Street-Wise

Richard Altick

  • George Scharf’s London: Sketches and Watercolours of a Changing City, 1820-50 by Peter Jackson
    Murray, 154 pp, £14.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 7195 4379 7

Whether by happy accident or design, the publication of Peter Jackson’s George Scharf’s London coincided with the opening of a notable exhibition at the Museum of London called simply ‘Londoners’. Although Scharf’s oeuvre is most readily classified as topographical art, his sketches are as descriptive of the everyday Londoners who went about their lawful pursuits in the decades between 1820 and 1850 as they are of sides of the emerging metropolis which down to that time were largely neglected by the best-known London iconographers. Canaletto’s scores of panoramic scenes with their minutely sharp lines and Venetian brightness constitute an 18th-century version of London which it is hard to believe existed in all its radiant immaculacy. Hogarth’s London scenes foreshadowed Doré’s, more than a century later, in their depiction of a dark purgatory peopled with prostitutes, pimps, rakes, gin-drinkers, beggars and all the other members of a seamy or downright criminal underclass. The most ample previously known visual accounts of the late Regency and early Victorian London that Scharf knew were left by artists, notably Thomas Hosmer Shepherd and Thomas Shotter Boys, whose eyes were fixed on the city’s architectural splendours, old and new. As with Canaletto’s paintings, one has the feeling that Shepherd and Boys ignored the people normally present in the vicinity and subsequently introduced a few scattered figures as an afterthought, an unconvincing affectation of realism that was not allowed to distract attention from the buildings themselves.

The sketches with which Scharf filled his notebooks in those thirty years, a selected few maturing into watercolours and a handful finally into lithographs, present a London seen by an observer who was simultaneously detached and involved. Detached, because Scharf was neither a Canaletto, turning out idealised versions of London scenes for the lucrative art market, nor a Hogarth, using a far different class of scenes to stir the dormant social conscience of his time. He was not a Shepherd or a Boys either, bent on spreading the good word that ‘metropolitan improvements’ – the upbeat title of a book by James Elmes which Shepherd illustrated – were steadily bringing into existence a city whose size, wealth and new look were rapidly making it the unchallenged capital of the world. Involved, because, like Dr Johnson and Charles Lamb, Scharf was a tireless London perambulator who desired no more from life (apart from a decent income) than to savour and capture the variety and energy of city living.

Scharf (1788-1860) was an itinerant Bavarian artist whom the fortunes of war eventually brought into Wellington’s army as a ‘lieutenant of baggage’ in the Engineers. After Waterloo he came to London and, after trying unsuccessfully to set up as a portrait painter, he became a scientific illustrator (Darwin was briefly one of his customers) and a skilled lithographer. But his bread-and-butter occupation failed to satisfy his artist’s instincts, and after hours, unquenchably curious and observant, he wandered the London streets, sketchbook always at the ready. Apart from a trip to Bavaria on family business, he seems never, during his 44 years as a Londoner, to have travelled farther from the city than Herne Bay.

A few of his lithographs sold moderately well, but apart from these his hoard of London scenes remained a well-kept secret – not that he wanted it that way. His sketchbooks and detached watercolours, some five hundred in all, went to the British Museum after his death, and the Guildhall Library acquired about fifty. A few more can be found elsewhere. Perhaps the appearance of this selection will result in the discovery of additional ones. In any case, the pictures reproduced here, nearly all for the first time, could not have found a better-qualified sponsor. Peter Jackson knows more about the physical history of London through the centuries than anybody else. Most of the facts in his biographical introduction were already available in F.W. Schwarzbach’s essay on Scharf in a collection called Victorian Artists and the City (1980), but the running commentary on picture after picture is uniquely Peter Jackson’s, enthusiastic and endlessly knowledgeable.

