Waters was said to be a former planation slave who had deserted his American masters to find freedom behind the British lines during the War of Independence. He enrolled in the Royal Navy and served at sea for a number of years until he was discharged following an accident which resulted in the loss of his left leg below the knee. Penniless and adrift on the streets of London, Waters was eventually able to eke out a living by playing the fiddle and singing to entertain the crowds of theatre-goers that gathered in the streets around Covent Garden during the evening. This colourful character eventually captured the imagination of the caricaturist George Cruikshank, who used him to add an air of carnivalesque ridicule to prints such as Landing the Treasures, or Results of the Polar Expedition!!! (January, 1819) and The New Union-Club (July, 1819). Cruikshank and his brother Robert also included Waters in a number of the illustrations they provided for the hugely successful Life in London and this led to him being awarded a walk-on part in the stage version of the series when it opened at the Adelphi. Ultimately, his fame was to prove counterproductive because, as rumours of the vast sums of money Water’s was supposed to have received for his appearances in Life in London began to circulate around town, he found it more and more difficult to solicit charity from others on streets. Within a couple of years Waters was reduced to such a state of abject poverty and was forced to sell his violin, most of his clothing and what other meagre possessions he had managed to scrape together. In 1823 he was admitted to the St Giles workhouse and died within days from a combination of hunger and disease.
The back of the figure is stamped with the words “Publd Mar 1821 by R Shout & Son Holborn, London”. A reference to the firm of Robert Shout, a statutory manufacturer and relief moulder, who operated from premises located at 18 Holborn from 1803 until his death in 1843. Shout was renowned for producing high quality, affordable, busts and statuettes and was even referred to in a poem by Shelly, which describes the rooms of fellow poet Leigh Hunt as being “adorned with many a cast from Shout.”
The auctioneer’s listing suggests that this figure was a form of merchandising, designed to cash in on the popularity of the Life in London series but this cannot be correct. The first edition of Life in London had been published in October 1820 and it was already a massive success by the time Shout produced this statue in March 1821. However, Billy Waters did not appear in Cruikshank’s illustrations for Life in London until the July 1821 edition and so would have had absolutely no connection with the series at the time this statue was made. A more likely point of origin seems to be the caricature of Waters which appeared among a series of prints entitled Costume of the Lower Orders of London Painted and Engraved From Nature, published by the illustrator Thomas Lord Busby in August 1820 (left). A quick comparison of the two, reveals that the pose and appearance of the statue is far closer to Busby’s drawing than any image of Waters that appears in the works of George or Robert Cruikshank.
So what was this statuette used for? It may have been intended for domestic decoration but at thirteenth inches high, it seems rather large for a display piece and would have towered over conventional ceramic figurines of the period. Another theory, one which takes into account the comparatively rare nature of the piece, is that this may have been a limited edition that was produced for use in commercial window displays or advertising. Either way, it’s certainly an interesting and unusual item which reminds us once again of the links between the trade in satirical prints and other types of consumer goods.