who sold chickweed as bird food.

A native of Lucca accompanying his dancing dolls upon the bagpipes

Blinded in one eye, this beggar seeks reward for sweeping the street

Priscilla who sat in the street in Clerkenwell making quilts

Anatony Antonini, selling artificial silk flowers adorned with birds cast in wax

This boot lace seller was a Scotman who lost his hands in the wars

Charles Wood and his dancing dog.

Staffordshire ware vendors bought their stock from the Paddington basin and sold it door to door.

Rattle-puzzle vendors.

A blind beggar with a note hung round his neck appealing for charity.

Images courtesy  © Bishopsgate Institute

20 Responses leave one →
  1. April 25, 2020

    Another wonderful peep into the past — Thank you! A small correction: the native of Lucca with the dancing dolls is accompanying them on the pipe and tabor, not a bagpipe: 1) no bag; 2) one-hand pipe.

  2. April 25, 2020

    I wonder what on earth a Bladder sounded like when a bow was drawn across it’s string? .

  3. Jamie permalink
    April 25, 2020

    Fascinating insight, as always…

  4. April 25, 2020

    Thank you Gentle Author for introducing me to the work of John Thomas Smith. You evoke the period so skilfully that when I saw the faces in these extraordinary portraits I felt as if I was there in 1817. George Smith, brushmaker in particular reminds me of Mervyn Peake.

  5. Isabella Underhill permalink
    April 25, 2020

    Thankyou for making every day start in such a civilised and interesting way. This morning’s piece is a gem. I do hope that Spitalfields Life will be acknowledged for its part in keeping up the spirits of so many people. There is nothing else like it that I have ever discovered.

  6. RogerB permalink
    April 25, 2020

    Absolutely fascinating. Such quality. Interesting that there are two, presumably, Africans in the collection.

  7. April 25, 2020

    Really enjoyed these. Thank you.

  8. Claire D permalink
    April 25, 2020

    Thank you Gentle Author for your words and these engravings. You are so right about the influences, particularly noteworthy for me is a similar tenderness found in Rembrandt. I’m reading The Old Curiosity Shop for the first time and these images are a bit of serendipity. All the best.

  9. Penny Gardner permalink
    April 25, 2020

    Puts our rough sleepers ‘got any change, draped with sleeping bags’ into perspective.

  10. Pauline Taylor permalink
    April 25, 2020

    What a brilliant artist, I am truly at a loss for words, apart from just look at his mastery of hands and that says it all. Hands are notoriously difficult to draw and yet his are perfect, as is almost everything ~~~ would the Jewish mendicant’s cart actually move on those wheels though? I seriously doubt it, but that is a minor point as I am so much in awe of this man’s talent, and there just so much to see in each portrait. Thank you GA.

  11. April 25, 2020

    The History of Costume mavens thank you, GA! This is a total bonanza……note the intricate detail of the various hats, footwear, waistcoats, and smocks. Why, even the dancing dog is in full
    regalia! And look at the detail the artist lavished on that quilt — I think he must have modeled that on one in his own quarters.

    Again…..such rich stories, and such wonderful distraction.
    We are lucky to have you.
    Stay safe.

  12. Marnie permalink
    April 25, 2020

    I am staggered by the melody of your phrasing in this particular story.
    Your love and respect for the English language is always foremost.
    Thank you for reminding us of such possibilities.
    The responsibility is always upon the writer.

  13. Chris Webb permalink
    April 25, 2020

    To me these feel like the immediate predecessors of John Thomson’s photographs.

  14. Chris Webb permalink
    April 25, 2020

    Did anybody else notice that the Zs in the last etching but one are back to front?

  15. paul loften permalink
    April 25, 2020

    If we were somehow to be able to be transported back in time to the streets of London as they were then how would we manage to cope and bear the heart-wrenching sights that we would see? We think ourselves as people of the world but the world we know is as we see now and that can be bad enough !.
    Thank you for showing us these remarkable portraits

  16. April 26, 2020

    This Paintings are So Amazing!! I want each One!!! ??????

  17. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 26, 2020

    I agree with Pauline Taylor that the drawing skills shown here are incredible, and the way he has managed to convey so much with just simple lines and cross hatching is wonderful.

    And added to that the humane compassion he has managed to convey for the characters depicted and these drawings are a real treat to savour.

    Thanks GA.

  18. Jennifer Blain permalink
    April 27, 2020

    There is a generosity in the drawing that is rare in images of the poor. Perhaps because of this I find them heart-wrenching too. Thank you Gentle Author. Preparing this must have given you much pleasure.

  19. April 27, 2020

    The names of the two disabled beggars of African ancestry are known:
    the guy with model ship on his hat was JOSEPH JOHNSON
    the crossing sweeper was CHARLES MCGEE

    they were quite famous, both on the streets and in ‘low life’ illustration

  20. October 29, 2020

    Today I bought a copy of this book at auction, but looking at some of the plates you have reproduced I am puzzled as to why a book published in 1817 should feature engravings dated 1819.Was there a second edition of Vagabondiana ?

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