Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Gaslight and Daylight, by George Augustus Sala, 1859 - Chapter 19 - Travels in Cawdor Street

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To the unobservant peripatetic, Cawdor Street is merely a thoroughfare, leading from Soho to Oxford Street, just as the [-207-] 'Venus de Medici' would be the stone figure of a lady, and nothing more, and the 'Transfiguration' of Raphael simply so much canvas, covered with so much paint. To the ordinary street-lounger, even Cawdor Street can only offer a few musty shops, filled with ancient furniture; half a dozen dingy book-stalls, some brokers' shops, and a score or more receptacles for cloudy-looking oil pictures in tarnished frames.
    And, perhaps, this is the most sensible way of looking, not only at Cawdor Street, but at things generally. Why the plague should we always be making painful and blue-looking anatomical preparations, when we should be satisfied with the nice, wholesome-looking, superficial cuticle? Why should we insist on rubbing the p1ating off our dishes and sugar-basins, and on showing the garish, ungenteel-looking copper beneath? Why should we lift up the corner of the show and pry out who pulls Punch's legs, and causes Shallabalah to leap? Why can't we take Cawdor Street, its old curiosity-shops, brokers, book-stalls, and picture-dealers, the world generally, for granted?
    We ought to do so, perhaps; but we can't. I am sure that I cannot. Cawdor Street is to me a fearful and wonderful country to be explored. There are mysteries in Cawdor Street to be unravelled, curiosities of custom and language to be descanted on, causes to be ascertained, said effects to be deduced. Though from eight to ten minutes' moderately rapid exercise of the legs with which Nature has provided you would suffice to carry you from one end of Cawdor Street to the other, I can sojourn for many hours in its mysterious precincts. I am an old traveller in Cawdor Street, and it may not be amiss to impart to you some of the discoveries I have made during these my travels.
    I will spare you the definition of the geographical boundaries of Cawdor Street. I will be content with observing that its south-westerly extremity is within a hundred miles, as the newspapers say, of Princes Street, Soho. The climate may, on the whole, be described as muggy; fogs appear to have a facility in getting in, and a difficulty of getting out of it The coy and reserved Scotch mist, and the bolder and more prononcé pelting snow, linger pertinaciously on its pavements; and when it is muddy in Cawdor Street - it is muddy.
    Cawdor Street has public-houses, and butchers' shops, and dining-rooms, as other streets have. It has the same floating population of ragged children, policemen, apple-women, and [-208-] domestic animals. The inhabitants, I have reason to believe, pay rent and taxes: cabalistic metallic plates point out the distance of the fire-plug from the foot-pavement; and the banners of Barclay and Perkins, conjointly with those of Combe and Delafield, of Truman, Hanbury, and Buxton, and of Sir Henry Meux, hang out, as in other streets, upon the outward walls.
    The intelligent reader will, I dare say, by this time begin to ask, why, if Cawdor Street resembles, in so many points, hundreds of other streets, I should be at the trouble of describing it? Patience; and I will unfold all that Cawdor Street has of marvellous, and why it is worth travelling in. It is the seat of a great manufacture; - not of cotton, as is Manchester the grimy and tall-chimneyed; - not of papier-mache, as is Birmingham the red-bricked and painfully-paved; - not of lace, as is Nottingham the noisy and pugilistic, but of Art. Those well-meaning but simple-minded men who, two or three years since, set about making spoons and dishes, bread-baskets and cream-jugs, after artistic designs, and which they called art-manufactures, thought, in their single-heartedness, they had originated the term. Why, bless them! Cawdor Street has had extensive art-manufactures for scores of years. It has been manufacturing Art, artistic furniture, and artists to boot, almost since the time that Art came into England.
    For in Cawdor Street, be it understood, dwell the great tribe of manufacturers of spurious antiques, of sham moyen-age furniture, of fictitious Dresden china, of delusive Stradivarius violins. In Cawdor Street abide the mighty nation of picture-dealers, picture-forgers, picture 'clobberers,' picture-pawners, and other picture-traffickers, whose name is legion. In Cawdor Street are sellers of rare Rembrandt etchings, etched a year ago; of autographs of Henry the Eighth, written a week since; in Cawdor Street, finally, are gathered together (amongst many respectable and conscientious dealers) some rapacious gentry, who sell, as genuine, the things that are not, and never were; who minister to the folly and credulity of the ignorant rich, on whom they fatten who hang on the outskirts of Art, seeking whom they may devour; who are the curse of Art, and the bane of the artist.
