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.

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