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Pavement Artists of the Night
Some peoples only experience of pavement art through the night is by seeing the 24 hour Madonnari festivals in Italy or the USA. But in Britain, pavement art by night (Night Screeving) has a long tradition, with some reports going back as far as the 1700’s; its origins are lost in time.
The following report from the London Daily News (Sat. 23rd August 1851); Letter to the Editor: On the Camberwell Fair, London, gives a remarkable insight into night screeving and the world of the 19th century pavement artist;
…..Night closes in, and then “the fun” begins in earnest-yells, shrieks, loud laughter, shrill whistling, oaths and ribald jests fill the air. Dense clouds of black smoke rise from the steaming mass of human beings, gas, oil, gingerbread, and candles. Swings cut the thick dark atmosphere, in the distance; discordant music clashes in every direction…… Here, too, you will find congregated the expert metropolitan beggars-the maimed sailor, the shirtless man, the disconsolate widow; and, more remarkable than any other class of beggar, the street artist, with the head of the Saviour drawn upon the pavement, and surrounded with candles. Of the utter confusion and abandonment of the scene, only a spectator can have an idea. Here the most abandoned specimens of both sexes meet to make their holiday.
It is safe to assume that this scene, with night (and day) screevers, had been repeated at fairs & festivals across London & Britain, for many years; indeed, the first proper pavements arrived in The Strand, London in 1442, and ‘screevers’ (pavement artists) were first mentioned in parliamentary papers as early as 1651.
The notorious Camberwell Fair was held on Camberwell Green. The first recorded fair was in 1272 and continued to flaunt its animated revelry and apparently disreputable celebrations until finally; in 1855 the fair was abolished and designated a public park four years later.
From the Charles Dickens book CHRISTMAS STORIES (1867) “Our conversation had brought us to a crowd of people, the greater part struggling for a front place from which to see something on the pavement, which proved to be various designs executed in coloured chalks on the pavement stones, lighted by two candles stuck in mud sconces”
Illustration above: A crowd admires a drawing on a paving stone in the street lit by a lamp by an itinerant artist; published in ‘Once a Week’, NS.III 1869 p.34 Wood-engraving
In Victorian England, wintertime was probably the best season to screeve. Many people would give alms from motives of pity, seeing a poor bedraggled pavement artist working on the cold flagstones in the bitter winter. They were always thinly clad, and shivered dramatically, with frequent interruptions of rain and snow….it was during these long dark evenings, that night screevers, with their works illuminated by candles or homemade oil lamps were a common sight on the streets of London and other major cities across Britain.
In Liverpool, the boy pavement artist James William Carling, even painted a portrait of himself, screeving outside a Liverpool alehouse by night, lit by candles.
With the introduction of the new-fangled ‘Arc Street Lamps’ on the Thames Embankment; by 1881, this quickly became a favourite spot for night screevers who wished to save on the price of candles, and set themselves up under the shadow of free illuminations. The Embankment became a mecca for screevers, both by night and by day.
Night screevers were a breed apart from their daytime cousins, although some did work by both day and night, some choose only to work at night and their numbers where smaller. They were a sub culture within a subculture, and of course working by night was not without its dangers. Many were the subjects of extortion rackets by criminal gangs, robberies and even murder.
1914 and the coming of World War I saw the end of night screeving completely; it carried on until 1916, after which it became outlawed due to the blackout laws in London, and following the first German Zeppelin air-raids of 1915. The arc lights were extinguished at dusk, and it became illegal to light candles……although the odd night screever had been seen periodically in London right up to the 1950’s. This unique culture, of pavement art by night, which had existed for over 150 years in Britian was now gone.
Written & Researched by Philip Battle
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