Scharf’s London is not the London the tourists of his day knew, except insofar as most of his scenes are ones that a tourist might have passed in walking from one guidebook attraction to the next – or that the tourist might have happened upon when he got lost in the winding byways and alleys off the principal streets. A typical drawing might show a range of a dozen or more small, unremarkable shops, their elevations comprising a random series of vertical strata of architectural styles dating as far back as Tudor times. Or it might be devoted to a single business, such as the dairy shop in Golden Lane where the cows were kept in the back of the premises, under roof. (Fresh the product may have been, but not necessarily pure. Jackson mentions the water pumps that were kept in cow yards to dilute the milk.)

Scharf was particularly engrossed by the grand-scale demolition and building projects which, once the nation had recovered its prosperity after the Napoleonic Wars, transformed some of London’s most conspicuous sites and, incidentally, increased the visitor’s chances of disorientation. Several series of drawings show different aspects and stages of the development that wiped away the clutter of dilapidated old buildings and the encompassing courtyard known collectively as the King’s Mews and replaced it with Trafalgar Square, and similar undertakings which widened the Strand and erected the still existing central market at Covent Garden. Commissioned by the City Corporation, Scharf made a pictorial record of the building of the new London Bridge and the wholesale eradication of mazes of old streets to make way for its City and Southwark approaches. A view from the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields (1827) showing the shored-up backs of houses on the south side of Duke’s Court strikingly anticipates the look of a semi-blitzed London terrace in 1945.

But it is, in Peter Jackson’s words, ‘the ordinary people of London going about their everyday business’ who lend this book the animation that sets it apart, not only from the work of Scharf’s predecessors and contemporaries, but from that of the early photographers who were still to appear, and whose primitive equipment prevented them for many years from catching true action in the streets. His is a working, shopping, spectating London. His top-hatted construction crews swarm over the sites they are clearing or occupying with new structures. There is a fire in a sausage-maker’s shop in the Strand, and a crowd gathers (in a follow-up sketch we see the firemen rolling up their hose). Close by, on another occasion, a well-dressed woman contemplates with indignant dismay the oil spots on her skirt, incurred when she incautiously walked under a leaky pipe which is conveying a new supply of that commodity from barrels on a parked wagon into a shop. The Exeter coach, heavily loaded with seven outside passengers, two or more inside, driver and guard, plus piles of baggage, is about to lumber away from its Piccadilly terminal.

Then there are the street advertisers who clog the narrow sidewalks: the ‘standard bearers’, some in arresting if not necessarily appropriate costumes, with their elaborate placards borne aloft, and the sandwich men, publicising everything from freaks and topical panoramas to patent pens and malt whiskey. Some of their employers, placing great faith in the nascent industry’s principle of multiplication and repetition, send out whole parades of identically clad or equipped attention-getters, not single spies but battalions. There are the carts that likewise, before the days of strict regulation, produce gridlock in the vehicular ways. They bear signs and monstrous models symbolic, if not actually representative, of such products as spectacles, waterproof boots, boot-blacking, coal and coffee. The street vendors are as thick as on today’s Oxford Street, but they offer a greater variety of wares: carpet slippers, brooms, embroidery frames, seasonal flowers and fruits, and hot pies, gingerbread and potatoes. In this respect, Scharf made pre-illustrations for Henry Mayhew’s celebrated investigations of the London street trades. No matter that Mayhew was also a pioneer sociologist: both he and Scharf were journalists at heart, men of insatiable curiosity about how people lived and worked. The big difference was that Mayhew got paid and Scharf did not.

The noise that the Londoners of the time made and endured pours from these pages. The construction sites were noisy enough, and until the installation of wood-and-bituminous paving, which Scharf duly portrays, so were the streets themselves with the constant pounding of horses’ hooves and the rumble of iron-shod wheels. But so was every locality where there was a chance, present or prospective, of money changing hands: the raucous cries of street merchants and showmen with their ‘enormous fat women’, alleged cannibals, hirsute boys and monster Egyptian alligators; a wide assortment of itinerant musicians (a single dissonant band might consist of a big drum, trumpet, clarinet, bass viol and French horn), organ-grinders, blind bell-ringers, one-man bands. Sometimes the roles were doubled. Horn-tooting men paraded with placards advertising a free giveaway almanac offer from a weekly newspaper.

