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A British Tradition.
Written and researched by Philip Battle
Pavement Artists: “Men and women spies who inconspicuously follow people in public.” From Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; a 1974 novel by John le Carré
Bristol graffiti artist BANKSY has made a career out of lampooning social values and institutions like the police & the armed forces. This kind of ‘guerrilla’ warfare fodder between the street artist and the powers-that-be is nothing new.
In Britain, pavement artists have been doing it for well over 100 years, and it would be a misconception to believe that all screevers just drew ‘pretty pictures’ on the pavements for public entertainment and gratuities. The most successful artists attracted the crowds (and the money) by creating pictorial lampoons on current events. This tradition of ‘mocking’ the establishment had been documented since at least the early 1800’s and long before television or the internet where ever dreamed of, the political pavement artist was king.
They often attracted large crowds of ‘street-passengers’ and would have look-outs, keeping an eye out for the ‘peelers’ (policemen) the big cities like London, Birmingham, Manchester & Liverpool attracted the largest crowds and the skilled screever could find their pockets bulging with pennies at the end of a successful days work.
Large crowds gathered quickly from small causes, and pavement artists would try to find an out-of-the-way spot, where the peelers would take time to find and disperse. They had to work fast and often the works were small in scale so that the message and theme was established quickly to attract passing trade. It was important to draw with rapidity; not with the rapidity of slovenliness, but with the rapidity of a genius in the choice of what became known as “fateful lines.” Screevers were ‘playing to the gallery’ of the common man (and woman) and would often mix satirical drawings of politicians, peelers & public figures with the prize fighters of the day. Crowds would cheer at the sight of a topical boxing match and laugh at the buffoonery of a comically drawn peeler. A politician involved in scandal and debauchery was fair game to the masses. A picture could talk a thousand words and in a world were poor people where largely illiterate, unable to read & write, the pavement artist was perfectly placed to convey a message to the ordinary folk. Outside the establishment and yet clever enough to be a self-taught drawer, they were frowned upon by the well-to-do who saw them as little more than ‘beggars’
The screever paid a heavy price if caught; the Peeler, often vindictive would march them off, away from the crowds, and give them a severe beating down a side street before carting them off to the gaols. It was a continual battle between police and screevers, who were classed as being little better than beggars, thefts and pickpockets, and often imprisoned and under the same new 1834 poor law; they were sent to workhouses designed to “rid the streets of beggars and vagrants” and “prevent scroungers” and “screevers” from littering the streets.
Liverpool pavement artist JAMES CARLING offers a nice insight to the world of the Victorian screever when he describes his brothers; Willy, Johnny and Henry as “rollicking street artists,” who became “political lampooners of the municipal government”….they were the kings of the street Arabs! If the screever had no look-out they would ask the crowds at intervals “Is the Peeler coming?” and pick a place with lots of side streets to disappear down. James Carling recalled the 24th of December 1865 (Christmas Eve) when he had been out all day drawing on Elliot Street, Liverpool to make some Christmas money, towards the end of the day he moved to Lime Street and posted a chum as a look-out for the peelers. He began drawing a comical caricature of a policeman in the style of his brother Johnny when he was suddenly jerked to his feet by a Peeler, beaten and hustled off to Cheapside Jail where he spent Christmas Eve before being ordered to spend six years in St. Georges Industrial School. Political street cartoonists where barely tolerated by the Victorian authorities but they spoke to the ordinary folk who rewarded them with ‘coppers’ for their efforts.
On the July 17, 1841 the first edition of Punch Magazine was published and the political and satirical cartooning of the streets was now taken into the realms of the printed page.
Times where changing and by the turn of the century stern Victorian values had given way to a more liberal Edwardian society, change was afoot, women where becoming organised, demanding the vote and pavement artists became a pictorial poor man’s newspaper of world events; part escapism, part social commentary. It would be wrong to view the screever as a ‘victim of circumstance’, a poor man’s artist just eking out a living on the margins of society. It’s true that some did fall into this category, but for many it was a lifestyle choice, the chance to be admired daily by thousands of passers-by and to be remunerated to create art in a public place. Although they were regarded as beggars by the authorities, this was far from the truth, while some ‘chancers’ did beg and pray upon peoples charitable natures, most of the true artists, the good ones, entered into an unspoken ‘trade’ between screever and viewer; “if you like my work and you can spare a copper then please do so” rarely did a screever hold out his hand asking people for money. As with any other form of busking, this was a fair exchange; I’ve beautified the pavements for your enjoyment and if you appreciate it then gratuities would be welcome. The deal was mutually understood, but there would always be ‘chancers’ and scam merchants looking to ‘cash in’ on a successful artists pitch.
In 1906, E. V. Lucas gave this wonderful account in his guide book: A WANDERER IN LONDON. It describes a screeving pitch around St. Martin’s in the Field, just off Trafalgar Square: “The pavements to the north & south used to be the canvas of two very superior “screevers” –as men are called who make pastel drawings on paving stones. London has fewer “screevers” than it used, and latterly I have noticed among such of these artists as remain a growing tendency to bring oil paintings (which may or may not be their own work) and lean them against the wall, supplying themselves only the minimum of scroll work beneath. To such go no pennies of mine—unless of course the day is dripping wet. On dry pavement the “screever” must show us his pictures in the making: they must like hot rolls, be new every morning. We will have no scamping in this art.”
Political pavement art was still popular in Edwardian Britain, the above cartoon was published in Punch Magazine in 1913; featuring two pavement artists discussing why one seems more popular than the other. With the ‘off duty’ artist suggesting that lampooning politicians of the day will bring “Tremenjus Bisniss”
By 1907 the Suffragette movement had discovered the power of street art to support and further their political aims. Difficult to control and outside the social ‘establishment’ temporary pavement art became a key tactic to announce meetings, raise funds and gain popular support for the Woman’s Suffrage movement. Lady artists would take over pitches pronouncing “Votes For Woman” and “Spare a Penny for the WSPU” (Woman’s Social and Political Union)
The above cartoon, published in Punch 1914 gives a nice satirical slant on the Suffragette movement and pavement art, the illustration refers to another tactic used by more the extremist ladies to destroy works of art with the attack upon the VELASQUEZ Venus.
The First World War was fast approaching and the political landscape of Britain would never be the same again……the high water-mark of British political screeving was over; more important things were afoot!