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The Curious Legacy Of Francis Wheatley

September 16, 2020
by the gentle author

Linen and cotton tea towel by Lamont

Even if you do not know the name, it is likely you recognise the work of the artist Francis Wheatley. You may have seen his prints being sold off cheap at car boot sales and charity shops, or perhaps your granny had a talcum powder tin with one of his pictures on it, or you have driven past his figures twenty-feet-high on the side of the former Yardley factory in Stratford?

Francis Wheatley created the most celebrated images of Cries of London which are still universally recognised today, although he received little recognition in his lifetime. By accident of fate, his work achieved its greatest success in the twentieth century, gaining widespread popularity and becoming symbolic of the spirit of old London – until it fell out of favour with subsequent generations, devalued by its ubiquity and dismissed as sentimental cliche.

Yet Francis Wheatley’s Cries of London deserve a second look and, once you know the circumstances of their creation, it is not so easy to write them off. They became commonplace in the last century because people loved them, investing personal meaning in these cheaply-distributed images and, by treasuring these mass-produced souvenirs, trinkets and keepsakes, they charged them with a significance that transcends sentiment.

Recognising the curious legacy of Francis Wheatley, I cannot resist collecting all the multiple incarnations of his work which others discard and giving them a home to cherish them on behalf of their former owners, on behalf of the artist himself and on behalf of the street traders of London down the ages who are the dignified subjects of these fascinating pictures. Francis Wheatley’s Cries of London deserve better than being consigned to the dustbin of cultural history.

Francis Wheatley exhibited his series of thirteen oil paintings of Cries of London at the Royal Academy over three years beginning in 1792. Two years earlier, the forty-three year old painter had been elected as an Associate to the Academy by sixteen votes to three, in preference to Thomas Lawrence, the King’s nominee, and – as a consequence – he scarcely secured any further commissions for portraits from the aristocracy. He lost his income entirely and, becoming an Academician, which should have been the crowning glory of his career, was its unravelling. Wheatley was declared insolvent in 1793 and struggled to make a living until his death in 1801 at fifty-four years old in King’s Bench Walk prison, when the Royal Academy paid his funeral expenses.

In the midst of this turmoil, lacking aristocratic sitters, Wheatley created these images of street sellers which, although regarded in his lifetime as of little consequence beside his society portraits, are now the works upon which his reputation rests. Born in Wild Court, Covent Garden, in 1747, Wheatley was ideally qualified to portray these hawkers because he grew up amongst them and their cries, echoing in the streets around the market. The stone pillars of Covent Garden that stand today may be recognised in a couple of these pictures, all of which were located in vicinity of the market.

However, these idealised images are far from social reportage and you may notice a certain similarity between many of the women portrayed in them, for whom it is believed his second wife, Clara Maria Leigh, was the model – herself a painter and exhibitor at the Royal Academy. Look again, and you will also see variants of the same ginger and white terrier occurring in these paintings – this is believed to be Wheatley’s dog. The languorous poise and artful drapery of Wheatley’s figures suggest classical models, as if these hawkers were the urban equivalents of the swains and shepherdesses of the pastoral world. Influenced by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Wheatley had painted agricultural workers at harvest and several of the Cries he depicted are those who came to the city to sell their produce. Although too late save his career, engravings of Wheatley’s Cries were sold at seven shillings and sixpence for a plain set and sixteen shillings coloured, and the fact all thirteen were issued is itself a measure of their popularity.

In 1913, Yardley of London, cosmetic and soap manufacturers, revived Wheatley’s primrose seller by adopting it as their symbol, replacing primroses with sheafs of lavender to illustrate their most popular fragrance, Old English Lavender. Established in 1770, perhaps Yardley sought an image that reflected the era of their origin and the lavender grown for the company in the south east of England. Publishing Wheatley’s image upon countless thousands of soap packets and talcum powder tins was such a popular success that it is still in use upon their packaging over a century later.