Scharf’s London of course is Dickens’s London too. One can easily imagine them, unknown to each other, repeatedly passing on the streets and loitering to take in a new sight, each storing up the characteristic particulars of a given locale, Scharf with sketch-pad in hand, Dickens with its equivalent in his absorbent senses and memory. In Scharf’s sketch ‘On Board a Steam Boat going to Gravesend 2 Sept. 1842’ it is impossible not to see Sairey Gamp, who delivered her boozy public diatribe against steamboats and railways at this very time, at the London Bridge wharf from which the boats started. There is also a wide-angle view of the devastated moonscape of Camden Town as the London and Birmingham Railway was being extended into Euston Station: the exact scene described by Dickens in Dombey and Son as the earthquake-like clearance of Staggs’s Gardens.

Part of the appeal of Scharf’s on-the-spot drawings is the very fact that they are just that: sketches, not finished pictures. This adds to the pervasive sense of freshness and immediacy, along with the frequent pencilled annotations reminding him of the colours of various parts of a building’s exterior. Nothing is touched up or rearranged for effect. The valuable impromptu nature of his work can be appreciated when his sketches of gas and water main excavations, swarming with sweating workmen, are placed side by side with Ford Madox Brown’s celebrated painting Work, which shows a crew laying a water main in Heath Street, Hampstead. Scharf’s drawings are sharp-eyed reportage, pure and simple. Brown’s picture, a Victorian social-morality piece, began with sketches in 1852, but over the next 11 years it was painstakingly developed and elaborated – with portraits of Carlyle and F.D. Maurice, among other embellishments – so that its large complement of significant, message-laden detail could be read inch by inch. Brown’s picture was a product of the easel, and by that much removed from the actual dusty (or muddy) London trench where it had begun.

Like Turner and Constable, Scharf could not miss the spectacular opportunity for topical art furnished by the burning of the Houses of Parliament one October night in 1834. He chose, however, to depict not the event but its aftermath. The others made their sketches from Westminster Bridge or a boat on the river, then returned to their painting rooms and their palettes of colour. Scharf began work the next morning, when the ruins were still smouldering, and continued for three weeks to sketch from the lead roof of Westminster Hall. It was London’s biggest accidental demolition job between the Great Fire and the Tooley Street conflagration of 1861, and he revelled in his good fortune. His finished watercolour, ten feet long by two and a half feet high, was exhibited at the New Water Colour Society’s show the following March, but a plan to publish a lithograph of it came to nothing, and shortly before his death it was sold at Christie’s for a derisory £2 10s. Does it still exist somewhere?

A more successful venture was the set of lithographed views of the new Zoological Society gardens in Regent’s Park which Scharf was allowed to sell at the gate. The most popular of these was a picture of the zoo’s first giraffes, which arrived, to great fanfare, in 1836. The high point of Scharf’s career, indeed, was his delivery of a copy of the giraffe print to Queen Adelaide, who then ordered three copies of the whole set. But from then on, he was increasingly beset by money troubles. When, twenty years later, Professor Richard Owen promised him a guinea a week to sketch anything he liked in the British Museum, it was a transparent gesture of charity.

Scharf recorded the ongoing life of London as a labour of love. He never made any profit to speak of, and until recently even his name was all but forgotten, although his namesake son became the first secretary, later the director, of the National Portrait Gallery and was knighted for that service in 1895. Peter Jackson’s selection, which must have been equally a labour of love, now brings him the recognition he was denied in life. Scharf was not the first hobbyist, nor the last, to whom amateurs of the historic London scene owe much of what they know, but now that his work has finally been rescued from oblivion, he will rank among the greatest.