    I often wonder what Raphael Sanzio of Urbino, Gerretz van Rhyn, commonly called Rembrandt, Michael Angelo Buonarotti, and other professors of the art of painting would [-209-] think, if, coming with a day-rule from the shades (Elysian, I trust), they could behold the daubs to which their names are appended. I often wonder how many hundred years it would have taken them to have painted, with their own hands, the multitudinous pictures which bear their names. Nay, if even the most celebrated of our living painters could see, gathered together, the whole of their original works which Cawdor Street dealers have to sell, they would, I opine, be sore astonished. Canvases they never touched, compositions they never dreamed of; effects of colour utterly unknown to them, would start before their astonished gaze. For every one white horse of Wouvermans, five hundred snowy steeds would paw the earth. For every drunken boor of Teniers Ostade, or Adrien Brouwer, myriads of inebriated Hollanders would cumber Cawdor Street. Wonderful as were the facility and exuberance of production of Turner, the dead Academician would stare at the incalculable number of works imputed to him. Oh, Cawdor Street, thoroughfare of deceptions and shams! Oh, thou that sulliest bright mirrors with ignoble vapours ! thou art not deceitful, but deceit itself!
    Here is the collection of ancient furniture, armour, old china, cameos, and other curiosities and articles of vertu, forming the stock in trade of Messrs. Melchior Saltabadil and Co. A magnificent assemblage of rare and curious articles they have, to be sure. Not a dinted breastplate is there but has its appropriate legend; not a carved ebony crucifix but has its romance; not a broadsword or goblet of Bohemian glass but has its pedigree. That china monster belonged to the Empress Maria Louisa; that battered helmet was picked up on the field of Naseby; that rusted iron box was the muniment-chest of the Abbey of Glastonbury; that ivory-hafted dagger once hung at the side of David Rizzio; and that long broadsword was erst clasped by one of Cromwell's ironsides. Come to the back of the shop, and Messrs. Melchior Saltabadil and Co. will be happy to show you a carved oak and velvet-covered prie-dieu once belonging to the oratory of Ann of Austria. That shirt of mail, yonder, hanging between the real Damascus sabre and the superb specimen of point lace, dates from the Crusades, and was worn by Robin de Bobbinet at the siege of Acre. Step up stairs, and Melchior Saltabadil and Co. have some exquisite needlework for your inspection, of a date coeval with that of the Bayeux Tapestry. An astounding collection of curiosities have they, from worked altar-cloths, [-210-] and richly-stained glass of the fourteenth century, to Dresden shepherds and shepherdesses, and dazzling tea and dessert-services of genuine Sevres china.
    Chasuble Cope, dealer in Ecclesiastical Antiquities, has his magasin just opposite to that of the before-mentioned merchants. Mr. Cope is great in altar-candlesticks, pyxes, rochets, faldstools, elaborately carved or brazen lecterns, mitres of the Middle Ages, illuminated missals, books of 'hours,' and other specimens of the paraphernalia of Romish ecclesiology. He has the skeleton of a mitred abbot in the cellar, and Bishop Blaise's crosier up stairs. Next door to him, the Cawdor Street traveller will find, perhaps, the copious and curious collection of Messrs. Pagoda and Son, who more specially affect Egyptian, Chinese, and Indian curiosities.   Curiously-painted shells and fans, ivory concentric balls, wonderful porcelain idols, tear-bottles, bags of mummy wheat, carved Hindoo sceptres, brocaded draperies of astonishing antiquity - these form but a tithe of the Oriental relics detailed to view. Farther up Cawdor Street are establishments teeming with old furniture, and crowding the pavement with their overplus of carved chairs, and bulky tables with twisted legs, the boards of which glistened, in Harry the Eighth's time, with those sturdy flagons and long spiral-columned glasses now resting quietly on the dusty shelves; and there are Queen Elizabethan cabinets, and stools on which Troubadours and Trouveres rested their harps when they sang the 'Roman du Rou,' and the legend of King Arthur, in goodness knows how many 'fyttes.' There are small curiosity-merchants in Cawdor street, as well as extensive ones; humble dealers, whose stores resemble more the multifarious odds-and-ends in brokers' shops than collections of antiquity and vertu. These bring home the savage tomahawk, the New Zealand boomerang, the rosary of carved beads, to the poorest door; and render old armour, old furniture, old lace, and tapestry, comprehensible to the meanest understanding.
