Pictures of street hawkers with their trade shouts recorded in captions of poetry or prose are known as “Cries.” They first appeared in Paris around 1500. This early creation of an urban iconography included socially marginal people such as vagrants, beggars, prostitutes, and others.
Fifty years later, these images were established as a stylistic category across Europe. Eventually, they would make their way to New York.
Cries of London
The Cries of London is one of the older genres in English art. The first ensembles appeared at the beginning of the 1600s. Around 1570, nearly fifteen per cent of London’s population consisted of vagrants. The dissolution of monasteries and the disbanding of armies returning from war contributed to the numbers of homeless. For many, life was lived in the street. Men, women, and children competed with each trying to sell whatever they could lay their hands on. The early Cries are an expression of this tumultuous urban theater.
The genre never lost its appeal. The Restoration brought about an explosion of energy. Soon after the buzzing London streets were mirrored in prints and drawings, resulting in the production of a large number of Cries that started in the 1670s and lasted well into the nineteenth century. The calamity of the Great Fire of London had robbed the city of hundreds of its shops and half of its public markets. Hawkers flocked to the capital to offer food, practical services, and other demands. They made themselves heard. London was noisier than ever.
Pictorially, the London (and other) Cries survive in three formats: as broadsheet panels of engravings, as ensembles of individual prints, and as illustrated books. It is significant that an immigrant artist – with the sharp eye of an outsider – grasped the buzz of London street life in greater vivacity than any of his native contemporaries.
Around 1660 Marcellus Laroon moved from the Netherlands to England. After a rich marriage to Elizabeth Keene, the couple settled at Bow Street, Covent Garden. This area was the capital’s hedonistic heart, attracting actors, acrobats, musicians, poets, painters, pimps, whores, and criminals.
As he was able to observe his subjects closely as they passed his house on their way to London’s busy fruit and vegetable market, Laroon gained a reputation for drawing entertainers and street traders. His Cryes of the City of London was originally published in 1687 by Pierce Tempest, and reprinted several times. The seventy-four plates depict London’s street vendors in their costumes (a grammar of garb that today is of value to social historians). Below the frame, the words of the hawker’s cry appears in English, French, and Italian. The publisher was acutely aware of the commercial value of these prints.
Early depictions of hawkers were type characters of their trade. Laroon’s vendors by contrast are individuals with their own sparkle and mannerisms. None of them are idealized or caricatured. The artist drew his figures as he observed them (deformities and all), simpletons, charlatans, religious fanatics, industrious workers, drunken drifters, and fallen women. Many of his characters were known to the locals.
The final edition that used the original copper plates was printed in 1821. They inspired numerous inferior copies, children’s books, and even a set of Meissen porcelain figurines. It seems likely that this edition was seen by a young Neapolitan painter who, in the cause of an eventful career, would transport the genre to New York.
Descended in the line of the Viscontes di Calyo of Calabria, Nicolino Calyo was the son of a Neapolitan army officer. The young man studied at Naples Academy where he received formal training in the techniques of Dutch landscape painting and the “veduta” (cityscape) tradition initiated by Canaletto and Francesco Guardi.
Calyo’s career took shape amidst political turbulence following the 1815 Congress of Vienna which aimed to restore Europe to a state of pre-Napoleonic absolutism. Bonaparte had brought a patchwork of Italian principalities under a single administrative unit and a common Code Civil. The idea of nationhood took hold. After the Congress, the country disintegrated again, but the patriotic call for unification could not be repressed.
Opponents of the re-imposed regime organized themselves in secret societies, the most important of which was the Carbonari (charcoal-burners). In July 1820, liberal army officers revolted against Ferdinand I, the Bourbon King of Naples. Calyo participated in the failed uprising. Ferdinand outlawed carbonarism and, under threat of severe punishment, rebels were forced into exile. For Calyo, expulsion meant the start of a peripatetic life, sketching and painting across Europe.
As his father retained close political affiliations with the Spanish government, Calyo was able to travel and develop his painting skills across the Continent. By 1829, the artist had joined an Italian exile community in Malta. Three years later, he served as a court artist for Spain’s Neapolitan-born Queen Maria Cristina and produced several views of Granada.
