THE ONLY ONE IN ENGLAND (at the time)
A fascinating in-sight into the life of a female pavement artist exactly 100 years ago:
My daily round (says Mrs Alice G. Colman, England’s only lady pavement artist), unlike that of many people, is not always the same. Sometimes it consists of sitting disconsolately at home wondering if the skies will ever clear again; sometimes it consists of nothing but wandering through the streets of London, in search of a suitable pitch.
There are over 300 male pavement artists in London, and most of them resent the intrusion of a woman into their ranks, so that time and time again I seek a favourite spot only to find huge initials chalked there. In the earlier days of my career I used to ignore these initials, and start work, but their owner invariably appeared and created a disturbance, so I have given up contesting my rights-the task is far too disagreeable.
REAL PHOTO postcard: Photo by Bob Thomas circ. 1912
My husband was a pavement artist long before I became one–though he really is a scene painter by trade, and in the days when we courted and married, against my grandmother’s wishes, was a travelling acrobat. It was when he was badly ill, and starvation was staring us in the face, that I first went out armed with his own chalks and knelt with shaking limbs to decorate, the flagstones at Brook Green, Hammersmith.
Fortunately, he is in better health now, and usually begins his daily round with mine. We breakfast at 9, and then, whatever the weather, so long as the pavements are dry, we set out–he, in one direction, I in another.
I carry my things in a little basket-my chalks, a mat to kneel on, a duster with which to obliterate the drawings at the end of the day, and a little metal plate in which to collect contributions.
Having found a vacant spot that looks promising enough (on my unlucky days this doesn’t happen till I have tramped about for hours), I take my mat from the basket, kneel upon it, and commence to draw.
I reckon to finish three pictures in about ten minutes, but between each picture I rest for a while-partly to relieve my fingers, partly to give the crowd which always gathers round a chance to reward me for my pains.
The crowd doesn’t always reward me, but it asks the most extraordinary questions, and gives me the most curious advice. In spite of the fact that I am a wife and mother, I have received no less than 10 proposals of marriage out on the pavement!
Usually I rub my “gallery” out of existence at twilight and wend my way home, satisfied or dissatisfied according to the amount of my takings (I have taken as much as 2s 4d in a day, and-alas! how much more often-as little as nothing!) But if the pitch is a profitable one I occasionally stay on, working and exhibiting my work in the light of the electric arc lamp till 9 and even 10 o’clock.
I have one meal-time during the day. Precisely at 2 o’clock I leave my pitch and my chalks to take care of themselves for half an hour, and resort to the nearest shop for something to eat.
Most pavement artists desert their pitches in this way, and it is only at very rare intervals that any of the chalks are stolen or any of the pictures spoiled. But we are careful not to disappear till 2 o’clock strikes, and the children are safely in school!
ACHES AND PAINS
Most people imagine that pavements are smooth, but, as a matter of fact, they are exceedingly rough; and, as I use my thumb and fingers, like different-sized paint-brushes, to tone and soften and spread the colours, I often go home with the blood oozing through the skin.
That means a soaking in salt and water to harden them, and sometimes a wakeful night through the pain, but aches and pains are part and parcel of a pavement artist’s life.
Generally I am so tired when I get home that I am glad to go to bed,, but on wet days, when my husband and I have been shut up indoors all day, we sometimes set off for the music-hall in the evening (if we can afford it). And there I study the scenery and the decorations quite as much as I do the performers, for one must always study even to be a woman pavement artist.
Published in the Northern Star (Australia) Saturday 8th June 1912
Researched & transcribed by Philip Battle
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