    And why should not all these be genuine - real, undoubted relics of ages gone by? To the man of poetical imagination, what can be more pleasant than to wander through these dingy bazaars of the furniture, and armour, and knick-knackery of other days? The sack, and malvoisie, and hypocras are gone; but there are the flagons and beakers that held them. The mailed knights, and pious monks, have been dust these five hundred years; but there is their iron panoply, [-211-] there are their hauberks, and two-handed swords; there are the beads they counted, the roods before which they prayed, the holy volumes they were wont to read. Cromwell's name is but a noise; but those ragged buff-boots may have enclosed his Protectorial extremities. The mattock, and the spade, and the earthworm have done their work with Diane de Poitiers and Gabrielle d'Estrées; yet in that quaint Venetian mirror they may have dressed their shining locks, and mocked the glass with sunny glances. That should have been the Black Prince's surcoat; that pearl and ivory box, the jewel-casket of Ninon de l'Enclos; that savage club, carved, beaded, and ornamented with tufts of feathers, who shall say it was not wielded once by Montezuma, or was an heirloom in some far South American forest, ere Columbus was born, or Cortez and Pizarro heard of? Besides, are not the dealers in these curiosities respectable men? Are not little labels affixed to some of the rarer articles, announcing them to have formed part of the Stowe collection, of that of Strawberry Hill, of Fonthill Abbey, of Lansdowne Tower - to have been bought of the Earl of Such-a-one's executors, or acquired at the Duke of So-and-so's sale? My friend, when you have travelled as long in Cawdor Street as I have, your poetical imaginings will have cooled down wofully; and your faith in Oliver Cromwell's boots, Edward the Black Prince's surcoat, and Ninon de l'Enclos's jewel-casket, will have decreased considerably. Some of the furniture is curious, and much of it old; but, oh! you have never heard, you have never seen (as I have) the art-manufactures that are carried on in Cawdor-Street garrets, in frowzy little courts, and mysterious back slums adjoining thereon. You do not know that wily armourers are at this moment forging new breastplates and helmets, which, being battered, and dinted, and rusted, shall assume the aspect of age - and ages. You do not know that, by cunning processes, new needlework can be made to look like old tapestry; that the carved leg of an old chair, picked up in a dusty lumber-room, will suffice, to the Cawdor Street art-manufacturer as a matrix for the production of a whole set of carved, weather-stained, and worm-eaten furniture-chairs, tables, stools, sideboards, couches, and cabinets enough to furnish half a dozen houses of families of the Middle Ages, 'about to marry.' You have not heard that corpulent man in the fur cap, and with the pipe in his mouth - and who eyed you silly just now, as you were handling those curious silver-mounted pistols [-212-] - tell the swart artisan by his side that there is rather a run for inlaid Spanish crucifixes just now, and bid him make a dozen or two according to the model he gives him. How many of those Dresden shepherds and shepherdesses are of Saxon origin, think you? On how many of those squat, grinning, many-coloured Pagods did Indian sun ever shine? The bric a brac shops of the Quai Voltaire, in Paris, swarm with spurious antiquities: the dealers in antiques, in Rome, make harvests out of credulous 'milords,' in the way of cameos, produced at the rate of about two scudi, and sold at ten guineas each; in fragments of marble urns, statues, and rilievi, purposely mutilated, buried in the environs of the Eternal City, and then dug up to be sold as ancient originals. How, then, should Cawdor Street be exempt from the suspicion of deception?- Cawdor Street, standing, as it does, in the midst of that land, and of that city, so bursting, so running over, with commercial competition, that, panting to do business at any price, it cannot refrain from vending counterfeit limbs, spurious garments, sham victuals and drink even. The worst of it is, that knowing how many of the curiosities and rarities in these seeming shops are cunning deceits, a man is apt to grow sceptical as regards them all. For my part, I would rather, were I a collector of curiosities, rummage in old country public-houses (I would I could. remember the whereabouts of that one where, as 1 live, I saw in the tap-room a genuine and a beautiful Vandyck, smoke-grimed and beer-stained!) or search in obscure brokers' shops, where, among rusty lanterns, beer-taps, bird-cages, flat-irons, fishing-rods, powder-flasks, and soiled portraits of Mrs. Billington in 'Mandane,' one does occasionally stumble on an undoubted relic of the past, and say, 'here is Truth.'
