Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - Commercial Art

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[-231-]

COMMERCIAL ART.

    FROM some cause or other, which we are unwilling to account for by the alleged and admitted inferiority of the English people as judges and patrons of the fine arts, it happens, that when in our walks through London streets, we are greeted with the spectacle of art officiating as the hand-maid of commerce, a demand is less frequently made upon our admiration, than upon some other and very opposite sentiment. It is not so among neighbouring nations. Partly from the fact, that a knowledge of the principles of art is more general upon the continent than it is with us, and that, therefore, owing to a larger demand, the productions of art are much cheaper, we find there the artist seriously allying himself with the trader, and, free from that assumption of consequence which shuts him out from such employment in England, doing his best to promote the interests of trade. Looking only to the outward and visible evidences of this sensible and brotherly union, we find in the continental cities frequent specimens of tradesmen's signs, sometimes painted on the plastered wall, sometimes in compartments on the shutters, fully equalling in design and execution many of the pictures which from year to year are exhibited on the walls of the Royal Academy, A young London artist would feel himself disgraced by such an exercise of his talent; a young Parisian would eagerly accept the commission, and execute it with the utmost care, prizing the opportunity for a public appeal for what he stands most in need of - the public approbation. The difference of the professional feeling in this [-232-] respect between the artists of England and those of France, is manifest in the superiority of the French commercial signs and emblems, through all their grades, from the imposing compositions of some of the large estaldislimonts. down to the single bottle and glass of the eau-de-vie shops - all are executed with is degree of fidelity and finish unknown in the corresponding performances at home. It was not always so. Commercial art once flourished in London to an extent unknown, perhaps, in any other city in the world. Little more than a hundred years ago, every tradesman of any note in the city had his sign painted and emblazoned in a good style, regardless of expense, and by the best painter who could be induced to execute the task. Hogarth himself is known to have painted signs ; and, later, Morland did not disdain to liquidate his tavern score by the souse means. The signs in Hogarth's day, as is evident from the views of various parts of the metropolis to be found in his prints, projected into the road, some of them clearing the foot-pavements altogether, and threatening the roofs of the passing carriages. It was this growing obstruction that led to their abolition, a decree being passed that they should not project beyond a certain limit. This law, together with the new practice of numbering the houses of every street, was almost the death-blow of the sign-painter's art in England : the demand from publicans and tavern-keepers, who is early alone continued to exhibit them, was not sufficient to remunerate the profession, and it gradually declined, and passed into the hands of the house-painters - to not a few of whom it has served as a stepping-stone, by developing a talent which might otherwise have remained latent, and the exercise of which has raised them to the rank of artists.
    Within the last dozen years or so, symptoms have become manifest in various quarters, not so much of a return to the old system of sign-boards, as of a renewed appreciation of art, in another and modified form, as an auxiliary to business. [-233-] The age has grown wondrously pictorial during the reign of her present Majesty - and the shop-windows, which are the invariable indices of progress, in  whatever direction, have become, to some small extent, galleries for the exhibition of a new kind of art, serving the same purpose as a sign, but conceived in a more comprehensive spirit, and intended, without doubt, to proclaim the liberal tastes of the dealer, as well as modestly to suggest the merits of his wares. The most numerous of the works of this kind are those exhibited in the windows of the humbler sorts of coffee-shops and eating-houses. They are not of very various design, and we have a suspicion that, numerous as they are, they are all, or nearly all, the works of one hand. The subject generally consists of a loaf, sometimes two loaves, of bread ; a wedge of cheese on a plate of the willow patten ; a lump of "streaky bacon;" a cup, supposed to be full of coffee ; a pat of butter on a cheese-plate and a knife and fork. These are plainly tee-total emblems, and they are largely adopted by the temperance houses. Occasionally, however, a  tankard of porter, with a foaming top like a cauliflower, or a glass of rich brown ale, is added, and