Painter, Poet, Pimp | Bow Street (Covent Garden)

The death of Oliver Cromwell and the restoration of Charles II marked the end of a period of state control and repression. The overthrow of the Interregnum unleashed an explosion of energy. London came to life again. Print and ballad sellers, singers, actors, fiddlers, contortionists, and whores, they all returned to their former trades and crafts. They were joined by hawkers who flocked into London to supply its inhabitants with food and necessities. The calamity of the Great Fire had robbed the city of countless shops and half of its public markets. With the Restoration in full swing, the buzzing London streets were mirrored in prints and drawings leading to renewed interest in a traditional pictorial genre.

Pictures of street hawkers, with their trade shouts recorded in captions of poetry or prose, are known as ‘Cries’. They appeared first in print in Paris about 1500. Fifty years later, these images were established as a stylistic category across Europe. The Cries of London is one of the older genres in English art. The first ensembles appeared at the start of the 1600s. The attraction of the genre was not surprising. Between 1520 and 1600, after a period of social unrest and instability, the number of vagabonds had increased sharply. The dissolution of monasteries and the disbanding of armies back from recent wars contributed to the multiplication of homeless people. London was a city of vagrants. Life was lived in the street. Men, women, and children competed with each other to make a living, and sell whatever they could lay their hands on. The ‘Cries’ are an expression of this London.

Around 1660, Marcellus Laroon moved from the Netherlands to Yorkshire. The son of exiled Huguenot painter Marcel Lauron, he was educated and trained at The Hague. 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. From there, he was able to observe his ‘pittoresque’ subjects as they passed on their way to London’s busiest fruit and vegetable market. Laroon’s The Cryes of the City of London Drawne after the Life was originally published in 1687 by Pierce Tempest, and reprinted in 1688, 1689, and 1709. The seventy-four plates depict the cries and costumes (a ‘grammar’ of contemporary costume) of street peddlers. Below the frame, the hawker’s cry appears in English, French, and Italian, underlining the wide commercial appeal of these prints. Laroon showed his characters exactly as he had seen them (including their deformities), simpletons, charlatans, religious fanatics, industrious workers, drunken drifters, and promiscuous women. Laroon’s ensemble of prints would forever change the genre in British art. Early depictions of hawkers were type characters of men and women representing their trade. Laroon’s vendors are individuals, a class of people with their own energy and spark.

Charles II’s ’merry’ reign witnessed a change from puritanical restraint to uninhibited libertinism. It created an atmosphere in which the business prospects of brothel keepers flourished again. Madam [Mother] Elizabeth Creswell began her career as a prostitute in London during the 1650s. A stunning beauty, and living in grand style, she attracted the company of politicians, courtiers, and celebrities. A decade later, she was established as the prosperous owner of bordellos in Camberwell, Clerkenwell, and Moorfields. Later in life she regretted her sins, dressed soberly, and found religion. Laroon left two images of Madam Creswell (plates 51 and 52) which are linked. They tell a moral tale about harlotry: one plate shows a young woman, attractive, spirited, and well dressed; the other, an aged bawd, wrinkled, and tired of immorality.

London’s first warm bath in the Oriental fashion was built in 1679. Lined and floored with luxurious marble, it was located at Pentecost (Pincock) Lane. John Strype described the facility as being much in use and ‘resorted unto for Sweating, being found very good for aches, etc. and approved by our Physicians’. It proved so popular that the name of the location was changed to (Royal) Bagnio Court, later to Bagnio Street, and then (in 1843) Bath Street. In 1885, for reasons unknown, the street was renamed Roman Bath Street. A dead end road for those researching the history of migration – there is no Roman connection.

The word bagnio originally pointed to a Turkish-style public bathhouse, but in the course of the eighteenth century it acquired a darker connotation as is made clear by William Hogarth in ‘The Bagnio’, the fifth canvas in the series of six satirical paintings known as ‘Marriage-à-la-mode’ (1743/5). The tale is set in the Turk’s Head Bagnio in Bow Street. By then, the bagnio had become the equivalent of a massage parlour or brothel. During the first decades of the eighteenth century Covent Garden had become the capital’s hedonistic heart, an area where life was turned into a carnival. 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.

Its shadowy side was outlined by Henry Fielding in Jonathan Wild (1743) where he points to ‘eating-houses in Covent Garden, where female flesh is deliciously dressed and served up to the greedy appetites of young gentlemen’. One of those youngsters was James Boswell who liked to pick up young girls (Journal 1762/3) in the area. He paid a heavy penalty. Boswell suffered from at least twenty bouts of the syphilis (which was treated with mercury pills and plaster, camphor liniments, or even some minor surgery), and probably died as a result of it.

There is a remarkable record of Covent Garden’s carnal pleasures which we owe to a Dublin linen draper named Samuel Derrick. In 1751 he decided to give up his profession, move to London, and settle in Covent Garden to commit himself to literature and the stage. A lover of wine and women, he was a mediocre poet, and a poor actor. Debts started to haunt him. Enter Jack Harris (properly known as John Harrison), chief waiter at the Shakespeare’s Head and self-proclaimed ‘Pimp-General of All England’. Harris kept a handwritten and detailed record of over four hundred names of the capital’s ‘votaries of Venus’, giving names and addresses of the women concerned, with physical characteristics, biographical notes, specialised services, and charges. Pimp and (failed) poet agreed on publication. Derrick turned Harris’s ledger into an entertaining chronicle of women walking Covent Garden’s Piazza. Its success was overwhelming.

The annual List of Covent Garden Ladies appeared from 1757 to 1795 and sold over a quarter of a million copies during that period. In 1757, the List was on sale in the Shakespeare’s Head tavern and in the nearby brothel ran by ‘Mother’ Jane Douglas. Later, the list was made more widely available. Such was the public anticipation that its publisher H. Ranger of Temple Bar, Fleet Street, started advertising a full range of Harris’s Lists in the newspapers. As ‘ranger’ was a slang word for philanderer at the time, it was clear that the publisher’s name was a pseudonym. It proved to be a sensible precaution as Jack Harris was arrested in 1758. Derrick continued to edit the List until his death, when he passed the proceeds of his final edition to his former mistress, the courtesan and brothel-keeper, Charlotte Hayes. The authors of the List after 1769 are unknown. The work was discontinued in 1795 after a group of social critics demanded the prosecution of those responsible for its publication. The moral spirit of the age was changing.