The report of an undercover Victorian journalist
In the first place, perhaps it would be as well, before relating what befall me in that capacity, if I state for the benefit to the uninitiated what a “scriever” is.
He is what is known as a “pavement artist,” a “gutter cartoonist,” and an “artist in chalk”—in fact, he is the individual who draws in vivid crayons views by moonlight, wrecks at sea, iridescent mackerel, and very salt rashers of bacon on the flagstones of the London thoroughfares.
This description of nomadic artist is what is known as a “scriever.”
Amateurs, journalistic and otherwise, have made inroads in various walks of life, such as selling matches, singing songs, “busking,” driving cabs, and otherwise, the fashion having been set by the “amateur casual” many years since; but I venture to think that, until I did it, no one had ever invaded the secrets of the flagstone draughtsman.
Having made up my mind to become a “scriever” for the time being namely, a day—my first task was to settle my “pitch,” or stand. This was a somewhat difficult matter; for, while I did not aspire to too public a position, for fear my friends should be passing and recognize me, still I did not yearn after a situation where I should reign unseen—and possibly unappreciated, not to say unremunerated. The main thoroughfares, I found, all had their artists, the Hampstead, Bayswater, and Euston roads being closed, with many other desirable locations, to me as a consequence. At last, after a few days of walking, I fixed upon a position which, I thought, would suit my purpose admirably, and which, while hardly so public as to bring me in as many coppers as I might have desired, was yet sufficiently private to save me from my friends—and a man needs to be saved from those same at times.
Illustration from “London’s Byways & Highways” 1902
Having selected my pitch, which was in front of the garden railings of a second-rate West end square, the name of which, for obvious reasons, I must withhold, I trusted to the good offices of Robert the Policeman not to interfere with me, and habited in an old suit of clothes, which had been carefully patched, I, one Saturday morning, took up my position and proceeded to dust the canvas—I mean the stones.
I then laid out an old cap with which I had provided myself, and in which a varied assortment of pieces of chalk and crayon, of all colours, far more than any I was likely to call into requisition, were carelessly arranged, and at once proceeded to open my shop by drawing the pictures which were to attract my patrons. This I found a fairly easy, and not altogether an unpleasant, task, though I had some difficulty in deciding as to what subjects I should decorate the pavement with.
I had no wish to try my hand on the mouse nibbling a candle stuck in a ginger-beer bottle to the legend of “Bad times!” beneath; on the usual mackerel, or bacon, or portrait of the latest condemned murderer, with the legend that “Many can help one.” I eventually settled my subjects—which included three landscapes, a seascape, and a fancy ideal portrait, surrounded on the three sides with a bordering in the Greek key pattern. My work, which took me well on to twelve o’clock, finished, I put at one end “Pity the poor artist,” and at the other “I do this for a living,” placing myself and my cap near the former legend, and my box of tracks—I mean my cap of chalks—near the other, and then I anxiously awaited the inflow of coppers, and watched for the results and developments generally.
For the purpose of assisting my disguise I had allowed my whiskers and beard to grow for two or three weeks, and had also assumed a black long-haired wig, on the fashions affected by artists and violinists in old-world Bohemia, which I am pleased to say helped much to conceal my identity.
For the first two or three hours I had a fair number of visitors, though my remuneration for my labours had not exceeded ninepence, while the comments on my work had been varied, and not always complimentary. Thus one “horny-handed son of toil,” after intently surveying my drawings, expressed the opinion that “he had never seen a ship like that,” depicted in my seascape—which was probably true, though not in the sense he intended…..another remark I overheard was that “the poor bloke looks as though he was new to the game,” while sundry others suggested that I should get “my hair cut,” a suggestion which perhaps was not quite undeserved, although as the wig was only hired I was unable to carry it out.
The day wore on, and after I had been somewhat freely canvassed by the working men and women who passed my way on their way home at the end of the week’s toil, I began to get a few other visitors, such as those which were described by a crossing sweeper in my vicinity as “toft’s,” couples, married and otherwise, out for a stroll. The single couples were far more profitable to me than those who had entered the bonds of matrimony, the swain nearly always throwing me a copper with the air of possessing thousands a year, when probably his salary was a pound a week; so liberal is love before marriage.
My works, which I carefully dusted from time to time, were more or less freely criticised, for it must be admitted that the average pedestrian of the London streets is not at all backward in giving his opinion unasked not only of the pictures spread out on the pavement, but of the artist’s appearance, the remarks being outspoken, not to say personal; one gentleman, who had been imbibing at the statue of Bacchus, offering to “toss me for two shaves!”
By the time the shades of night had fallen I had taken, all told, one shilling and sevenpence halfpenny, and I was anxious to see what my evening visitors would be like, I proceeded to illuminate my premises, for which purpose I had provided myself with three candles. The wind unfortunately played some rude pranks with my candles, with the result that my pictures were seen under quivering and weird effects, and I found that my illuminations did not bring me much in the way of custom, as very few wayfarers stopped. I, however, kept at my “pitch” till half-past ten o’clock, when having taken another sevenpence-halfpenny, making two shillings and threepence for some thirteen hours, not a halfpenny of which had I received during the last hour and a half. I shut up my establishment by blowing out the lights and wiping out the pictures, and packing up my crayons and candles I took my way homeward.
On my way I “chummed in” with another artist of the pavement, and over a friendly pint I handed him my stock in trade, telling him I had retired therefrom as there was no money in it. I was told by my newly found professional companion that, save at holiday times, the takings seldom reached more than two shillings a day, except on Saturdays and in very busy thoroughfares, and in the middle of the week frequently came as low as sixpence.
Hence I can deduce that I had done very well indeed.
Published in The Pall Mall Gazette (Wednesday 5th December 1894)
Researched & transcribed by Philip Battle