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England’s first Lady Pavement Artist
Ever since I discovered the story of Alice Geneviève Coleman, I’ve been intrigued to find out more. There are very few people who can truly be considered the first or a pioneer in their field, but Alice is one of those rare individuals who ‘paved the way’ and saw the future for pavement art. Not just to be considered a ‘beggars art’ but as a serious art form within its own right.
Alice’s great dream was to travel the world through her art, something that’s taken for granted in today’s world-wide pavement art movement; but back in London, in the late 1800’s this was unheard of!
Alice was London’s first ever documented lady pavement artist. The very idea of a respectable lady, on all fours “begging for alms” in return for little chalk drawings on the streets of London was a shock to conservative Victorian England. Her antics predated the lady suffragette Chalkers by over 20 years.
Alice was born in London in 1874 and christened Alice Geneviève Temple. Her first love was the theatre, and in her early teens she joined a touring theatre group, where she met her husband, a fellow performer and acrobat Robert Coleman. They married in 1891 and set up home at 175 Bransford Street, Kensington. By 1901 they had three children (Maud, Alice and Mal)
According to Alice “My father and mother were both in the theatrical profession, and early in life I was left to the charge of my grandmother, with whom I lived until I left school at the age of 14, when I obtained a situation as a clerk to a neighbouring butcher, and soon after fell in love with a travelling acrobat; but my grandmother objecting to my marrying anyone connected with the profession followed by my parents, I was sent away to some friends residing a little distance from London. This, however, proved useless, and at the age of 17 I was married and joined my husband in his performances.”
Of course an actor’s life is not always a happy one, and as of today, is often low paid and intermittent work. By 1897, her husband Robert was forced to give up his job as an acrobat, due to ill health, and began work as a pavement artist, indeed Robert stated his full time profession on the 1901 census as being “pavement artist”
As Alice herself stated in 1897 “I was always very fond of drawing when at school, and took great interest in my husband’s artistic work, so that when he became too ill to go out, and it became necessary for me to do something to keep the wolf from the door”
Alice became such an unusual sight on the streets of London that she soon became a celebrity in her own right, and was featured in all the major publications of the day. She even became a tourist attraction, with her image being printed on thousands of postcards. In 1909, she won first prize in the world’s first ever recorded pavement art competition at Fun City, Olympia.
By 1911, Alice and family had moved to a tiny two roomed house at 48 Matilda Street, Islington. By this time Robert was described as a “scene painter” probably casual work in and around London Theatre land. Alice had five children by 1911, but only one, (Maud) had survived. Childhood mortality was high at the turn of the century.
Her husband Robert died on the 1st July 1914 at the early age of 50. Alice carried on as a pavement artist and performer well into middle age. At 47, she remarried Walter Henry Oxley on the 10th August 1921.
Alice died in Islington, London on the 31st January 1934, she was aged 60. Like all pavement artists, she was forgotten; her work was considered to lowly to record.
But not today; I’m pleased to have found Alice, and presented her story to you, here for the first time. Alice’s dream was to travel the world and for her art to be recognised…..in a way, through the power of the internet, she has.
Written & researched by Philip Battle