Street Cries and Traders, Homerton Hospital, exhibition review: ‘Picturesque images of local life’

A blind street musician plays the violin while his dog expectantly holds a bucket for contributions, 1884. Image: London Picture Archive

‘Three for a pound, get ’em quick!’

You do not have to spend long in East London before you get caught up in the passion for depicting local street life.

From television, film and photography to painting and music, renditions of the area’s iconic thoroughfares abound in contemporary culture.

What may be less well known is how long this tradition has been with us.

In fact, picturesque images of local life – known traditionally as ‘street cries’ – have been a genre of collectibles since the 17th century.

View of Bartholomew Fair, West Smithfield, in 1721. Image: London Picture Archive

Most commonly depicted on prints, cigarette cards, tea towels and other objects were street traders crying their wares, with captions detailing the goods they were hawking and the witty lines they used to attract customers.

Subjects also included musicians, performers and other aspects of the variegated street life that Londoners have enjoyed down the ages.

A large number of these images are housed online at the London Picture Archive, and a selection of 13 items from this collection is currently on display at Homerton Hospital, in the main corridor directly opposite the entrance.

These include an 18th-century, fan-shaped print of Bartholomew Fair, 19th-century woodcuts of demure flower-sellers, photos from the late 19th and early 20th centuries of harpists entertaining en plein air, a female street artist drawing landscapes in chalk on Kingsway, as well as a purveyor of nougat bars and telescope views by Big Ben.

Italian street musicians, 1877. Image: London Picture Archive / Thomson Collection

Unfortunately the lighting in the corridor where the display is hung is poor (not helped by the fact that a number of the lights immediately above the pictures are out), and most of the images are quite dark, making them difficult to see clearly behind the highly-reflective glass in which they are framed.

The curious may be better off consulting the collection online, but it you happen to be in the area and want a glimpse of the originals, it is worth popping into the hospital to have a peek.

Street Cries and Traders is running at Homerton Hospital, Homerton Row, E9 6SR.