London Cries and Immigrant Eyes : Bow Street (Covent Garden)

Pictures of street hawkers, with their trade shouts and slogans recorded in captions of poetry or prose, are known as ‘Cries’. They first appeared in Paris around 1500. This early creation of an urban iconography included socially marginal people, such as vagrants, beggars, prostitutes, and others. Fifty years later, these images were established as a stylistic category across Europe. The ‘Cries of London’ is one of the oldest genres in English art. The first ensembles appeared at the beginning of the 1600s. What was the original appeal of the genre?

Around 1570, nearly fifteen per cent of London’s population consisted of vagrants. The dissolution of the monasteries and the disbanding of the armies returning from recent wars contributed to the multiplication of the homeless. For many, life was lived in the street. Men, women and children competed with each other to pull through, trying to sell whatever they could lay their hands on. The ‘Cries’ are an expression of this tumultuous London. They survive in art and music. The idea of writing musical pieces based on – or actually quoting – street cries was not unusual in the Renaissance. One of the first examples of such an attempt was Clément Janequin’s Cris de Paris (1528). Most pieces of this genre however were written in Elizabethan England when it became (briefly) a fashion to incorporate the cries of street traders into consort works for viol and singers. Oxford-born, but Cambridge-educated Orlando Gibbons (he sang in the Choir of King’s College between 1596 and 1598 and took his degree of Bachelor of Music here) was the leading English composer of his generation, holding positions as organist of the Royal Chapel, as keyboard player at the court of Charles I, and finally as organist at Westminster Abbey. He is known for his substantial oeuvre of sacred choral music, but his evocative Cries of London (composed in the early seventeenth century) is one of the most remarkable consort songs of the period. 

The end of the Interregnum brought about an explosion of energy in the capital. Soon after the Restoration the buzzing London streets were mirrored in prints and drawings. This renewed passion for the pictorial arts resulted in the production of a large number of Cries that started in the 1670s and lasted well into the nineteenth century. The calamity of the Great Fire had robbed the city of hundreds of its shops and half of its public markets. Large numbers of hawkers flocked to the capital to supply the population with food, practical services, news and various other demands. They made themselves heard. London was noisier than ever. The vendor’s cries in addition to all the other urban noises – from ballad singers to barrel organs – brought a cacophony of music to the street. Many of the more melodic phrases were subsequently incorporated into larger musical works (Handel used street cries in one of the movements of his 1738 opera Xerxes). Pictorially, the London Cries survive in three formats: as broadsheet panels of engravings, as ensembles of individual prints, and as illustrated books. It is remarkable that an immigrant artist – with the sharp eye of an outsider – grasped this vital aspect of London street life in greater detail and vivacity than any of his native contemporaries or predecessors.

Around 1660 Hague-born artist Marcellus Laroon, son of the French Huguenot portrait and landscape painter Marcel Lauron, moved from the Netherlands to Britain. After a rich marriage to Elizabeth Keene, a builder’s daughter of Little Sutton near Chiswick, the couple settled at no. 4 Bow Street, Covent Garden. This area was the capital’s hedonistic heart, attracting actors, acrobats, musicians, writers, poets, pimps, whores, and criminals. Its main establishments were the Shakespeare’s Head tavern and the Bedford Coffee House where at some time or another Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Foote, Tobias Smollett or Henry Fielding would enjoy a drink or two and meet fellow artists. Covent Garden was an inspiration to them, an incubator of creativity. Laroon quickly gained a reputation for his drawings of entertainers and street traders. He was able to observe his subjects closely as they passed his house on their way to London’s busy fruit and vegetable market. The Cryes of the City of London Drawne after the Life was originally published in 1687 by Pierce Tempest, and reprinted by him in 1688, 1689 and 1709. The seventy-four plates depict the cries and costumes (a grammar of costume that today is of considerable value to social historians) of the street vendors of London. Below the frame, the words of the hawker’s cry appears in English, French, and Italian. The publisher was acutely aware of the commercial value of these prints. 

Laroon’s ensemble of prints is far more sophisticated than any of its precursors and would forever change the way in which street merchants were pictured in British art. The early depictions of hawkers were type characters; they represented their trade and nothing more than that. Laroon’s London vendors by contrast are individuals, a class of people with their own energy, sparkle and mannerisms. He showed his persona exactly as he had seen them (including their deformities), simpletons, charlatans, religious fanatics, industrious workers, drunken drifters, shameless women, etc. Many of the figures depict actual persons who were known to the locals. The peddlers in The Cryes of London are observed without sentimentality, none of them are idealized or caricatured. The final edition from the original copperplates was printed in 1821. They inspired numerous inferior copies, children’s books, and a set of figurines by Johann Joachim Kändler, the most important modeller of Meissen’s porcelain manufacturers.

Plate nine of The Cryes of the City of London is that of a female eel-monger (‘Buy my Dish of great Eeles’ – in fact, six of the seventy-four vendors represented in the ensemble are fishmongers mirroring the prominence of seafood in the capital’s diet). It shows a vigorous young woman carrying her merchandise of wet fish on her head. London fishwives had the reputation of devil-may-care women. They were known as ‘the wives of Billingsgate’ or otherwise as ‘fish-fags’. They smoked pipes of tobacco, took snuff, drank gin, and were known for their colourful language. A 1736 dictionary defines a ‘Billingsgate’ as a scolding, impudent slut. Billingsgate is remembered in a number of sayings: that’s Billingsgate (vulgar and coarse); to talk Billingsgate (to slang or to scold); you are no better than a Billingsgate fish-fag (ill-mannered). These fishwives lived a precarious life as their income was highly unreliable. They had every reason to shriek. Their trade shifted from fish vendor to orange girl on one day, or from domestic work to whore on another, depending on the (mis)fortunes of the moment. The original concept of Cries as a genre was a first attempt to create an urban dictionary. It took the eyes (and ears) of an immigrant to fully appreciate the multi-coloured tapestry of London society.

Johann Joachim Kändler’s porcelain figure group of ‘The London Beggar’ (Meissen – from Laroon’s Cries of London), ca. 1754.

2 thoughts on “London Cries and Immigrant Eyes : Bow Street (Covent Garden)

  1. Fascinating stuff! I recall strolling through an indoor market in Japan and noticing the stall holders wearily and silently hoping for customers – all except, that is, the fish sellers – so conscious that time to sell was not on their side. On the subject of a foreign being more observant when abroad, a similar thin happened in the 17th and early 18th centuries in Scotland where the first to people to recognise the commercial opportunities of drawing the historic buildings of the country were both Dutch – John Slezer (possibly German) and Pieter van der Aa (who shamelessly copied Slezer’s work.

    The English in the early 19th century chastised the Scots whom they said, ‘ignored their ecclesiastical ruins for Calvinistic reasons’. Perhaps the Londoners felt such low life as you describe were too much of an embarrassment to be subject of art.

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