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

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CHAP-PICTURES 

THE love of pictures, of representations of familiar or unfamiliar objects by outlines or colours, or both, if it be not a universal passion, is something very like it. The savage indulges it, in his way, as much as the man of education and refinement ; in default of other means, he scores and tattoos designs upon his own skin or that of his fellows, and bedaubs his flesh with gaudy colours, making of himself the picture he loves to contemplate. All nations have had their pictorial representations ; of not a few these have formed the national monuments and records ; and of more, it may be, than we are aware of, they have been the originators of the alphabet, and thus the pioneers of literature. Perhaps the man was never born who, with the ordinary powers of vision, had not some taste, or, to say the least of it, some liking for art under some form or other, and who was not capable of deriving some instruction, as well as satisfaction, from gratifying that taste. We intend, with the reader's permission, to glance for a few moments at some of the popular methods, so far as they are traceable from present existing remains, which have been for a number of generations past in operation in our own country for supplying the humbler orders with the means of such gratification.
    There was a time when comparatively few of our industrial classes could read, or cared to read ; but there never was a time when they would not have looked with pleasure upon a picture. What were the household pictures, or [-240-] whether there were any at all to be found in the humbler dwellings of our land, even so late as the reign of Queen Elizabeth, we cannot undertake to say, but are inclined to think there was nothing of the kind ; and that rude images and quaint casts or carvings constituted the only sort of domestic art familiar to the people. Though engraving on wood and copper has been practised for almost four hundred years, it would appear that, with the exception of such small specimens as were used for the illustration of a few books and ballads, but little of the engraver's work made its way to the mass of the populace. At anyrate we can meet with little or nothing now of a kind adapted for the walls of a cottage or humble residence, which dates further back than the close of the seventeenth century. We have a notion that the first commercial experiment in engraving pictures to meet a popular demand was made about that time. The works of the best continental engravers, and of the old etchers, were too expensive thy general circulation and, what is more, they were too learned for the general taste. To create a demand for pictures, it was necessary to descend to the comprehension of the multitude, and at the same time to give them enough for their money. The first popular engravings, judging from their style of execution, must have been exceedingly cheap. Probably they were not engraved upon copper, but upon some softer metal or admixture of metals; they were intended to he hung on the wail, portfolios being known only to artists and collectors ; they were for the most part coloured, and were framed in a narrow black moulding. Among the oldest subjects now to be met with - and these must be looked for in the butler's parlour, or housekeepers or servants' rooms of some old mansion in the country - are views of the palace and gardens of Versailles and of Fontainebleau, in which the old-fashioned trim gardens, as they existed once but exist no longer, are shown in a birds' -eye species of perspective not very correct. [-241-] The walks are mathematically squared or circled, the trees are cut into formal spires or pyramids. and the fountains spout in arches geometrically true. The figures are longlegged gentlemen with pigtails and powdered hair, collarless coats, waistcoats which repose on the hips, ruffles, and tremendously lanky swords: with these are ladies in exalted head-dresses, with wasp-like waists, and enormous swelling hoops below, and supporting themselves on heels of perilous height; in addition to the gentlemen, the ladies are attended by poodles with head and shoulders shaggy as a lion, and hind-quarters bare as a frog. Contemporaneous with these were garden-scenes something in the Watteau style, in which nature was allowed a little latitude, and Damon and Phyllis, in wig and hoop, danced together on the green-sward, or posed themselves in picturesque attitudes beneath a shady tree by the running stream, or sent one another aloft in a swing, while the rest of the party picnicked together in the foreground.
    Pictures of this sort - and most persons must have met with them in the course of their experience - did their work in paving the way for something better. Before Hogarth's time, conversation-pieces, and rude engravings of good pictures, had got into the market. They were mostly, however, too dear for the agricultural districts, where the people chose to buy, at a cheaper rate, a. new class of subjects brought to them by the pedlers and hawkers, and which were nearly all illustrations of Old or New Testament history, or scenes from the martyrology. The trade in engravings of a popular description had assumed a degree of importance by the time that Hogarth came upon the scene ; the advantage he derived from it, and the benefit he conferred upon art in this country in so doing, are well known. His unrivalled productions did not, however, save in exceptional cases, penetrate beyond the cities and larger towns and it is a rare occurrence, even at the [-242-] present moment, to meet with one of his original plates in the country districts. They were not, in fact, cheap enough for the hawkers' and pedler's market, and, in consequence, they remained unknown in the cottages and villages of the country.
