The Harlice Worley Story
Any man who sees himself described as a sad sight is entitled to feel annoyed; and Trafalgar Square pavement artist Harlice Hyrne Worley (christened Charles Henry, but his father had a weakness for anagrams) was very annoyed indeed, when he read about a Moscow Radio talk by two Russian students just returned from Britain.
Said Georgi Ostroumov and Igor Kobsev: “In Trafalgar Square, a sad sight struck our hearts. On the pavement where the walker throws the butt of his cigar, a human figure was crouching—a workless artist…we asked him to tell us something about himself. There came a sullen and unwilling retort: ‘What is there to tell? I have no work…..’”
Harlice Worley: Outside The National Gallery 1955.
What Harlice Worley said on reading this was enough to start World War III there and then. What he did was to send a cable to Radio Moscow: Pavement artists of London take pride in their profession, and do it from choice, not necessity. We are free, independent artists, and regret the misleading impression given in your broadcast.
He then hurried down the Strand to the BBC European Service studios, and dictated a 600 word counter-blast which went on the air that night in Russian and English.
Harlice still simmers when he thinks of Kobsev and Ostroumov, earnest little men armed with notebooks and cameras, who questioned him through an interpreter.
“Contemptuous nonsense,” he snorts. “Workless? I ask you. I work all day. This”—waving a hand at the chalked portraits on the pavement—“this is my work.”
Harlice Worley: Photo from Everybody’s Magazine 1955.
A slight, stooped character of fifty-three, with a sardonic, furrowed face, he sits on an upturned box beside his pitch by the railings of the National Gallery, and stabs a finger at the crowds hurrying past.
“I know twenty yards before anyone gets near me whether they’re going to part with a penny. Most of them think we’re rolling in money. ‘Ah,’ they say, ‘that bloke’s probably making more than I am.’ Well, yesterday I made just four shillings.”
His work is better than most. Disdaining the blurry landscape and the bilious still life, he draws personalities in the news. Cary Grant (with the chalked caption, ‘in the Royal Command Performance film, To Catch a Thief’), Edmund Purdom, Kim Novak. A horse’s head. A Laughing Cavalier. Severn people stand looking at them. One puts a penny in the upturned brimless straw hat, another adds a threepenny bit; the others walk on. After four hours, the mound of coppers in the hat totals one and fourpence halfpenny and a ten centime piece.
Not even a Russian in search of decadence in a capitalist society could call Harlice an underdog. He is a fiercely independent individualist. Son of an architect, he was trained at art school, served in the Navy in the 1914-18 War, and spent the next twenty years knocking around the world as merchant seaman, trawler hand, labourer, farmer, sign-writer. During the last war he was a radio instructor in the R.A.F.; in 1945 he started a commercial art studio in the north, and within five years had an annual turnover of £4,000. Then he went down with arthritis, and lost everything.
Harlice Worley at the London Screever Competition: Photo by Ron Burton (1953)
It was in Festival of Britain Year, 1951 that he walked along the Thames Embankment and saw a ‘screever’ at work on the pavement. (The word derives, he believes, from ‘scribe’; certainly it dates back to the time of Charles I.) Convinced that he could do better himself, he picked a pitch by Charing Cross Bridge. On his first day, he took £6—“three times as much as I was getting from national assistance in a week; I’ve never had a day like that since.”
But the Embankment was a bad pitch in winter, when the tourists had gone. And there was trouble from thugs demanding protection money. He refused to pay: so they poured crude oil over his pitch every night. So he moved to Trafalgar Square.
His day begins at nine o’clock, when he cleans the trampled remains of the previous day’s work from the pavement and prepares the stone flags—covering them with size, filling the pockmarks with scouring powder, and smoothing down with sandpaper. His materials are powdered chalks mixed and bound with milk or beer; his subjects are taken from the morning’s newspaper, or maybe from the National Gallery—a Rubens or Gainsborough for preference. “Fashions change: once it was cats, then dogs, then landscapes. Now it’s all portraits.”
Next, he chalks in bold capitals a brisk admonition to his public: “I appreciate your compliments ladies and gentlemen, but I cannot persuade my landlady to accept them….” “Will photographers please remember I am a human being, not an animal in the zoo, and kindly refrain from poking cameras down my neck.” Finally, he puts a hat at each end of the pitch, each with a few coppers in—screevers think it unlucky to have an empty hat—and hopes for a fine day.
Rain is the screever’s worst enemy; a shower can ruin hours of laborious work. On a Saturday, the most profitable day, Harlice may take as much as £3 in summer; but a wet Saturday can mean hardship for the rest of the week.
