rowlandsonsweeps

It looks as though we’re heading back to the street with another watercolour inspired by Francis Wheatley’s Cries of London. 

This untitled image of a dustman and his apprentice by Thomas Rowlandson has appeared on the market recently.

Street vendors and door-to-door tradesmen were ubiquitous throughout eighteenth-century London, so much so that it was said one could mark the passage of time simply by listening to the cries of the traders passing through the streets. Householders would typically woken at first light by the distinct shout of “Sweep-o! S-w-e-e-e-p!”, as the chimney sweep called before the household fires were lit to heat the morning water. The sweep would be followed by the dustman, who used his own distinctive call of “dust-ho!” to alert potential customers of his presence. The dustmen were employed to sweep the ashes from the grates of Georgian firesides, this was then collected, bagged and sold on to suburban market gardeners for use as fertilizer.

The dustman’s lot was one of grinding poverty and hard physical labour, with many rising well before dawn in order to start their rounds and covering tens of miles each day as they moved through the city, out to the suburbs and back again with their loads of ash. The frequent exposure to carcinogenic coal soot also meant that dustmen were highly susceptible to the dreaded ‘sooty wart’, an aggressive form of testicular cancer that would have ensured a great many of them never lived to see 30.

Rowlandson’s drawing reflects something of the poverty and grime that would have characterised the lives of his subjects. The mean-faced dustman and his filthy young assistant trudge through the streets in tattered clothing, their feet clearly visible through the remains of their boots. Their appearance is contrasted both by the clean and handsome features of the pretty young maid who leans out of the window above and the jolly little group standing around the coffee stall through the archway to the left.

The presence of the coffee stall, along with the lit lamp above the doorway, indicates that this is an early morning scene. Street vendors selling hot coffee and pieces of bread and butter were among the first traders to set up shop on London’s streets each day, with many opening well before dawn in order to catch market men and wagoners on their way to work. The presence of the smiling customers, evidently enjoying a joke with the matronly old stallholder, provides a brilliantly convivial counterpoint to the grimy figures in the foreground.

It is possible that this painting was originally one of a number of street scenes that Rowlandson produced in 1799 for the publisher Rudolph Ackermann. Ackermann had eight of these paintings engraved an published under the title of Cries of London, undoubtedly a deliberate spoof of Wheatley’s famous paintings. If this painting was originally part of that series then it’s contents evidently did not meet the fastidious publisher’s notoriously high standards, as it appears as though no printed edition was ever produced. 

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