    But the country trade was not allowed to languish. It must have been somewhere about the time of Hogarth's death that some ingenious fellow, with an excellent eye to business, hit upon the mode of manufacturing those paintings on glass which for more than threescore years have deluged the country, and which even now are sold in considerable quantities, though the traffic in them has declined according to the testimony of a rather extensive manufacturer, to less than one-twentieth of what it was within his recollection. These paintings, which the reader will immediately call to remembrance, are nearly all of two uniform sizes - 14 inches by 11., or 14 inches by 22. They are what they profess to be - oil paintings on glass ; and having an undeniable title to this description, they took amazingly with the common people, and sold in immense numbers.  We may form some notion of the traffic from the fact that it is hardly possible even now to walk through a village or market-town without seeing them exposed for sale, or to enter the cottage of a poor man, or the farmer's kitchen, without finding a pair of them, and it will be oftener half-a-dozen, hanging on tile walls. The smaller size predominates, the larger ones being comparatively rare - a circumstance which may be accounted for by their liability to fracture, the cheapest and thinnest glass being invariably used. Viewed at a little distance, they have a striking resemblance to old oil-paintings ; they have all dark rich backgrounds - are mostly on sacred subjects - show strong contrasts of light and shade, and but a small variety of tints, for a reason which will be obvious presently. A slight blow cracks the thin glass, and then they are ruined until the pedler comes [-243-] round with a duplicate of the same subject. and for a couple of shillings or so makes all right again. We must not omit to notice one peculiarity in these glass-paintings. Though their number is legion, and their designs almost endless in variety, yet these are all, or nearly all, the property of the manufacturers ; it is rare indeed that one meets with an instance of piracy from the works of living artists, or even of copies from standard and classical works - the only exceptions being in the case of single heads, such as Madonnas and Ecce Homos. It is but fair to state, however, that this recommendatory fact is not attributable to the honourable independence of the manufacturer - we shall not call him artist - so much as to the necessities of his trade, which drive him to the use of the simplest design and the fewest possible tints, in order to make the more profit. Most of these pictures are made in London, and the manufacturer generally has recourse to some struggling artist for his design, who, for a couple of guineas or so, will supply him with what he wants, and he can get the engraving done for even less.
    The manner in which these paintings are produced is a mystery to all but the initiated; it is a riddle even to the practical artist ; and it is possible that the reader who has tried to penetrate the secret, after puzzling his brain to no purpose, has given it up in despair. We shall take the liberty to make some revelations on the subject, which will clear up the enigma; and in order to do it effectually, we shall introduce our friends to the etcher of Mr. David Daubham, who at present holds a large share of the country trade in his hands.
    Mr. Daubham's place of business is in Leather Lane, where, however, he is under no necessity of making any demonstration, and does not make any. His atelier is a roomy brick-chamber in the back yard, lighted from one whole side. Upon entering, we find Mr. Daubham engaged [-244-] in a warm discussion with a glass-dealer, upon a question of sixpence in the gross of "eleven-fourteens.'' Pending the settlement of the debate we look round, amid an odour of oil and strong varnish almost too much for our olfactories. A couple of girls and four or five lads are busy in the prosecution of their work. Before we have watched the several processes for five minutes, the whole art and mystery is as patent to us as at can be to Mr. Daubham himself. The glass being first cleaned, an operation in which extra carefulness does not appear to he necessary, the surface which is to receive the picture is rubbed completely over with a preparation of turpentine varnish. Upon this, as it dries rapidly, an impression from the engraved plate is laid, and rubbed firmly upon the glass with the palm. It is then left to dry till a batch of a hundred or so is done. The paper upon which the impression is taken is the flimsiest material that can be used, and is rubbed off by a momentary application of the sponge, leaving every line and touch of the paint adhering to the varnish. But the varnish has not only fastened the ink of the print to the glass, it has also primed the glass for the reception of the colours. In this state, the squares of glass are stuck up on a kind of scaffolding which may be called the easel, with their faces to the light. The easel will hold a score of them at a time. Then each of the lads seizes a pot of colour and a brush, and sets to work at their rear. One covers all the faces and hands with flesh colour ; another dabs on the greens ; a third does browns - and so on, till all the tints are dabbed on and the glass is covered. The whole twenty do not take twenty minutes in the colouring, unless the tints are more numerous than they usually are. It seems unaccountable that any pleasing effect should be produced by such a process ; but in fact, as the engraving supplies all the shading, the effect is not bad, considering all things; and there is no reason why really excellent pictures should not be produced by a similar [-245-] process, if it were thought worth while to improve it by cautious experiment - though it would be impossible to paint even a decent sky in such a way. Hasty and careless as the work appears, it will be easily conceived that a certain amount of dexterity is necessary in laying on the colours within the prescribed outline and it must be done quickly, lest the varnish be disturbed, in which case the colours would not adhere.
