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The original screever!
Pavement art in Britain has a different lineage from our continental neighbours; long before the drawing of chalk pictures, street artists started writing messages on the pavement such as “I am Starving” and “Please help me out” they were nicknamed the writers of begging letters or “screevers” to give them their proper title.
The word Screever or SCRIVENER is thought to date back to Elizabethan times; meaning ‘to write’ or ‘a person who could read and write’ and originates from the Anglo-French escrivein, ultimately from Vulgate Latin *scriban-, scriba, alteration of Latin scriba (as scribe).
After a long period of time, these writings became more elaborate; decorated copperplate lettering gave way to pictorial representations of the messages, and in time the art superseded the writings and pavement art was born.
Art works would be accompanied by poems & proverbs; lessons on morality and political commentary on the day’s events. They were described as “producing a topical, pictorial newspaper of current events.” And that’s exactly what they did. They appealed to both the working man and woman, who (on the whole) could not read or write, but understood the visual images; and the educated middle-classes who appreciated the moral lessons and comments. It was important for a screever to catch the eye of the ‘well to do’ and in turn attract the pennies.
But at the end of the day pavement artists were still writing begging letters, appealing to public sympathy or trying to catch the eye with a whimsical quip or moral tale.
A popular way of doing this was to describe your own story; In 1952, war veteran George Hurd, at his pitch outside the National Portrait Gallery wrote in perfect copperplate “I’m an ex-solider, who served in 1914 and 1939, and discharged on account of epileptic fits” alongside his screeving, George displayed his war medals attached to a piece of cardboard.
In 1946, while at his pitch on the Earles Court Road, Stoker Smith wrote; “I am a British seaman and this is all my work. I did not think I’d come to this, I was never one to shirk but now my heart has come unhinged and it’s hanging round my neck. So kind friends, don’t pass me by now I’ve become a wreck. Three times I have been shipwrecked; I did not mind those knocks and then I’ve been torpedoed and now I’m on the rocks. Thanking-you” and then he added “21 years service and no pension”
As well as being a great social history postcard, this unknown artist from 1912 had a story to tell…the artist has written in the bottom left hand corner “entirely drawn with my left hand” and you’d be forgiven in thinking that this was the work of a left handed artist, but on closer inspection it tells a different story….one of the screevings state; “these are entirely drawn with my left hand…..having lost the use of my right hand through being struck by lightning, not once but twice” no wonder why he attracted such a large crowd of admirers.
For every screever, there is always a story to tell.
Written & researched by Philip Battle
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