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January 17, 2024
by the gentle author


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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

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy Strowman permalink
    January 17, 2024

    To Gentle Author and other readers ,
    These photographs make me feel sad because they are so real and epitomise the stories I have heard about foreign countries where some poor people try to get money or earn a living anyhow they can . I have in mind the stories of India a country I so long wanted to visit..

    I pay special homage to these people in the pictures for not giving up . Some were snubbed ,others made fun of and chased by children, ( as I recall in my East End life and in Bible stories)and I pay respect to the women of years ago in Whitechapel who many men preyed on and still do, the women who earn their living being cajoled or tricked into prostitution, or circumstances forcing them to .

    Alas , while working in modern day schools , I came across the few of one school , amplified to the extreme in Rochdale during recent times , whose lives were blighted by lure ,drugs and into prostitution, and the Police did not act but blame them .

    These children like the above people deserve a better life, much like the Matchbox workers of Bow did .

  2. January 17, 2024

    These are wonderful in their detail and atmosphere. I would love to have a rummage through the Staffordshire ware seller’s baskets.

  3. Eve permalink
    January 17, 2024

    ..although precarious & profitably erratic, street vendors, arts & craftsmen, buskers, beggars & vagabonds alike enjoyed the frisson of life itself working the open streets rather than the grind of the Industrial Revolutions’ dehumanising factory sweatshops. Thanks indeed for a glimpse of 18th century Vagabondiana !

  4. January 17, 2024

    Scrödinger is very nwell maintained.

  5. Eve permalink
    January 17, 2024

    *18th century onward

  6. January 17, 2024

    Wonderful thought-provoking portraits …and a wonderful cat at the top!

  7. January 17, 2024

    How wonderful to simply add “iana” to a word, and suddenly have an in-depth TOPIC. I love it.
    And I especially savor the History of Costume aspect of this post. Each panel was awash in details and textures that added to my knowledge. And the showstopping ship atop the head of sailor!? Needing a crutch/stick in each hand, I can imagine the ship rolling from side to side as he
    proceeded. What an intrepid group — captured for posterity.
    Many thanks, GA. And Sir Schrödinger, no doubt in charge of tech upgrades there.

  8. Hazel Parker permalink
    January 24, 2024

    A wonderful descriptive read.
    Is it included in a book to buy?

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