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A Victorian Child Pavement Artist

From his unpublished Autobiography

James Carling as a boy with his bag of chalks: Liverpool, circ 1869

James William Carling (colourised) as a boy: Liverpool (circ 1869)

“………..Another of my favourite drawing places was in Ranelagh Street. Like James Street and the Exchange, Ranelagh St. was not free from the presence of the policeman. The last mentioned individual beat me from the crowding pavement and often tried to have me imprisoned for disregarding his warnings—but I laughed at his threats. I knew by practice I was too small to be incarcerated, for I was often arrested—mark it, a boy of six arrested for drawing pavement pictures—and taking their brutal beatings as a matter of course, I drew my pictures, preferring a bloody face and a bruised limb to inanition and death by starvation.

Acting on the principle of “root hog or die” I choose the spots where the possibility of being beaten was smallest and leaving the dangerous and fretful locality of St. Johns Market, I sauntered into Ranelagh St.

Ranelagh St. was rather a long looking street and as the policeman’s favourite stand was away towards the top end, I had lots of side streets to run into and warily asked the crowd at intervals “Is the Peeler comin” I was always able to circumvent the policeman and when he came down towards my line he always found that the bird had flown.

James Carling self-portrait as a child pavement artist; screeving at night outside a public house, Liverpool. (date unknown)

JAMES CARLING: self-portrait drawing as a child pavement artist; screeving at night outside a public house, Liverpool. (circ. 1869)

There was one disadvantage in steering clear of the Ranelagh St. official. The farther I got from the latter, the nearer I approached a neighbour of his in Bold St. and as the Bold Street policeman was a vindictive man, a fellow with the face of Sir Hudson Lowe, the jail-keeper of the great Corsican, he often exceeded his duty to harass me, the unsuspecting arab, trenched on the domain of the Ranelagh Street officer and giving me at four different periods four of the most brutal beatings I ever received, left his mark upon my mental camera as well as upon my body, and created a debt that redoubled with time, to be paid probably in this, possibly in the next world.

And now come my fit! I am about to describe a street associated with mournful recollections, a street whose history blackens in an instant the memories recalled of my native town, associated with a bitterness that wears the heart, a bitterness mingled with grief and pain. I entwine it with all that is bad and nothing that is good, with insulted poverty and supercilious wealth, with defiant republicanism and triumphant aristocracy, with all that I hate and abhor in the social system of my title—loving land. BOLD STREET, like Bryon’s Cintra, my heart sickens at your name!

And well it might, for I not only could not draw in that street I could not walk in it. Nor was I an exception to the rule. All poorly dressed boys were interdicted from it. The sight of a ragged coat was enough to bring the harsh “Move on!” or, what was worse, the more brutal application of the staff. Ah! You will say—“He’s been treated so once and makes more of the thing than it deserves” but spare me those criticisms.

People prone to look upon the surface (and even the best judges of character, keenest of observers never see the life below the lower classes when occupying a niche or two above the class they  would seek to hear about) are in utter ignorance concerning the desperate lives of the ragged children around them. They imagine because their accents are rough and their habits typical of the boxing den that their poverty and neglect of person are attributable to their innate ignorance and their natural depravity—but let one of them state that it is not their vulgarity. Refine and tone the boisterous gamin, give him the chances that your delicate aristocrats have, and the boy that dips his head in the mud for ha’penniers is not only the equal of your Norman descended scions but by the law of the fittest and the rule of the future, his superior in theory as well as in practice, and I know it!

Alas for them, they have no champions; none have ever drawn the sword in defence of the prodigy in rags. His brain develops in an iron mask, no room nor show for the poverty stricken genius. Others with lesser minds usurp the place of the natural nobility and the bright sons of the streets cut off in a land where talents are smothered, sink down like the sun in the shadow of poverty and crime.

Yet they shall be heard from in the bye and bye. This narrative—a still small voice, may herald the thunders of a future race and I launch this book like an old bottle upon the waters—to read when I am gone, when I have fretted my busy hour and am seen no more.”

The Words of James William Carling

Originally published in THE RAVEN (The James Carling illustrations of Edgar Allan Poe) 1982.

By kind permission of James Carling’s grandniece- Patricia Rose

Crowds gathering on BOLD STREET, Liverpool for The James Carling Competition 2011

Crowds gathering on BOLD STREET, Liverpool for the 3rd James Carling Competition 2011 (Photo: Derek Hyamson)

James Carling is an important figure in the history of popular art; to date, he is the earliest and the FIRST pavement artist to be fully documented, with his life history recorded from birth to death. As a child, he created something from nothing in an epic struggle against the grinding poverty of Victorian England; only to rise above his circumstances, and eventually make a successful career as a travelling artist in the USA.

Annually, his life & times are celebrated in his birth town of Liverpool, England with The James Carling International Pavement Art Competition. Taking place on Bold Street; the very street were, as James puts it “I not only could not draw in that street, I could not walk in it.”

The James Carling Competition: Professional and amateur pavement artists descend on Bold Street from around the world.

The James Carling Competition 2011: Professional and amateur pavement artists descend on Bold Street from around the world & the UK. (Photo: Philip Battle)


Written, transcribed and researched by Philip Battle

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