At the beginning of the Carlist civil wars in 1833, Calyo left Spain for America. One can only guess his motivation to sail away. During his stay in Granada he would have listened to the stories of powerful ‘Indianos,’ men who had returned to Spain having amassed their fortune in the American colonies. Continuous political unrest in Europe was another reason to pack his bags.
On arrival, he settled in Baltimore where he advertised his services, offering ‘remarkable views executed from drawings taken on the spot’. The work of this academically trained foreign artist (Italian immigration at that time was virtually non-existent) was greatly appreciated by American patrons in search of European finesse.
In June 1835, Calyo traveled to Philadelphia and from there to New York which would become his permanent home, arriving in Manhattan at the time of the Great Fire. He produced a series of gouache images of the blaze, two of which became widely known having been reproduced by British-born topographical engraver William James Bennett. Calyo also recorded scenes from the aftermath of the disaster, depicting the ruins of Manhattan from the shores of Brooklyn and Williamsburg.
In 1837, the artist traveled south to exhibit his work in New Orleans and paint a perspective of the city. His interest in landscape painting is evident from sketches he made on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.
The Cries genre reached New York in the early nineteenth century. In 1808, Samuel Wood printed and sold a series of Cries of New York (images in black; no rhyming text). In 1830, Solomon King published a collection with rhymes for juveniles and colored prints by Knickerbocker. Although of interest for the introduction of the genre, these publications have marginal historical value.
Calyo’s contribution was more substantial. In the early to mid-1840s, he created over a hundred watercolor images of Manhattan street vendors, cart men, and other urban workers, capturing the hustle and bustle of street life in the metropolis. There is no added text to the portraits, and no indication of the cries that were shouted (or sang) to solicit customers. All that is left to the imagination of the beholder.
Titled Cries of New York, the collection offers a glimpse of pre-Civil War New York with wagons delivering dairy products and carts trading ice; with hot corn sellers, charcoal peddlers, newsboys, and prostitutes pretending to sell strawberries from baskets. The fruit-selling tart is a recurring image in this genre and reflects a social reality (Nell Gwyn, Charles II’s favorite mistress, started her career as an orange peddler). Calyo’s choice of “types” is remarkably similar to that of Marcellus Laroon’s Covent Garden characters.
With both black and white criers selling their wares, Calyo’s figures – as if on stage – engage in activities typical of their occupations, wearing outfits that give specificity to their status. Unlike Marcellus Laroon, he was not a stylish character painter; his figures rarely rise above the limitations of caricature. In spite of that, the vividness of his Cries show a keen interest in urban life and man’s struggle to survive adversity. His images reflect a Jacksonian political culture of extending democracy in which the notion of the “common man” was revalued and dignified.
The vendor’s cries, added to the music of ballad singers and the scraping of barrel organs, created a cacophony of sound in the streets. During the nineteenth century noise became a nuisance issue. Bills and bylaws were issued to combat city din. Rather than concentrate on machine pollution, noise abating campaigns turned against hawkers and buskers, but their bans did not suppress the human voice in the urban habitat. It was the car that eventually silenced a long tradition of street cries.
The finest London Cries were created in times of turmoil and transition. Likewise, Calyo’s Cries of New York reflect the commotion of rapid change in a period that slavery had only recently been abolished, and newly arrived German and Irish immigrants were crowding in downtown tenements.
Cries were an artistic attempt to create an urban dictionary. In London and New York it took the eyes (and ears) of immigrant artists to appreciate the wide range of social diversity and weave a multi-colored tapestry of metropolitan life in flux.
Illustrations, from above: The Cryes of the City of London, c. 1688 by Marcellus Laroon (British Museum); The Great Fire of New York, 1836 by Nicolino Calyo (New-York Historical Society); The Oyster-Stand by Nicolino Calyo; The Newspaper Stand by Nicolino Calyo; The Market Woman by Nicolino Calyo; The Hot Corn Seller by Nicolino Calyo; and The Cries of New-York; illustrated by Knickerbocker; published by Solomon King in 1830.