Trying to paint a picture of what life was like on the streets of our cities two, three, four hundred years ago and then try and personalise it in our own family or social history project is always difficult.
Detaching ourselves from the present, not allowing it to colour our view of the past is really really tricky.
- We rely on imagery, whether, written or in picture form to help us. In this anniversary year of the birth of Charles Dickens it is apparent that the strength of Dicken’s stories do not neccessarily lie in the tale itself but his contemporary portrayl of a world we can only imagine.Read the stories and then apply it to your own family, living in those times and locations.
- Pepys diary and the less well known books by Henry Mayhew create for us at this distance the same vivid picture
For all that is written though one of the most valuable resources are the engravings that reveal in minute detail life on the streets, engravers such as John Thomas Smith whose work depicts London street life. A gallery of images collected as he scoured the streets of London, looking for the trivial, the gossip, the rawness, the reality of London life in the C18th.
The quite brilliant work of Thomas Rowlandson whose caricatures although sometimes cruel and sometimes lewd, are very revealing of life. Rowlandson, captured the brutal honesty of people on the street as they jostled for position both literally and figuratively. The work of Rowlandson can be viewed at the V & A. It should come as no surprise that John Thomas Smith and Rowlandson were one time teacher / student and companions.
London street scenes can be found in every historical collection, C18th and C19th books, newspapers, pamphlets, galleries and in great collections such as the Bowles Collection in Tufts University.
We sometimes need to observe these images like a child does, taking time to extract as much of the story as possible because the detail is so great.