    The pictures thus finished have only to be framed in order to be ready for the market. Mr. Daubham contracts for his frames with a firm in the neighbourhood, and finds that he has as much as he can do himself in putting the pictures into them - a job he does not choose to trust to his "hands," who would break too many. The frames are of two kinds - wood, and shining lackered metal pressed into a sort of flower pattern by a die. The far greater proportion of his goods are, however, sold to the trade unframed. The market-price was 9s. a dozen previous to the war, but has fallen a trifle since, though not so much as the demand. The wooden frames cost not quite the same - and seeing that these precious works of art are hawked at the present moment at from 6s. to 7s. the pair, it is clear that profit has not been lost sight of. The number of manufactories similar to Mr. Daubham's, be tells us, is eight or ten, exclusive of the small shops of amateur dabblers in the trade who get up pictures of exceptional sizes at a low rate by working from exhausted plates purchased as old metal. Looking to the vast numbers which are and may be produced, amounting to several gross a week from a single workshop, we are puzzled to know what becomes of them, considering that the country demand has so greatly declined. "But," says Mr. Daubham, "you don't take into account the exportation. They goes abroad, sir. A hundred gross, at least, of my pictures goes to Catholic countries every year. Most of my plates is Catholic subjects - Madonnas and Martyrs, and  the [-246-] blessed saints St. Francis, St. Januarius, St. Nicholas, St. Theresa, and so on. Then I've got twelve different Holy Virgins, and lots of subjects that is Catholic or Protestant, and will do for the home or export market either. I pack 'em without frames in racks made on purpose, and they travel safe enough. The poor people abroad likes to have their patron saint ; and then they vows a picture to the Virgin perhaps, and so they get stuck up in churches. I've heard tell that you can see 'em in most of the churches in Italy, as well as in Spain and Portugal. I used to send twenty to thirty gross to Oporto every year, but the vine-disease has very much injured that trade, and I don't send half as many now. However, I've had a new plate engraved, and got out a new picture, called 'La Vierge O Grap;' that means the Holy Mother with the Grapes, and I'm going to send a hundred gross of them out to Portugal to cure the vines - of course I warrant 'em to do the business. He! He!" We commend Mr. Daubham's candid summary to the notice of book-making travellers and tourists, some of whom, if we are not very much mistaken, have dwelt with curious yet blundering minuteness upon these identical pictures, without conjecturing that in so doing they were describing the products of English industry. But we must leave the obliging Mr. Daubham to the prosecution of his trade, and take a look at another and more pretentious branch of equivocal art.