    But it is in the article of pictures that the art-manufacturers of Cawdor Street have astonished the world, and attained their present proud pro-eminence. Pictures are their delight, and form their greatest source of profit. Take, for example, the lion of Cawdor Street, the great Mr. Turps, 'Picture-dealer, liner, and restorer. Pictures bought, sold, or exchanged. Noblemen and gentlemen waited upon at their own residences.' To look at Mr. Turps' shop, you would not augur much for the magnitude or value of his stock in trade. A small picture panel of a Dutch Boor, boosy, as usual, and bestriding a barrel of his beloved beer; this and a big picture of some pink angels sprawling in, or rather on, an opaque [-213-] sky; these are pretty nearly all that is visible above the wire-wove blinds which veil the penetralia of Mr. Turps' domicile. But only walk in - arrive well-dressed - come, above all, in a carriage - and the complaisant, the voluble Turps will show you stacks, mountains of pictures. He deals only in dead masters, he has nothing to say to the moderns. There is an original Sebastiano del Piombo, formerly in the Orleans collection; there a Madonna col Bambino of Raffaelle, which my Lord Bricabrac offered to cover with golden sovereigns, would he, Turps, only sell it to him. There is the 'Brigand Reposing,' by Salvator Rosa, formerly in time Boggotrotti Palace, and smuggled out of Rome in an extraordinary manner. The Prince Cardinal Boggotrotti, Turps tells you, had been prohibited by the Papal Covernment from selling any of his pictures; but being deeply in debt, and wanting ready money sadly, he ceded to the importunities of the adventurous Turps, who purchased the picture; but had another picture, 'St. Bartholomew, flayed alive,' painted over the original, in distemper. With this he triumphantly eluded discovery; and though Saint Bartholomew's great toe was nearly rubbed out by a careless porter, he passed the Custom House and the Police, and brought his treasure to England. But here is a gem of gems, Turps' almost priceless picture - a little, old, shabby panel, on which you can discover something dimly resembling a man's head, blinking through a dark-brown fog. This is THE Rembrandt 'Three-quarter Portrait of the Burgomaster Tenbroeck,' painted in 1630. Wonderful picture! wonderful!
    I have a great respect for Mr. Turps (who has a pretty house at Stamford Hill, and can give you as good a glass of pale sherry, when he likes, as ever you would wish to taste) but I must tell time honest truth. The Sebastiano del Piombo was bought at Smith's sale, hard by, for three pounds seven; and Turps knows no more who painted it, or where or when it was painted, than the Cham of Tartary does. The Boggotrotti Raffaelle was 'swop,' being bartered with little Mo Isaacs, of Jewin Street, for a Wouvermans, a millboard study by Mortimer, and two glasses of brandy and water. As for the famous Rembrandt, Turps, in good sooth, had it painted himself on a panel taken from a mahogany chest of drawers he picked up cheap at a sale. He paid Young M'Gilp (attached to a portrait club, and not too proud to paint a sign occasionally) just fifteen shillings for it; and a very good Rembrandt, [-214-] now it is tricked up and smoked down, it makes, as times go.