perhaps a red herring, eloquent of a relish. Sometimes there are a couple of mice delineated in the act of nibbling the cheese, while a tabby cat, with formidable spiky whiskers, is inspecting the operation from a dark corner. Next to the coffee-shops, it would appear that the second and third-rate grocers are the greatest patrons of this new commercial school of art. They are seen to launch out with greater liberality, and patronise a higher style ; conversation-pictures, as they are called, being most to their taste these are generally representations of tea-parties, sometimes of staid British matrons, assembled round the singing kettle or the simmering urn, and exhaling, in bold Roman type, as they sip "the fragrant lymph," extravagant encomiums in its praise, and grateful commendations to Mr. Spicer, for supplying them with it at the moderate [-234-] charge of only 4s. a pound. Sometimes it is a party of foreigners, perhaps of Chinese, engaged in picking, from a palpable gooseberry-bush in a garden, or drying or packing the tea in chests, directed to Mr. Spicer himself, Little Liquorpond Lane, London. A work of extraordinary pretensions, and which seems to be a great favourite, portrays a party of Bedouins in the Desert, bivouacking round a damask table-cloth, upon which is displayed a Staffordshire tea-service ; with the aid of a Birmingham kettle and Sheffield knives, they are enabled to enjoy their repast in comfort. The artist has forgotten to give their nose-bag's to the camels, which are allowed to mar the festivity of the scene, by looking coldly on with forlorn and fasting faces. The fishmongers deserve to rank next though not so generally given to the public patronage of art, yet, when they do have recourse to it, it is in a respectable and serious way. The pedestrian in London will come now and then upon a really well-painted picture upon the wall or panel which flanks the fishmonger's inclined plane. It may he a group of fish in the grand style - salmon, cod, turbot, and ling, among which enormous crabs and lobsters seem dripping with the salt ooze. It may be a coast-scene, with the bluff fishermen up to their middles in the brine, dragging their nets upon the beach, which is covered with their spoils. It may be a stiff breeze at sea, in which the mackerel-boats, under a single sail, are bounding upon the billowy surge : but whatever it is, it is sure to be pretty well done, if done at the order of a fishmonger - it being a fact that art is cultivated and appreciated among the chapmen of Billingsgate, some of whom are the proprietors of collections of the modern masters, of which a nobleman might be proud. The fishing-tackle-makers, again, in addition to the varnished skins of freshwater fish, preserved in glass-cases, have latterly taken up with works of art as illustrations of their craft and its pleasures. Groups comprising every fresh-water fish that swims, [-235-]  always admirably painted so far as the fish themselves are concerned, and not unfrequently with good landscape backgrounds, are now to be seen in almost every respectable fishing-tackle-maker's window. Besides groups of fish, they exhibit pictures of angling-stations within a few hours' ride, at the furthest, from London, of which establishments they are the agents for the sale of subscription tickets.
    Recourse is also had to the arts by a very miscellaneous class of traders, from motives and with views much higher than the obvious ones of advertising their business. Thus a coal-agent will treat the public to a gratuitous panoramic exhibition, detailing the whole history and processes of the coal-trade, from the first descent in the mine in Yorkshire, to the delivery of the fuel in sacks to the cellar of the consumer en London - all capitally painted in a style that would do credit to Burford himself, and really conveying a course of instruction, receivable by the eye in a few minutes, which the reading of half a day would not so effectually have supplied. A shoemaker, with literary tendencies, paints up the shoes, and the precursors of, or substitutes for, shoes of all nations and all times, from the calceamentum of the ancient Romans, to the sabot of the modern Gauls - including all the strange and odd freaks and modifications of fashion which from every available resource he has been able to collect. A hatter will pursue a parallel course with hats and headgear. A shopkeeper with a biblical and patriarchal turn, surmounts his window with a representation of Noah's Ark, treated in the miraculous style - the said Ark being, according to the irrefragable evidence of perspective, of not more than twelve tons burden at the utmost, and having already disgorged from its open doors - from which a couple of elephants are emerging  - a troop of indescribable quadrupeds, walking two and two, in a procession stretching miles away over the distant, in addition to an immense cloud of ornithology, principally the conventional crow, that nearly blots out the sky from the picture.