Harlice Worley in Trafalgar Square: Original press photo (Keystone Press 1955)
Understandably, Harlice takes a pretty cynical view of human nature. “It’s marvellous the lengths people will go just to avoid putting anything in the hat. About one in four hundred does. We see some nice types here—like the ones who deliberately walk on the pictures and say they’ve a right to, it’s a public highway; like the Yank who put a bob in the hat, picked up a framed pastel of Anthony Eden and started to walk off with it, saying ‘this picture is going to New York.’ I told him the picture wasn’t leaving Trafalgar Square, and the bob wasn’t leaving the hat.”
“You get to be philosophical. At night, drunks annoy you; old ladies tell you their troubles; people come up and say they’ve lost their fare home and can you just lend it to them till tomorrow. And I’ve had a whole day’s take pinched while I’ve been away for a moment. There’s one old lady who comes along quite often, puts a penny in the hat and takes sixpence out. But I know she’s really hard up, so I pretend not to notice. Sometimes I put sixpence in for her when I see her coming.”
He becomes eloquent in talking of the freemasonry among screevers: “I’ve vivid memories of fellows sharing their last copper, fag end or piece of chalk; and they’ll never see each other without a bed. Most of us towards the end of the day let someone who’s down on his luck take over the pitch and keep whatever lands in the hat.”
MANY of London’s odd characters drift through the Square during the day, and Harlice knows them all. The seedy-looking citizen who makes some £20 a week collecting fag ends from cinema ash trays, rolling them into cigarettes, and selling them in doss houses. The pathetic old lady who goes from pub to pub scrounging a drink, but owns a sizable piece of property in the East End; the busker in top hat and frock coat who dances to a wheezing gramophone.
In four years of screeving, Harlice has pigeon-holed his public. “Children are the most generous, and if they haven’t any money of their own they’ll pester their parents to put something in the hat. Colonials are next best: they’ll give you cigars and cigarettes, and I’ve had a quid to pose for a photograph. Londoners? Well, they’re not over-generous, except maybe on Saturday nights when they’ve had a few drinks. I suppose they’re so used to seeing us.”
“Funny things happen. The other day a City type leaned against the railings and took his bowler off to mop his forehead, and a lady came by and dropped tuppence in. He added sixpence to it and put the lot in my hat. Then there was the Election. I’d done some portraits with what you might call a Conservative bias, and a chap came up and gave me a black eye…”
Arthritis and damp pavements have left him with a limp; he leans on a stick and dreads the winter. “I’m trying to get out of this game, but I haven’t been offered a day’s work in four years.
“I do this because I’m a free man; there’s nobody to push me around. I work when I want, play when I want, and earn enough for a theatre gallery seat now and again. My L.C.C. hostel has every comfort for a working man for two bob a night. I’ve never crawled to anyone in my life, and I’m not starting now.”
A sixpence chinks in the upturned hat, and Harlice nods his thanks as he buttons his coat against the autumn wind scurrying round the Square. A policeman stops and congratulates him on the Moscow cable. He takes a piece of white chalk and with a flourish writes on the grubby pavement:
“Please don’t get the idea that we street artists are a crowd of illiterate non-entities. I can assure you we are not! If you purchase or order any work from me, you have got it from someone who is somebody in his own particular sphere…”
Harlice Worley’s rebuff to the Russians: Photo by John Firth 1955
NO COLD WAR AT MY EXPENSE!
Harlice Worley’s pavement rebuff to Radio Moscow & the Russian Students:
“Why I sent a cable to Moscow—and why I broadcast to Russia & Europe last night—Because my remarks to the Russian students were distorted to make political propaganda—because I am British—because I want NO man’s pity. Only practical appreciation of what I consider a job well done. Incidentally I have received no payment for this!”
Additional information on Harlice Worley
- Born on the 24th March 1902 at 5, Falmer Road, Enfield
- Died 21st March 1959 in London Age 56: Left ventricular failure due to aortic incompetence due to athermanous aortic aneurysm. (Heart Failure)
- Occupations: Radio Operator (RAF), Sign Writer (Self Employed), Pavement Artist
- During World War II, he was stationed at RAF Calshot; initially a seaplane and flying boat station, and latterly an RAF marine craft maintenance and training unit. It was located at the end of Calshot Spit in Southampton Water, Hampshire, England,
- He met his wife, Gladys Ellis McGowan a Canteen Assistant at RAF Calshot, Hampshire; and they married on the 2nd Dec. 1939.
- They had four children.
- Harlice lived in Lambeth Road, London SW2 in 1945.
- Between 1946 and 1949, he lived with his wife at 32 Glasshouse Walk, Lambeth. By 1957, he was living at 306 Station Road, Southwark (Off Camberwell New Road)
Harlice prided himself in drawing ALL his pavement art pieces from memory; he never used photographs or reference material of any kind. This wasn’t unusual, many of the better pavement artists worked from memory, following years of repeatedly drawing the same painting hundreds of times.
Written and researched from various sources by Philip Battle