The John Tanswell Story
The hunting of the “Snark” must have been a simple affair compared with the running to earth of the “pavement artist.” The former was to by snared by a generous application of “cabbages and kings,” articles easy to obtain in these luxurious days, whatever they might have been when the Snark was in its prime.
But even a judicious use of the coin of the realm failed to call from the “vastly deep” of London’s mysteries the hitherto ubiquitous “screever,” as he is familiarly called upon his native heath, the East End.
It had seemed simple enough in the beginning. One had positively stepped upon pavement artists at work—when one didn’t require them. But when one among their number was desired all had, apparently, taken the alarm and disappeared.
Various specimens of the genus “screever” were tracked to their very lairs in an area extending from St. John’s Wood to Newington Causeway. But the nearest policeman on his beat, or bootblack on his “pitch,” had ever the depressing information that the quarry had been on the spot regularly for a month until the day before, though it would now be difficult to say when he might return.
The marks of coloured chalks were even aggravatingly en évidence, but the artist had vanished into that rarefied atmosphere where it would, seemingly, be easy for gentlemen in reduced circumstances to maintain themselves and families.
At length, having worn out several pairs of boots, and taken to a nerve tonic through the fruitlessness of the search, an ancient proverb was verified, and “What was long sought came when unsought.”
The unnamed Artist: photograph published in The Quiver 1898
There he sat, in the Uxbridge Road—a piece of sacking for a cushion—among the trophies of his art. He was a nice man—a man with a mild, kindly face, which beamed with becoming pride over paintings somewhat superior to those of his fraternity. He looked piteously cold, and his hand shook slightly as he sketched in a few details, obliterated in his very masterpiece by a flurry of rain.
There was but a scanty showing of coppers in the hat, suggestively placed on the pavement at his side, and when he glanced up to return thanks for a slight plenishment of his exchequer I saw that he was blind in one eye.
He was a trifle suspicious at first over the idea of being “interviewed for a paper,” evidently suspecting me of mysterious designs upon his future happiness and well-being; while as for having his portrait done, he would not hear of anything so contrary to modesty. However, he was won over at last, and even warmed to the undertaking.
“Well, yer see,” he informed me, with a soft, rich Warwickshire accent, which, as I learned later, had lasted him twenty years, and which I dare not try to express on paper; “it ain’t so queer you shouldn’t o’ found one on us afore. Thur’s on’y about thutty men does pavement-paintin’, an’ we’re all moved off to new pitches purty often by the bobbies. Some on ‘em’s nice chaps an’ lets us alone, if we don’t take up much room wi’ our bits o’ things; but, agin, some on ‘em jist waits till we gets our work done, an’ then orders us to go. It’s ‘ard, that is, fur chalks come expensive w’en yer ain’t got much capital to buy ‘em with.”
“Have you more or less acquaintance with your twenty-nine brother artists?” I inquired.
“Bless yer, no; I don’t hold no communication wi’ ‘em whatever”—with rather a haughty air of denial; “but I know wot ‘appens ter me, an’ I ‘ears talk o’ the rest. Besides, our lives runs about the same, from one end o’ Lunnon t’ the other. I’ve ‘ad a goodish lot o’ pitches in my day; but I’m mostly ‘ere, or up Kensington Gardens way.”
1890 Glass lantern slide: London Screever on the Thames
“Have you been at this sort of thing long?” I questioned, pointing to the moonlit views of lighthouses on unsalable rocks and gorgeous sunsets, after Turner (a long way after!), in streaks of red and yellow.
“Seventeen year,” he replied, sighing a little—but it was not a sigh intended as a bid for sympathy. “I ain’t a Lunnon man, ter begin with. I was a Warwichshire lad, an’ used ter drive flour to mill, with so many as three horses. But w’en I’d grown up, nothin’ would do but I must see Lunnon, so I come, an’ soon got a job carrin’ a hod. I seed a young ‘ooman about that time as I wanted to marry, but she ‘and’t no more ‘n’ said ‘Yes’ when I falls off a scaffoldin’, an’, beside breakin’ m’self up considerable, puts hout one eye. I was tuk to an’ ‘ospital in Warwik Lane, an’ they was very good t’ me there, but fur six months I was helpless. W’en I could crawl about I tried t’ git work, but thur wasn’t many things I could do anymore; an’ w’en I was gittin’ discouraged I used ter see fellers paintin’ on the pavement, their own bosses. I’d never drawn none, but I practised up, and by-‘n’-by I could do as well as the other chaps, if not a bit better ‘n some.
