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John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana

February 16, 2021
by the gentle author

All titles in the Spitalfields Life Bookshop are half price in our Valentine’s sale. Some are already sold out and others are running low, so – with weeks of lockdown yet to come – this is the ideal opportunity to complete your collection.

Enter the code VALENTINE at checkout to claim your discount.


Today I present the etchings of John Thomas Smith who is featured in THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S CRIES OF LONDON which is included in the sale.

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 I discovered 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

Pickled cucumbers!

Very fine, Very cheap



Fly poster

Door mats



Live haddock

Henry Dinsdale

Plaster casts


Roasting Jack

Young lambs

The flying pie man

A poor painter removing

Umbrellas to mend

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute


The Gentle Author assembles a choice selection of CRIES OF LONDON, telling the stories of the artists and celebrated traders, and revealing the unexpected social realities contained within these cheap colourful prints produced for the mass market.

For centuries, these lively images of familiar hawkers and pedlars have been treasured by Londoners. In the capital, those who had no other means of income could always sell wares in the street and, by turning their presence into performance through song, they won the hearts of generations and came to embody the spirit of London itself.

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Dinah Winch permalink
    February 16, 2021

    The black man with the ship on his hat was called Joseph Johnson.

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    February 16, 2021

    You are absolutely right about the ‘fine calligraphic lines’ of these etchings – they are beautifully rendered to create some stunning and sympathetic images. It must have taken such skill to draw all the fine lines to achieve all the different tones in the pictures – even the background cross hatching would have taken considerable time and patience!
    Thanks for sharing these brilliant images of a bygone London.

  3. February 16, 2021

    Exquisite drawings. I especially like the detail in the ‘A Jewish mendicant’ one. Was this style of drawing unique?

  4. February 16, 2021

    The history-of-costume mavens thank you!

    Many thanks for always shining a light.

  5. Pamela Traves permalink
    February 17, 2021

    I Loved these Vintage Pictures!! They are Amazing!!???????

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