The Gentle Author’s Cries of London

A new book from London documentarian The Gentle Author examines the unique visual tradition of the Cries of London – printed cards featuring the most celebrated traders and pedlars of the day whose song helped to sell their wares on the city’s streets

Taking their name from the shouts and calls issued forth by the city’s street traders of 400 years ago, the ‘Cries of London’ refers to the popular illustrated prints that were made in honour of their toil.

The Gentle Author, the writer behind the fascinating Spitalfields Life blog, has brought together a host of examples from this unique visual tradition in a new book designed by David Pearson.

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The Gentle Author’s Cries of London examines the work of 12 artists who took to the streets to draw some of London’s most vocal traders and, in the process, brought forth a craze for picture-cards, or ‘vagabondiana’.

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Often incorporating song or performance into their sales patter, many of the traders became relatively well known in their day, with their stories celebrated in pictorial form. While these cards became highly collectible objects, as portraits of working people they are now seen as valuable documents of social history.

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The various street cries – from “Ripe walnuts ripe!” to “Quick winkles, quick, quick, quick!” – related to anything from foodstuffs to singing birds; or they offered up a particular service – from featherbed-drying to spoon carving. Certain calls became familiar sounds of the city’s urban thoroughfares and were occasionally recorded in songbooks.

“Commonly, cries also became unintelligible to those who did not already know what was being sold,” the Gentle Author wrote in a post about the project on the Guardian last month.

“Sometimes the outcome was melodic and lyrical, drawing the appreciation of bystanders, and at other times discordant and raucous as hawkers strained their voices to be heard across the longest distance.”

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During the 20th-century, the Gentle Author explains, the ‘Cries’ images were used on everything from cigarette cards and chocolate boxes, to biscuit tins and tea towels.

Most famously, one featured on “tins of Yardley talcum powder from 1912 onwards, becoming divorced from the reality they once represented as time went by, copied and recopied by different artists.”

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Prior to advertising, the cries of the traders functioned as jingles alerting passersby to the latest products. “Before radio, television and internet, they were the harbingers of news, gossip and novelty ballads,” says the Gentle Author. “These itinerants had nothing but they had possession of the city.”

The Gentle Author’s Cries of London is published by Spitalfields Life Books; £20. See spitalfieldslife.bigcartel.com

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