Images of the Outcast: The Urban Poor in the Cries of London.
Pictures of street sellers, with their shouts or trade recorded in captions of poetry or prose, are known as 'Cries' and appeared first in Paris in 1500. Fifty years later, they were established as a genre across Europe and America, featuring the hawkers of major cities. London Cries, depicting the lower orders of the capital, survive in three formats: as broadsheet panels of engravings, as ensembles of individual prints, and as illustrated books. Cries ranged in price from a halfpenny a sheet to half a guinea for a set of fine prints and were bought by the upper and middling classes, interested in the subjects depicted, how society was organized, or in artistic technique.
Images of the Outcast offers the reader a feast of reproductions from these broadsheets, ensembles and illustrated books, many published for the first time. Shesgreen examines their creation and production, considers the interests and motives of buyers, and questions the status and identity of those portrayed. He traces the development of prints over four centuries and examines their imitation, plagiarism and re-working, and their extension into drawings, lithographs and oil paintings.
He leads us from the static anonymous tableaux of the sixteenth-century to the lyrical ensembles of the continental artists, Marcellus Laroon and Jacob Amigoni. We see shoeblacks and lamplighters with their tools and utensils; and milkmaids, fruit sellers and prostitutes touting their wares. He shows us the eighteenth century satire and English realism of William Hogarth and the watercolourist, Paul Sandby; and he contrasts the coarse burlesques of Thomas Rowlandson with the return to sentimentalism in the popular prints of Francis Wheatley. He charts the shift in the genre of Cries in the nineteenth century from work of art to illustrated book, where text became increasingly important and volumes were created for children. Finally, Shesgreen signals the genre's demise as biographies of characters from Victorian London's underclass become the central focus of works such as 'Vagabondiana' and Mayhew's study of London's poor.
Across the seven chapters, Shesgreen also analyses the aesthetic, cultural and social significance of Cries. He shows how their evolution was determined by the reactions and rivalry of artists. Laroon's influential and highly collectable prints presented idealized figures in stylized costumes and Amigoni's collections featured the faces of children; but neither of these ensembles offered realistic views of the street sellers of London. Shesgreen identifies these artists as instigators of a 'pastoral' tradition, to which Hogarth and Sandby responded with 'anti-pastoral', naturalistic Cries. Shesgreen's revisionist close reading of Hogarth's 'Enraged Musician' shows how the artist, satirizing his continental rivals, placed a collection of hawkers in the crowded alley of an historical neighbourhood, where, in an atmosphere of filth and stench, the silence of Laroon's Cries is replaced by raucous clamour, and Amigoni's innocent children become a source of social menace. Sandby's 'Buy my Muffins', one the most unconventional and original images in the genre of Cries of London, is an apt choice for the front cover of Images of the Outcast. An intriguing hawker, viewed 'from below', receives remarkable sympathy from the artist, and the print asks penetrating questions. Are street hawkers oppressed victims, deserving poor, or scoundrels to be exposed? But it was not Sandby's pessimistic reflections on London street life that attracted elite buyers: instead, Wheatley's sanitized ensembles, harking back to Laroon, with hawker and customer both elaborately clad, became the most successful suite of hawkers ever published. Throughout the Victorian period the theme of Cries continued to be almost uniformly serious or picturesque and sentimental.
In Images of the Outcast Shesgreen provides for the first time a social history of images that are largely unfamiliar to scholars and that, as art, have been derided or ignored. He shows that although London Cries are not exact reflections of historical reality, they still provide a unique means of understanding the 'lower orders'. His pageant of Cries from across four centuries is not just a series of representations, stereotypes and symbols, but a combination of the responses of rival artists and of real life as it was encountered on the streets of London. While some ensembles tell us about costumes, hawkers' wares and selling techniques, others feature historical buildings. The artists' chain of contrasting attitudes reveals debates within society, undercurrents of unrest and anxieties about city life. Timeless milkmaids and flower sellers depict harmony and nostalgia, while rogues and sexual predators speak of confrontation and instability. Shesgreen shows how London Cries provide social comment on charity, poverty, status and power and suggests that they were active instruments, molding values and reinforcing beliefs. Although Cries became increasingly idealized and 'art triumphed over life', the elite found reassurance in the genre, by turning real and imaginary fears into art and by collecting Cries to display in their homes. Shesgreen concludes that the purchase of Cries by aristocratic and middle-class buyers signified both interest in artistic technique and paradoxical attitudes of repugnance and fascination with the poor and the outcast of whom, increasingly, they knew so little.
Images of the Outcast offers a wealth of material and will be of immense interest to historians of English art, society, economics and culture. It is beautifully produced with 10 coloured plates and over 150 illustrations, all clearly numbered and referenced. Detailed footnotes offer source information for the specialist and there is a useful subject index. Few readers can fail to be stimulated by Shesgreen's thought-provoking interpretations, analyses and close readings and by his scholarship and insight. Students and readers who are tempted to dip into this useful volume just to follow up a specific print or ensemble will miss the subtleties and complexities of the study as a whole.
University of Hertfordshire
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2004|
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