“My gal was willin’ ter risk marryin’ me, an’ the vicar o’ our parish, as good a gent as ever lived, guv me five shillin’ fur m’ license, an’ six more ter set up stock wi’, ‘E’s dead an’ gone now, so I shouldn’t loike yer t’ put his name in print. It might look irrev’rent, y’ see.”
“Have you any children?” I ventured.
He looked down wistfully at his work-grimed hands. “They ‘m done wi’ me,” he said. And then we changed the subject.
“You must find it cold, sitting all day on the pavement in this weather?” I hastily said.
“That it is!” he responded. “but I wouldn’t mind if it weren’t for th’ rheumatics, w’ich I ‘ave had. The rain was n’ cold, though it rubs off the chalks, an’ nobody ain’t goin’ ter stop an’ look at my work w’en they’re hurryin’ home out o’ the wet. Now, th’ snow’s diff’runt; it makes folks good-natured, but it ain’t, so ter say, comfortable for me.”
London Screever Lantern Slide cir. 1888
“Do you manage to make a fair living out of your—er—profession?” I asked.
Mr John Tanswell, of 4, St. Clement’s Road, shrugged his bent shoulders.
“Well, ‘taint’t a life o’ luxury fur none on us,” he rejoined. “The best days—jest two or t’ree a year, in fine weather—never fetch more ‘n half-a-crown. Some days I sits here from morin’ till dark, an’ don’t git a penny. I ‘as plenty o’ time to think, an’ I bets ter myself on th’ people, as I sees ‘em comin’ torrards me, w’ether they’ll have a copper fur m’ work of no. Times, they’ll stop an’ make fun o’ m’ picters, an’ go on wi’ their pockets shut up. But they don’t t’ink what a penny or two ‘d be ter me, tain’t loikely.”
“If everybody who passed thought your exhibition worthy of a halfpenny, you’d do very well, I suppose,” said I.
“Bless you, of every tenth one did I’d t’ink m’self rich!” he exclaimed. “But it’s a bad day w’en I don’t take in leastways a sixpence,” he added.
“And you support yourself and wife on what you earn?”
“I does me best. But th’ wife had a stroke fourteen months ago, an’ can’t do no more ‘n move about th’ room—th’ on’y one we ‘as, of course. We pays t’ree-an’-six a week fur that, an’ we don’t ‘ave nothin’ left fur theatres. We don’t see no coals all winter long, but we keeps from freezin’, an’ does our cookin’ wi’ a bit o’ wood.”
I proceeded to ask Mr Tanswell if in his life there had occurred one “red-letter” day which he would tell me about.
“Th’ day I marred,” he returned, when I had made him understand. “An’ thur was another, w’en a queer thing ‘appened, which I ain’t never forgot. ‘Twas a windfall in my pocket, yer can bet.
“Once, w’en I’d come early to work, a gent comes by, lookin’ as though ‘e’d be’n out all night, an’ was goin’ home by daylight. I was workin’ away wi’ my chalks, he watchin’ me, an’ givin’ me a bit o’ advice, laughtin’ loike. “’Ere, yer ain’t done this right!’ ses he, quite out o’ patience. ‘I’ll show yer!’ So he grabs th’ chalks, squats down, an’ afore long ef he don’t turn out th’ finist thing yer ever seed—yer wouldn’t o’ thought could be done with common chalk on th’ stone. ‘There! That’s wi’ my compliments,’ ses he, an’ was hoff, jest as I was hofferin’ ter pay ‘im fur ‘is work.
“Everybody that come by stopped that day, an’ some asked ef I done the Pieter, I ses ‘No,’ like a man, but they gav’ me money jest the same—more shillings than I’d seed in six months, an’ one ole feller swore a big artist, whose name I can’t remember, must o’ drawed it. He wanted to buy th’ pavin’ stone and ‘ave it up, but it couldn’t be worked, an’ afore night the rain ‘ad washed it out. It did seem cruel shame ter see it go.
“My wife an’ I ‘ad a fire ter sit by, an’ bacon an’ eggs t’ our supper that evening’, I ree’lect.” And Mr Tanswell appeared to drift into some happy visions of the past, and I felt it would be tactful to steal away, and leave him to his meditations.
Originally published in THE SKETCH (24th October 1894)
Reseached and edited by Philip Battle
Additional information on pavement artist, John Tanswell:
John was born in Coventry, Warwickshire in 1853; he would have been 41 years of age when this interview was published. In the 1891 English census, he was described as a “Hawker”. At that time he was living with his family at 4 Hunt Street, Hammersmith. His wife Ellen (age 41) and sons Thomas (aged 19) and John (aged 16)
John Tanswell & Family (described as HAWKER) 1891 Census
If anybody has any further information or even photos of John Tanswell, then I would be delighted to hear from you.