New Exhibition – Street Cries: depictions of London's Poor

By lucy inglis on 23 Mar 2011

Ink Seller, c1759 by Paul Sandby © Museum of London

From Friday the new Street Cries exhibition about London’s eighteenth century poor opens here at the Museum of London. The Cries refers to the different occupations of the beggarly street-sellers depicted, and the shouts they would have used to advertise their wares.

Cries were issued by various artists throughout the century with varying degrees of success, and are meant to represent different types of people who dwelt upon the margins of Georgian London.

As the urban population increased throughout the period, so did the fear of poverty and vagrancy and the nature of the Cries changed. Marcellus Laroon created the first set of popular Cries in 1687, ‘Drawne after Life’, and it has been possible to identify some of those pictured as real people (some of whom feature in the diary of Samuel Pepys). Laroon’s pictures were all sold separately and a full set was considered an excellent souvenir for any visitor to London.

A London Courtesan, 1688 by Marcellus Laroon © Museum of London

As time went on, the Cries featured more fictional characters, although it is thought Paul Sandby took many of his cries from real life on London’s streets. Sandy was a map-maker and early watercolourist who attempted to capture the ‘truth’ of an image but even his work reflects the growing trend towards caricature in art attempting to make social comment, as well as money.

The Cries are notable in that they both isolate and objectify the poor on the page; they are rarely pictured in their surroundings, making them distinct from the contextual style of William Hogarth. The causes of their poverty and their problems are invisible; it is the tiny details of their raggedness, disabilities and filth which intrigue. Later on in the century, the ‘criers’ were pictured more often in their surroundings, interacting with customers or observers. In these situations the artists frequents created scenarios which veered away from the truth of the simple image. Edward Penny’s image of the girl with her mop pokes fun more at the smart gentleman suffering from her indiscriminate twirling than it does at the girl herself, and images such as his create amusing but likely fictional street scenes. Notably, Théodore Géricault’s work did not, and placed images of a crippled, desperate poor as a part of the urban landscape. His series was not a commercial success.

A City Shower, 1764 by Edward Penny © Museum of London

The Cries are a peculiarly eighteenth century phenomenon, and one which sheds more light on the urban poor than may be imagined. An exhibition not to be missed for anyone interested in Georgian London.

Read the review from the Independent newspaper and hear curator Francis Marshall speak about three of the drawings in the collection here (external link).

The exhibition runs from the 25th of March to the 31st of July. Entry is free.

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