    We have said that the home-trade in the productions of Mr. Daubham and his congeners, has of late greatly declined. This is not because the love of art has declined, but because it has become more ambitious - we can hardly say more discriminating. The glass-painting has at length been pretty generally discovered not to be the genuine thing and oil-paintings on canvas are now extensively superseding the oil-paintings on glass. In the new trade, the Jews mingle very largely, and take the lead. They get up new frames [-247-] from old worn-out moulds, gild them with Dutch metal, clap a landscape of a good thumping size into them, and sell a pair of them for five-and-twenty shillings. They have a gorgeous appearance, and impart an air of luxury and grandeur to a poor man's cottage or a farmer's parlour, which pleases him none the less that it is barbarously out of keeping with all the rest of his domestic havings. The middle classes accept the same bait ; and even in London, several thousands of such cheap wares are annually retailed. Nothing is more common in the streets of the suburbs than the spectacle of a wandering Jew, with a couple of pair of these tawdry pictures slung round his shoulders, back to back, and stopping to display them at positions favourable for effecting a sale. Both in London and in the country towns and villages, they are sold by the furniture-brokers in large numbers, and, like the paintings on glass, they too are exported - not to Catholic countries, where they would be a drug, but to the colonies, and especially to the emancipated negroes of the West Indies, who have a prodigious appetite for violent colours and gilding. The Jew-school of art is a peculiar one, and none can excel in it who have any conscientious scruples on the score of finish. About half-a- crown the square yard is the usual tariff paid to the artist - the employer finding the canvas. It is by no means indispensable that the canvas be covered by the painter, as, for the majority of subjects, the work is half done to his hands when he receives it. The artists' colourman has to look to this. For moonlights, which are great favourites, he primes the cloth with a blueish lead-colour tint, which answers for the sky - for sunsets, he primes with a vivid orange-colour - for rocky scenes, with a dark umber - for snow-pieces, with pure white; and so on, to spare the painter unnecessary labour and expense of paint. It is found that an adept in this wholesale style of art, notwithstanding the immense area he has to get over before he has [-248-] earned a guinea, will make a comfortable thing of it, and win more money than many a studious artist whose works have gained the applause of the critics. These pictures are not painted one at a time - that would never pay. One pallet is made to suffice for half-a-dozen or so of the same pattern, the whole of which will be generally finished in the day's work. We have known the trade so brisk in speculating times, that two batches per diem were exacted by a well-known Jew exporter from an expert practitioner, whose earnings, while the pressure lasted, could scarcely have been less than ten guineas a week.
    We have remarked in the preceding paper,* (*see "Commercial Art," p.231) that to educate the eye is a slow process. Nothing, in fact, seems to make less satisfactory progress among the common people, than the power of distinguishing what is true and good in art, from what is false and vicious. In spite of Art-unions, of cheap illustrated books, and myriads of pictorial periodicals and newspapers, the very feeblest designs in which have more truth end value than whole cargoes of the chap-pictures above described, we see the people running after this palpable rubbish because it has the appearance of a bargain. The worst of it is, that the classes we generally term the uneducated, are by no means alone in this kind of preference : the vile daubs above described are found not only in the dwellings of the poor and uncultivated, but, with broader frames and more luxurious gilding, in the houses of persons with some pretentious to fashion and taste. People who would not be seen abroad in an ill-cut coat, or a bonnet a month behind the mode, are yet content to gibbet their gloss ignorance of the simplest principles of art on their own walls, for the information of all comers. We do not like to recommend the establishment of a censorship to take cognizance of pictures, or anything which would interfere with an Englishman's privilege of spending his money as he likes ;  [-249-] but we may express our conviction, that the public would profit astonishingly by a despotism which should abolish at once the unprincipled manufacture of that. which is not "goods,'' and the sale of which is a swindle, and compel the busy hands employed in it to work at some useful occupation. 
    It is to be feared that, notwithstanding all the remedies in the shape of Schools of Design, popular works on art, the flood of engravings and the deluge of illustrations weekly issuing from the press, we are really making but little progress in helping the great body of the  community to the faculty of discriminating between a good and a bad imitation of nature or natural objects. A celebrated German critic, who wrote some years back on the state of the arts in this country, attributed what otherwise would have appeared to him the unaccountable insensibility of our populace to the aesthetic qualities of art, to some general defect either in the organs of vision or of the brain. We shall not accept any such theory. In our cities and towns, we have improved wonderfully since this dictum was promulgated ; and if there has not been the same improvement among those living away from the centres of civilisation, it may be that it is because the same opportunities of comparison between what is really excellent and what is not so have not been afforded them. The establishment of provincial galleries and museums of art, and the throwing open of the numerous collections in private mansions, would place the villager in some respect ripen a level with the citizen. To a limited extent, this is already being done. Education, by the press and by the schoolmaster, must imbue our rising youth with a right appreciation of these advantages, so that all shall be eager to make the right use of them. When that is the state of things with us, the right feeling will spring spontaneously out of the right soil and what is an instinct with the southern nations of Europe - the ready perception of the [-250-] beautiful - will be an instinct also with us. We shall hope, in the face of the verdict above quoted, that the day will come, and that some of us will live to see it, when the queer schools of art described in this paper will be numbered with the fossilised facts of a vanished era, and their relics be regarded only as the monuments of a barbarous age.

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