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PART TWO of London “Buskers & Screevers”
Once an everyday sight, the crouched artist chalking his pictures at the feet of passers-by is vanishing from London’s pavements, squeezed out by such hazards as harassment by “protection” racketeers and inflation. But a few still remain on the city’s traditional plum sites.
DIANA WINSOR talked to the best-known of them and caught a glimpse of the picturesque world of the “screever”
“We used to draw a folded pound note on the pavement outside the National Gallery. People would come and put a foot on it, and then bend down and pretend to tie their shoelace, and try to pick it up. But mostly I do the head of Christ.”
Bob Hanley is a thin whippet of a man who has been drawing the head of Christ, along with Che Guevara, Harold Wilson and a small Scotsman called The Wembley Haggis, on London pavements for the past 15 years. At 39 he is one of the youngest, and one of the last, of the uneasy fraternity of pavement artists who survive on the Embankment, at Marble Arch and along the Bayswater Road, and on the best pitch in London – under the statue of Henry Irving behind the National Portrait Gallery. “I did the Wembley Haggis for the Scots when they came down for the football – they’re some of the most generous, the Scots. And that landscape there—that’s really three profiles of Christ, hidden in the mountains and the rocks, because although he must have been like a pop star in a way, he was an earthy man and part of nature. I’ve done him as a candle, too, with rocks, clouds, people, Crucifixion, all melting into each other.”
Pavement artists are disappearing from London. Chancers, the summer students earning a few quid, will always come and go, but the true screevers—like the one George Orwell met when he was Down and Out in London—have almost all gone. Henry Mayhew first mentioned the word “screever” for a pavement artist in his book London Labour and the London Poor in 1851—also meaning one who wrote begging letters for a living.
Some have died, some have gone on to better things, like Bob Hanley: his small hairy cartoon tramps and trolls became Carnaby Street motifs a couple of years ago and began to decorate ashtrays and polythene bags from here to San Francisco. At one time, drawing various cartoons under different names for several entrepreneurs from Lord Kitchener’s Valet et al, he found himself asked to sue himself for plagiarism. But despite a continuing income from cartoons, he still works on the pavement, sending his wife or friends out to sell drawings of London. The entanglements of business he finds as threatening as prison bars. He is still acknowledged as the best screever around by those that remain. But of those, some are too old, like “Old Jock”, Peter Bassett, who can only rarely do his animals and rivers at the Irving statue.
Others, like Raoul de Parrys, bearded like a prophet, with visionary blue eyes, and Brian Mitchell, who has been doing A Winter Scene so often he does it automatically now, are finding times hard. Money is tight, the small-scale protection rackets run by winos around Leicester Square are tougher, and there is less pity for an old screever in a welfare state.
“You could earn £50 a week in the 1960’s,” remembers Bob Hanley. “Now it’s hard to average £20. And the materials are more expensive, chalks and pastels as much as 20p a stick, maybe £2 a picture. And you have to prepare the pavement, to make the colours really rich. I used to pinch the sugar from Lyons Corner House and mix it with water, but that wasn’t much good, so I bought decorators’ size and rubbed that on. People try to pick the pictures off the pavement sometimes thinking they’re stuck on, because you work the chalk into the paving, stroking it into the cracks, using the wrinkles.”
Paving stones have never been exploited by the Greater London Council; but at Glenrothes, in Scotland, 20th-century Scots poems have been cast into slabs and set into the pavements beside bus stops, telephone kiosks and park benches by the town artist David Harding. Not, however in London.
Bob Handley is married; few screevers are. He is passively unresisting against his determined young Irish wife, Marie, who succeeded in getting the family rehoused by the GLC in a flat off the Kennington Road. They have two small children. It was Marie who found Bob a studio at the International Art Centre near the Elephant and Castle, and who sells his drawings for him because he hates selling his own work, cajoling him into respectability. But he is as out of place among the uncut moquette and toddlers’ toys of domesticity as the painted wooden figure of Sir Thomas More which stands in a corner, one of his few possessions.
“I would like to be free,” he muses; he was born in Belfast and his accent is still faintly Northern Irish, a bony dreamer from the back-streets from which he ran away when he was nine. “With pavement work, you can be alone, not selling anything, joining the crowd if you want to.”
Like all of them, he started working on the pavement because it was the simplest way of earning money. “I’d left the RAF and met up with a group of people at a bar in the Tottenham Court Road—people like Donovan and Long John Baldry were around then, in 1960. We were living around derelict houses, sharing money. An old Jew, a pavement artist, wanted to do my portrait, so I said I’d have a go at him for half-a-crown—he had that kind of nose, I did it in one line. He had a pitch, so I started off with him, and made about 15 shillings a day.”
When his cartoons were noticed by entrepreneurs from Carnaby Street, he began to depend less on pavement work. But he is still part of the world of those that remain, like Brian Mitchell, who lived with him then, and now works on his old pitch under the Irving statue.
“We were all together in the Sixties, Bob and me and the rest—about eight of us used to work around the National Gallery, graded, from the best downwards. It was good then. But later the competition got cut-throat.”
Brian Mitchell is 45, but looks older: the archetypal screever, ferociously unkempt, bearded and pigtailed, although his watery eyes and small red mouth gives a glimpse of a smile as mild and elusive as a mouse in a hedge. An American leans forward to drop 10p in the box. In his clean transatlantic face is some perplexity; is this some free Bohemian to whom passports mean nothing, or a squalid anachronism from Victorian London thrown in with the package tour? To what Orwellian doss house does he go at night?
Brian Mitchell goes to a room near the Oval at night. Once he was in advertising, and went home to a wife and two children in Peckham.
“I was born in Gillingham, and my father was the manager of a shop there. I went into advertising from school.” He is chalking A Country Scene; he has not been back to the country for seven years. “It was a worrying job, advertising, pressure and harassment. Then after five years my wife walked out and left me with the children.”
When his parents died, the children were taken into care. The house in Peckham became a burden; he took to walking round the West End and Soho, met Bob Handley, and shared a room with him in Berwick Street. He began working on the pavement, the bounds of his life set in anonymity from the Embankment to Marble Arch, from the Sussex pub in St Martin’s Lane to a room near the Oval.
“A lot of people look down on me—think I’m a tramp. But some people are envious. The future can take care of itself for me, and I have given up worrying. I average £5 a day, working all through the winter—more at weekends. Unless it rains; I can work when I like, some mornings you get on the pitch early, in the summer, and work all day, but in the winter I often don’t start till around lunchtime. There’s always more trade in the afternoons. I read a lot; I haven’t got television, but I’ve got sufficient for my needs. I don’t need to go to social security. I drink, but I stick to beer—rum, maybe, in the winter if it’s cold. And I’ve got friends.”
Originally published in The Daily Telegraph Magazine (21st May 1976)
Written by Diana Winsor / Photos by Pat Keene
Researched and edited by Philip Battle
Read my related blog: Buskers & Screevers (1968)