    At the top of Mr. Turps' house he has two large attics, where some half-dozen of his merry men manufacture pictures to order. According to the state of the market, and the demand for the works of particular painters, so do they turn out counterfeit Claudes, Murillos, Poussins, Fra Bartolomeos, Guidos, Guercinos, Giulio Romanos, Tenierses, Ostades, Gerard Dows, and Jan Steens. If the pictures they forge (a hard word, but a true one) are on canvas, they are, on completion, carefully lined so as to resemble old pictures restored; if on panel, the wood is stained and corroded so as to denote antiquity. Little labels of numbers, bearing reference to sale catalogues, are carefully pasted on, and as carefully half torn off again. Sometimes the canvas is taken off the stretcher, and rolled backwards, so as to give it a cracked appearance; anon, the panel is covered with a varnish, warranted to dry in a very network of ancient-looking cracks. Then the painting is tricked or 'clobbered' with liquorice-water, and other artful mixtures and varnishes, which give it a clouded appearance. Chemical, substances are purposely mixed with the colours to make them fade; whites that dry yellow, and reds that turn brown. And then this picture, painted for the hire of a mechanic, is ready to be sold at a princely price to any British nobleman or gentleman who will buy it. Herein lies Mr. Turps' profit.  The price of one picture will pay the expenses of his establishment for a twelvemonth, and leave him heavy in purse besides. His victims - well, never mind who they are - perhaps mostly recruited from the ranks of the vulgar with money, who purchase fine pictures as a necessary luxury, just as they buy fine clothes and carriages and horses. There are magnates of this class, who will absolutely buy pictures against each other; Brown becoming frantic if Jones possess more Titians that he does; Robinson running neck and neck with Tomkins in Claudes, and beating him cleverly sometimes with a Canaletto. These competitions do good, you may believe me, to Mr. Turps, and bring considerable quantities of grist to his mill. From his extensive collection also are the 'original chef d'oeuvres of ancient masters,' which, from time to time, are brought to the auctioneer's hammer, both in private houses, and in public sale-rooms. The 'property of a gentleman, going abroad;' the 'collection of a nobleman, deceased;' the 'gallery of an eminent amateur ; -all these Mr. Turps [-2l5-] will supply at per dozen, and many score of his brethren in London are ready to do the same.
    Not that I wish to insinuate that there are no honest picture-dealers, and no bona fide picture auctions, in London. There are many - and there need be some, I am sure, to counteract the swarms of those which are impudent swindlers.
    Of time same kindred as Mr. Turps, and having his abode in the same congenial Cawdor Street, you will find the well known Mr. Glaze, who turns his attention almost entirely to modern pictures. His art-manufactures consist of Turners, Ettys, Mulreadys, Landseers - in short, of all the favourite masters of the English school. He has a hand of artists, who, for stipends varying from a pound to thirty shillings weekly, produce counterfeits of the works of our Royal Academicians by the yard or mile. These forgeries have their sale principally on the Continent, where English pictures (notwithstanding the doubts sometimes expressed by our neighbours as to whether we can paint at all) are eagerly sought after, and where a genuine Landseer is a pearl beyond price. Occasionally, though very rarely, Mr. Glaze buys original pictures by unknown artists - Snooks of Cleveland Street, perhaps, or Tibbs of Cirencester Place. He gives a few shillings for one - rarely half a sovereign. Then, according to the genre, or to some faint analogy in style or colour, the name of some celebrated living master is, without further ceremony, clapped on the unresisting canvas, and as a Mulready, a Webster, or a Creswick, the daub goes forth to the world.
    Travelling yet through Cawdor Street, we come upon yet a lower grade of traffickers in pictures. These ingenious persons devote themselves to the art of picture-dealing, insofar as it affects pawnbroking. They employ artists (sometimes - daubers more frequently) to paint pictures for a low but certain price. These occasionally they pawn, selling the tickets subsequently to the unwary for whatever they will fetch; or, they buy tickets themselves, and remove them from one pawnbroker to another, who, as their knavish experience teaches them, gives a better price for pictures. 'My Uncle,' however, it must be admitted, has grown rather wary lately with respect to pictures and picture-pawners. He has been 'done' by apparent noblemen driving up to his door in carriages and pair, and by the footman bearing a carefully-veiled picture into his private office, and telling him that 'my Lord' must have fifty pounds this evening. He has [-216-] been surfeited with pictures, new from the easel, painted by necessitous artists in their extremity, and known in the trade as 'pot-boilers.' So that, now, he 'would rather not' lend you anything on a picture; and would prefer some more convertible article - say a flat-iron, or a pair of boots - to all the Titians or Rembrandts you could bring him.
    You might go on travelling up and down Cawdor Street for days, and find out some fresh proof of the deception , and duplicity of this picture-dealing business at every step. It makes me melancholy to do so. And I think sometimes that not a few painters, who have had R.A. appended (and worthily) to their names, and have dined at the tables of live Dukes and Duchesses, may have thought of their old Cawdor Street days with a sort of tremor. More than one of them, I will be bound, as he has passed through Cawdor Street, has recognised an ancient master, or a modern original in the painting of which he had a hand, and a considerable one, too. Our own Wilkie, we know, had no other employment for a long time save that of counterfeiting Tenierses and Ostades; and he is not the only great painter who has done grinding-work for the picture-dealers, and who has travelled wearily and sorrowfully through Cawdor Street.
        'The thane of Cawdor lives,
        A prosperous gentleman!'