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Francis Wheatley’s Cries Of London

December 5, 2022
by the gentle author

Only a few tickets remain for my lecture on the CRIES OF LONDON next Sunday 11th December at the Art Workers’ Guild as part of the BLOOMSBURY JAMBOREE


Click here to book


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

Francis Wheatley exhibited his series of oil paintings entitled the “Cries of London” at the Royal Academy between 1792 and 1795. Two year earlier, the forty-one year old painter had been elected to the Academy in preference to the King’s nominee and, as a consequence, he never secured any further commissions for portraits from the aristocracy. Losing his income entirely, what 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, when the Royal Academy paid his funeral expenses.

Yet in the midst of this turmoil, Wheatley created these sublime images of street sellers that – although seen at the time as of little consequence beside his aristocratic portraits – are now the works upon which his reputation rests. Born in 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. You will recognise the old stone pillars of the market buildings that still stand today in a couple of these pictures, all of which could be located specifically in that vicinity.  However, these pictures are far from social reportage as we understand it, and you may notice a certain similarity between many of the women portrayed in these pictures, for whom it is believed Mrs Wheatley –  herself a painter and exhibitor at the Royal Academy – was the model. Look again, and you will also see that variants on the same ginger and white terrier occur throughout these paintings too.

In spite of the idealised quality of these pictures, I am drawn to these “Cries of London,” as a project that places working people at the centre of the picture, and represents them as individuals of stature and presence. The body language of subservience is only present when customers are in the frame, as you will see in the Knife Grinder and Cherry Seller below, whilst the lone Strawberry Seller, Match Seller and Primrose Seller all gaze out at us with assured status, as our equals. Taking this a stage further, the final three pictures, the Ballad Seller, the Gingerbread Seller and the Turnip Seller portray sellers and customers meeting eye to eye – dealing on a level – and with a discernible erotic charge in the air.

Although coming too late to save his career, Wheatley was well served by his engravers who created the prints which brought recognition for his “Cries of London,” as the most beautiful and most popular series of prints on this subject of all time, with editions still available into the early twentieth century. In fact, when I examined this set in the archive of the Bishopsgate Institute, I realised that many were familiar to me from chocolate boxes and biscuit tins, and once glimpsed in frames in the houses of elderly relatives and the seaside hotels of my childhood.

Luigi Schiavonetti, born in Bassano in 1765, engraved the first three plates, the Primrose Seller, the Milk Maids and the Orange Seller, with lush velvety stippled tones – a style that was maintained by the three subsequent engravers (Cardon, Vendramini and Gaugain), when Schiavonetti became too successful and expensive for such a modest project. The “Cries of London” 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.

It touches me to understand that Francis Wheatley chose to paint these “Cries of London” at the time he was losing grip of his life, struggling under the pressure of increasing debt, because they cannot have been an obvious commercial proposition. And I like to surmise that these graceful images celebrate the qualities of the ordinary working people, which Wheatley experienced first-hand, growing up in Covent Garden, and chose to witness in this subtly political set of pictures, existing in noble contrast to the portraits of aristocratic patrons who had shunned him when he was in need.

Milk Below! – This is believed to be the origin of the more recent milkman’s cry,  “Milko!”

Sweet China Oranges, Sweet China.

Do you want any matches?

New Mackerel, New Mackerel

Knives, Scissors & Razors to Grind.

Fresh Gathered Peas, Young Hastings.

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

Strawberrys, Scarlet Strawberrys.

Old Chairs to Mend.

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

Hot Spiced Gingerbread, Smoking Hot.

Turnips & Carrots, ho!

Francis Wheatley R.A. looks askance.

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may like to take a look at

The Curious Legacy Of Francis Wheatley

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy permalink
    December 5, 2022

    Reminds me of the lovely hot chestnut seller outside Whitechapel Station and the man who came with a donkey and peas in cart in Milward st where I lived.. My Baba used to break a few peas open to see if there were any worms before buying.

  2. Jane permalink
    December 6, 2022

    What a revelation, these astonishing paintings carrying so much historical social context, equal to many important paintings in the ‘canon’. Thank you for showing these and opening our eyes. Such an interesting juxtaposition to paintings showing people posed to dominate the lands, or to promote the bloodline: these paintings show people in their specific work which was so much part of the daily life of their communities.

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