     [-236-] Now and then, a tradesman shows historical predilections. Some remarkable event of ancient or modern days - some battle, siege, earthquake, or terrible volcanic eruption is delineated in his shop-window as a background to his goods and the goods and the heroes or sufferers are so ingeniously mingled together, that whosoever contemplates the picture, must of necessity take both into his consideration, so that it may be that the storming of Seringapatam, the earthquake of Lisbon, the overwhelming of Pompeii, or the forcing of the North-west Passage, is indissolubly connected, in the spectator's mind, with the destruction of vermin by Jabez Dosems Patent Cockroach Exterminator, or the newly invented heel-tips of Simon Bendleather. 
    Painting is thus, again, stooping to make progress along with the arts of buying and selling ; nor is the sister art of sculpture altogether discountenanced by the sons of trade. Here and there, the bust of some great man is found presiding over the stock of some petty shop. We have seen Sir Isaac Newton among piles of potatoes labelled "three pounds twopence," and Shakspeare and Milton insbedded among the thread, wax, heel-ball, and sparables of the retail leather-seller.
    Commercial art takes a still more familiar form in the hands of the modeller, who, besides the manufacture of dummies which pass for real stock, has assigned to him the fabrication of colossal models for exhibition as signs, in which the small wit of the trader receives as large an embodiment as he chooses to pay for. Thus the "little boot" hoisted over the door of an ambitious disciple of St. Crispin, is about large enough for the Colossus of Rhodes ; and the "little dust-pan" which shuts out the light from the first-floor rooms of an aspiring tin-man, is broad enough to accommodate an average family tea-party, equipage and all : the  "little cigar" is big enough for the topsail-yard of a frigate and the "little stick of sealing-wax" might do upon an emergency for the mast of her long-boat.
     [-237-]  We are bound in candour to remark, that the most notable characteristic in what we have denominated Commercial Art, is its want of originality. All its professors seem to depend more upon one another than upon themselves, and continually reproduce each other's designs in preference to inventing new ones. The same thing is as manifest, and much more mischievously so, in art as applied to manufactures, It is true that, as respects designs merely ornamental.  intended for repetition in paper-hangings and textile fabrics, we have been for many years past making respectable progress, and may be said to possess a rising school of designers of our own but of designs entirely pictorial, also intended to be multiplied ad infinitum, and which are actually so multiplied, there is not one in a hundred to be met with which is not stolen, in whole or in past, from the works of established artists living or dead. These thefts are mostly committed without the licence or the knowledge of the proprietors of the copyright. The Potters are the most wholesale plunderers in this way, as their countless transcripts from the works of Landseer, Cooper. Ansdell, Bateman. &c., attest - nmnbers of which may be seen in any business street in London at any hour of the day. The manufacturers of papier-mach? ornaments are just as unscrupulous in the use of what is not their own : thousands of pictures are painted monthly on these wares from the prints of Stanfield, Turner, Creswick, &c.- an original design by the artists employed being the rare exception. It would be easy for the proprietors of the copyrights in question to put an interdict upon these proceedings, and confine the manufacturers to their own resources and it appears to us that they would further the interests of their own profession at once, and be eventually the means of infusing a leaven of art among the manufacturers themselves, were they to do so.
    From the brief glance at the phases of art which are most  [-238-] familiar to the view of the populace, we are forced to the conclusion, that, in spite of the rage for illustration, and the influence of that pictorial flood which has inundated our literature, less progress has been made in informing the popular taste than some of its are complacently disposed to admit. We are among the number of those who desiderate a universal appreciation of the higher qualities of art, and who regard the dissemination of true principles in relation to it among the people as an enterprise perfectly hopeful, because remunerative as well as practicable. What the press has done and is doing for literature, by rendering it cheap, abundant, and good, the press will also do for art, but neither so rapidly nor effectually, unless, and until its efforts are supplemented by practical teaching. To educate the eye, is always a slow process but it is one that produces an important and valuable result, being, of all branches of education, that which best commends itself to the pupil. Unfortunately for the dwellers in English cities, most of the objects they gaze upon have a tendency to inure them to ugliness and ungracefulness and this we take to be one principal reason why the perception of what is just and true in art is so rare among the masses of the population.

source: Charles Manby Smith, The Little World of London, 1857