Written by Philip Battle.
You have to be careful if you make a statement about history, that you have the source material, reference and dates to back it up. Putting a statement in print (or in a blog) that has very little bases in fact will always come back to haunt you. One of the reasons I started this blog was to dispel some common myths about pavement art.
One of those magical myths is that the art-form all but ‘died out’ during both the world wars. IT DIDN’T!
Postcard published by The Photochorom Co. Ltd (cir. 1915)
World War I
Back in the 18th and 19th century, pavement artists (Screevers) had to compete with a myriad of dancing bears, street potters, Irish girl gypsy dancers, puzzle men and all manner of street entertainers, vagabonds, singers, urchins and con-merchants, all vying to ‘lighten the load’ of the foot passenger. Through thick & thin; of all the ‘street-arts’ that crowded the Victorian pavements, the Screevers were kings. In their favour, they rarely begged or asked people directly for money and were mostly silent in their work. On the whole, the authorities in Britain where fairly tolerant towards the pavement artist. The only request from the police is that they didn’t block the public highway and cleaned their pitch at the end of the day. Although still officially classed as beggars, they would be arrested, and even beaten up from time to time. An enlightened and tolerant attitude in certain parts of the capital, ensured that pavement art survived through the good times and the bad. By 1911, it was estimated that over 500 artists where making a full-time living on the streets of London alone.
Pavement Art continued to thrive unabated, during both World Wars.
By 1913 and in the lead up to the First World War, The suffragettes had discovered the benefits screeving to further their ‘Votes for Women’ campaign (Related blog!). Pavement artists had become popular tourist attractions around London and became the subjects of postcard publications.
Postcard published by Judges Ltd., Hastings, East Sussex (cir. 1914)
Screeving by Night!
War with Germany was declared on the 28th July 1914. Two weeks prior to the declaration and postmarked 11th July 1914 at 2.15pm, night screever ‘BERT’ sent the above postcard to his friend, Fred Bruce of Victoria Road, Bristol. He writes; “Dear Fred, I have taken a stand on the embankment doing my art. My photo is on the other side….Bert.” In this famous photo taken by Fred Judge, you can see Bert, sat under a street lamp on the Thames Embankment at night. Screeving by night was a popular activity and many artists would light their own pitch using candles or oil lamps. This was outlawed by the summer of 1916 due to the blackout orders, following German Zeppelin air raids over London.
This charming insight to Night Screeving was published on 1st August 1916:
As HAS been before remarked, the only way in which the war has affected the London pavement artist, beyond to a certain extent changing the character of his pictures, is in the matter of his night exhibitions. Not a great many artists, at any time, it is true, ever resorted to this expedient. One of the great advantages of the calling, and indeed its prime attraction, is the fact that when therein employed a man is his own master. He goes to work when he pleases and “knocks off” when he pleases. And so pavement artists are not, as a body, accustomed to work long hours. It is all a matter of patronage. Sometimes when some public function brings a crowd past his pitch, trade will be brisk; at other times, when some public function draws the crowd another way, trade will be slow, and the circle of delicate green with “Thank You” scrolled around it, will long remain empty save for the “penny of encouragement.”
But about night exhibitions. It has been said that they were not common, and that is true enough: but when they did occur, with their row of lighted candles standing in bottles of all shapes and sizes, they constituted a notable attraction. Even the candles by themselves would be undoubtedly deserving of patronage. Lighted candles are always cheerful things, but who could resist a row of them on the pavement at night, throwing strange shadows on the passer-by. It is all over for the present, however. The lighting orders have put a stop to it and the pavement artist does not now exhibit at night.
There was, however, one pavement artist in London who never exhibited at any other time than at night. He never troubled about candles. He would get near an arc light, and it might seem at first that it was the shading of the arc light that caused him to cease from his labours, for he has for some time ceased from them. Evidence, however, flows in from many quarters to show that he had other reasons. Now, he was a very unusual pavement artist. Indeed, it is a question whether any old-established pavement artist would admit that he was one. He absolutely departed from all tradition. Most pavement artists, for instance, those at any rate with any settled position, have a dignified number of summers and winters go by: this one could not have seen many more than twelve or thirteen all told. Then he never drew the same picture twice, a shameless departure. He, moreover, always drew as if he just could not help it. It mattered nothing to him whether people looked on or not, or whether they could see or not: once he got into a real battle picture, everything else and everybody was forgotten. With a strange certainty of touch, he outlined horse and man and gun, shells bursting all around, and hilltops wreathed in smoke. His hand could not move fast enough for him. His eyes sparkled, and all the time he murmured to himself the astonishing history of it all. “And then ‘e sez, Charge! And they charges.” And sure enough they are charging, all of them.
It was not a finished picture. The real pavement artist, ever a critic of a brother’s work, could have pointed to a hundred shortcomings, but no one with a discerning eye for the spark of genius would have passed it by. Night after night, at one time, at the same street corner, under the same lamp, he would make his appearance, brush away, with every sign of impatience, any remains of the work of the night before, and then, without any copy or outward inspiration of any kind, plunge straightway into the making of some great masterpiece. And now, maybe, it is a naval battle—dreadnoughts, cruisers, torpedo boats: submarines on the surface making cautious reconnaissance, and submarines below the surface in the act of torpedoing battleships. Great doings above water, shells again bursting everywhere, ships sinking at extravagant angles, all accompanied by the same whispered commentary. “An’ Jellyco, ‘e sez. At ‘em lads, again! An’ they goes at ‘em again accordin’.”
And now for the evidence that it was not the shading of the arc light that stopped him. In the first place, he had made his appearance for quite some time after the lights were shaded. His demeanour, moreover, at all times showed that so long as he had light to draw by, he did not care whether anyone could see his work or not. Finally, when the evenings began to draw out, even when summertime came in and it was light up to 10 o’ clock, he did not come. One moonlight night not long ago, however, afforded the explanation. A small, familiar figure, dressed with strange, unwonted neatness, appeared round the corner by the arc light. He had a sketchbook under one arm, and a drawing board under the other, and as he paused irresolutely and looked down on the scene of so many wonderful efforts. Suddenly, without any warning, the drawing board and the sketchbook were placed against the wall. With eager haste he produced from his pocket a piece of chalk, and was just kneeling down, evidently to perpetrate something priceless, when, in a moment, all was changed. Resolutely the chalk was replaced, the drawing board and sketchbook taken up, and without one single backward look he walked away, and disappeared into the darkness.
Published in The Christian Science Monitor: 1st August 1916.
Postcard published by TUCK & Sons, London (cir. 1917)
The First World War ended on the 11th November 1918 and the postcard above of a pavement artist outside the Tower of London was published in 1917 and posted in 1918, just one month before the end of the war. It was the very last postcard to be published featuring The Screevers of World War I.
I’ll be doing a follow-up to this blog on the Screevers of World War II shortly.
Research and source material by Philip Battle