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H W Petherick’s London Characters

May 5, 2020
by the gentle author

These London Characters were drawn by Horace William Petherick, a painter and illustrator who once contributed pictures regularly to the Illustrated London News. He also collaborated on some children’s books with Laura Valentine, who wrote under the pseudonym Aunt Louisa, and the prints you see here are the product of such a collaboration.

When I first came across these pictures in the collection at the Bishopsgate Institute, they caught my eye at once with the veracity of their observation. I am fascinated by all the prints that were made through the ages of the street people of London, and I have seen so many now that I have learnt to recognise when these images become generic. Yet, although in form and composition, H.W.Petherick’s London Characters draw upon the  traditional visual style of the Cries of London, there is clear evidence of observation from life in his vibrant designs.

The subtleties of posture and demeanour in each trade, and the fluent quality of vigorous movement, are true to those of working people. He captures the stance that reveals the relationship of each individual to the world, whether haughty like the Beadle, weary like the Dustman, playful like the Acrobat, deferential like the Cabman or resigned like the old wounded soldier working as a Commissionaire. In these images, they declare themselves as who they are, both the products and the exemplifiers of their occupations.

It was the Lamplighter that first drew my attention, gazing with such concentrated poise up to the light, which is cleverly placed outside the frame of the composition – indicated only by the cast of its glow. In the foggy street, the Lamplighter pauses for the briefest moment for the flame to catch, while a carriage rolls away to vanish into the mist. An instant later, he will move on to the next lamp, but the fleeting moment is caught. All these Characters are preoccupied with their business – walking with intent, pouring milk steadily, carrying a loaf carefully, cutting meat with practised skill, scrutinising an address on an envelope, pasting up a poster just so, or concentrating to keep three balls up in the air at once.

They inhabit a recognisable city and they take ownership of the streets by their presence – they are London Characters.

The Butcher Boy

The Milkman

The Baker

The Cat’s-Meat Man

The Waterman

The Street Boy

The Dustman

The Chimney Sweeper

The Cabman

The Orange Girl

The Turncock

The Navvy

The Lamplighter

The Telegraph Boy

The Beadle

The Muffin Man

The Basket Woman

The Postman

The Fireman

The Railway Porter

The Policeman

The Newspaper Boy

The Bill Sticker

The Costermonger

The Organ Grinder

The Commissionaire

The Acrobat

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute


You may like to take a look at

Henry Mayhew’s Street Traders

John Thomson’s Street Life in London

Aunt Busy Bee’s New London Cries

Marcellus Laroon’s Cries of London

John Player’s Cries of London

More John Player’s Cries of London

William Nicholson’s London Types

John Leighton’s London Cries

Francis Wheatley’s Cries of London

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana of 1817

Thomas Rowlandson’s Lower Orders

More of Thomas Rowlandson’s Lower Orders

Adam Dant’s  New Cries of Spittlefields

8 Responses leave one →
  1. paul loften permalink
    May 5, 2020

    The Gentle Author is indeed the lamplighter who shows us the way. Are we not the most fortunate people with these daily journals to brighten our day in these dark times? Not only do these wonderful illustrations of honest to goodness Victorians about their daily work give us fortitude and hope but they cast light upon the shadows and mysteries and unanswered questions that disturb our peace of mind.
    Such is the case at times Whisky or Brandy should take leave of the house for longer than usual and worry fills my mind and sleep is no longer possible. Relief is instantaneous at the early morning click of the catflap but the mystery remains as to where they have spent the missing hours. All is revealed in the picture of the Cat Meat Man wherein the image of my cheeky companion appears in the background after the succulent steaks offered for sale. Never have I seen such wonderful fare on offer and no doubt neither has he! I have little doubt that cats are capable of time travel.

  2. Chris Webb permalink
    May 5, 2020

    I wonder whether anybody is doing anything like this these days, either drawing or photography. It would probably be difficult as it seems to me there are few distinct “types” these days, everyone had merged into a single nondescript mundanity.

  3. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    May 5, 2020

    These are beautiful. Each one is an individual portrait of a person with a life beyond their employment, and I could happily spend time dreaming up stories about each one if I had nothing more pressing to do!

  4. May 5, 2020

    An ideal project for the pandemic……..print out these images, glue them to cardstock, carefully trim around the outer edges of the figures, and install them in a paper theater. Just imagine it:
    the street boy cartwheeling around, zooming past the earnest costermonger (“now, see HERE my boy — I’m trying to do a bit of business…….”) and the other characters in full-on working mode.
    The backdrop? – Why the street of old Spitalfields, of course. Exactly as YOU have shown us, GA.
    The cobbled streets, the wooden overhangs and downspouts, the “Room For Rent” sign in an upstairs window, and a cat on the awning. All of that in glorious paper.

    Stay safe, all.

  5. May 5, 2020

    I agree with Paul we are fortunate indeed to have the Gentle Author to brighten our days. I am also reading some previous wonderful blogs as an antidote to the sobering daily news.
    These portraits are beautifully done and the ‘cat’s meat man ‘ is of particular interest to me.
    Like Gillian Tindall’s ancestors mine also lived in the area known as ‘The Old Nichol’ and there were hawkers and cat’s meat sellers amongst them. I’m not sure the meat they sold for cats would have been as succulent as that shown in the picture!
    Thank you Gentle Author for sharing your delightful findings with us all, keep well and safe.

  6. Jill Wilson permalink
    May 6, 2020

    More great illustrations of real people – thanks GA.

    The cat’s meat man was also the one that particularly caught my attention. My cat Potty is named after Catsmeat Potter-Purbright, one of Bertie Wooster’s chinless wonder friends as she has a white chin which ‘disappears’ against her white bib.

    Hmmm… I wonder if I should enter her into Larry the Cat’s next cat name competition? (I was sorry to see that Schrodinger was pipped in the recent final – but perhaps it is appropriate that he should disappear at the last minute..?)

  7. May 12, 2020

    Great Vintage Paintings, I Love Them!! Thank You.????????

  8. May 16, 2020

    What type of job is a beadler?

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