The Wheatley revival took flight in 1916 when Players cigarette cards included all of his images in a set of twenty-five Cries of London, reworking Cries by other artists in the Wheatley style to make up the series and following these cards with a second set of twenty-five the year after. Collected by schoolboys in class and soldiers in the trenches, these minor tokens of intangible value became venerated as rare keepsakes. And, throughout the twentieth century, Wheatley’s Cries were reprinted in many guises and upon all kinds of souvenirs and knick-knacks as popular icons of London, representing the collective sense of emotional ownership that people felt for the ancient capital and its wonders.

It was an unlikely choice for Francis Wheatley to paint ‘Cries of London’ at the time he was losing grip of his life – struggling under the pressure of increasing debt – since they cannot have been an obvious commercial proposition. Yet I like to surmise that these fine images celebrate the qualities of the people that Wheatley experienced first-hand in the streets and markets, growing up in Covent Garden, and chose to witness in this affectionate and subtly-political set of pictures of street traders, existing in pertinent contrast to the portraits of aristocratic patrons who had shunned him when he was in need. This is the curious legacy of Francis Wheatley.

Two Bunches a Penny, Primroses, Two Bunches a Penny!

Irish linen tea towel by Lamont

Strawberrys, Scarlet Strawberrys!

Plate by Adams from a dinner service

Fresh Gathered Peas, Young Hastings!

Plate by Adams

Milk Below!

Tea caddy

Sweet China Oranges, Sweet China!

Frean’s ‘London Selection’ biscuit tin

Do you want any matches?

Biscuit tin

New Mackerel, New Mackerel!

Knives, Scissors & Razors to Grind!

De Beauvoir Ford’s 1951 fantasia on a theme by Wheatley configured as a patriotic jigsaw

Turnips & Carrots, ho!

Round & Sound, Five Pence a Pound, Duke Cherries!

Iconic Yardley Old English Lavender talcum powder tin

Old Chairs to Mend!

Yardley Old English Lavender soap

A New Love Song, only Ha’pence a Piece!

Wheatley figures upon the Yardley factory in Stratford (Photograph courtesy of Fin Fahy)

Francis Wheatley RA (1747-1801)

Hot Spiced Gingerbread, Smoking Hot!

Wheatley images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute



9 Responses leave one →
  1. mem permalink
    September 16, 2020

    What an amazing story .I had no idea . I knew I despised the aristocracy !!!!What scummy behaviour . I wonder what happened to his family ? Did they ever benefit from his work ?

  2. September 16, 2020

    I remember being given Yardley Bath cubes as a Christmas gift, as a child in the 1950s. I would have preferred chocolate or a book! And then when I saw the musical Oliver, with that great song Wonderful Morning, I suddenly became interested in the street cries. Thank you for this delightful post

  3. September 16, 2020

    A very fine Story about a lovable Tradition, and the Book certainly seems to be the same.
    And there is not ONE Piece of the Puzzle missing! 🙂

    Love & Peace

  4. Sally Jeffery permalink
    September 16, 2020

    The picture of the lavender seller on the Yardley building must have been made of glazed ceramic tiles – an inspired commission by whoever ordered it. She was a spotless highlight on the road eastward out of London, at a time when the rest of the building and its surroundings looked grimy and run-down.

  5. Patricia Duke permalink
    September 16, 2020

    Thank you for yet another thought provoking article. We grow up with images that we take for granted around us. Another subject to pursue!

  6. September 16, 2020

    Such Beautiful Paintings and I stil use Yardley’s English Lavender!!!???????????

  7. September 17, 2020

    A wonderful blog today, thank you GA.
    I clearly remember the lavender seller on the side of the Yardley building going towards Stratford. As a small child, visits to Stratford on the bus with my mum were made magical by that wondrous sight.
    I now have a pottery figure of her with the two small children and a dog, holding a bunch of lavender and a basketful on her arm. Delightful memories…..I keep re-reading your lovely words today over and over.

  8. Helen permalink
    September 18, 2020

    Another fascinating story behind a familiar name, thank you Gentle Author. The factory is a handsome building too, I wonder what is it used for now?

  9. September 22, 2020

    A very interesting article. Such a shame that he lost everything in such a way. Also, I am going to have to do some family investigation, as my Great, Great Grandmother was Clara Francis Wheatly. I am now wondering there is any connection. Thank you

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