Professor portrays ‘Criers’ clearly

By Sean Leary

Life before convenience stores and shopping malls may be a dismal and bleak picture to most individuals. But it is a far from dismal picture as painted by NIU English Professor Sean Shesgreen.

Shesgreen has edited “The Criers and Hawkers of London,” an enlightening and entertaining tome which explores the various inhabitants of the streets of 17th century London. The book is an interesting and original look at a time period which is distant and alien to most of us, but in actuality was inhabited by people much like us.

The book acquaints us with the 17th century period through Shesgreen’s down-to-earth narration, accompanied by the beautiful engravings and drawings of the 17th century artist Marcellus Laroon. Following an engaging introduction to both the period and the work, “Criers” is divided into sections by the individual drawings of Laroon, with each showing a unique example of one of the denizens of the 17th century streets. This is augmented by a brief character explanation of the people and what they did to earn a living.

People of the time had various goods or services that they would sell, or entertainment they would perform to make a living in the city. Some of the most interesting characters in “Criers” include a rat catcher, various tightrope walkers, haberdashers (complete with six or seven hats balanced on their head), song sellers, prostitutes, druggists selling cure-alls, and con men. Each of the many vendors is gracefully rendered in pen and ink as well as engraved as a print.

What makes each engraving even more fascinating is the photo-realism, uncommon at the time for such lower-class subject matter. Each of the portraits was also taken from a living person, which insured an audience for the original printing of the drawings in a book in the late 1600s.

“The closest example I can think of this occurrence is if you or a friend were on a TV show or in the newspaper. Everyone you knew would buy a copy because they could say they knew the person, or could show their friends that they were in print,” Shesgreen said.

The discovery of the material is almost as interesting as the material itself. Shesgreen had been compiling information and illustrations for the book for 10 years. Just prior to the scheduled printing he was verifying a few details with a British museum when he was told of a private collection of prints held by the Duke of Marlborough.

One week (and a trans-Atlantic flight) later, Shesgreen came upon what he describes as “the richest, most extensive collection of sketches of hawkers outside the British museum.

“In the late 1600s, a nobleman named Pierce Tempest paid Laroon to make sketches of street vendors for a book he was publishing,” Shesgreen said, “but after the engravings were made, all the original drawings disappeared, and these sketches were what I discovered in the collection of the Duke.”

Fortunately, the Duke was very generous with the artwork, and allowed the images to be photographed for Shesgreen’s then upcoming book. A British photographer was hired to do the work, but later Shesgreen discovered that the shots he took were of poor quality and had to be reworked. It was then that Shesgreen contacted American photographer Gordon Means, who in Shesgreen’s words “truly saved the quality of the pictures for the book.” Working from the negatives, Means reproduced the sketches with stunning clarity, picking up details the original photographer had not.

In addition to portraying his sketches, the book also draws an interesting picture of Marcellus Laroon. Laroon came to London thinking he would find a wealthy market for his work. Instead, he found a glut of young artists such as himself, and fell upon hard times. He lived hand-to-mouth within the artists’ subculture of London, doing freelance work sporadically to pay for food and shelter. Most of his money was made doing lewd and obscene drawings of sexual subjects. The book’s biography gives an intriguing picture of the artist as a raconteur, or storyteller.

The greatest bulk of “Criers'” material is that of the subjects themselves. It gives us a perspective we don’t often see, in a time when people very similar to us lived much different lifestyles, and made their living in a much tougher way.

It was certainly a colorful time, and it is made all the more so to us through “The Criers and Hawkers of London.”