Inquiring reader: I was visually arrested by this image of St. Martin’s Church Lane, which was painted by the German artist, George Johann Scharf (1788-1860), who lived on this street during the prime of his career. The image, painted in 1828, is a snapshot of London during George IV’s reign as king and captures the metropolis as I imagine it in those days. Born in Bavaria, George Scharf studied painting and lithography under Professor Hauber in Munich. The illustrator began traveling throughout Europe in 1810 and was caught up in the siege of Antwerp in 1814. He escaped and enlisted in the English army, where he drew maps and sketches of fortifications and troop movements. After Waterloo, Scharf moved to Paris, and in 1816 he emigrated to England and became a successful illustrator of ordinary life in England.
George Scharf has been described as the pictorial equivalent of the literary chronicler of early Victorian London, Charles Dickens. Scharf studied in Munich and became an expert in lithographic printing and miniature portrait painting. He settled in London in 1816, at a time when the capital was undergoing a dramatic expansion, and spent the rest of his life in the city. The rapidly changing face of early Victorian London is depicted in this exhibition through some 60 works. Scharf’s vivid, detailed drawings capture every aspect of ordinary life, showing people going about their daily business in fine detail – from the boots on their feet to the buttons on their coats and the hats on their heads – recorded with an immediacy that is almost photographic.
Not only do the pictures offer an interesting insight into London’s inhabitants, Scharf also precisely recreates the architectural landscape of the city. His work combines a sensitive observation of the individuals in the pictures with architectural accuracy to give a full picture of the city and its people as he saw it. In the 1820s and 1830s London experienced a huge growth in what would now be described as ‘consumer culture’ and Scharf’s pictures depict the advertising hoardings and shop signs that started to appear all around the city. They also reflect how society changed, with the introduction of gas lighting, which made the streets safer, and meant that London could start to develop a nightlife, leading to the opening of the first music halls. – Private View Held By Richard Andrews, ExhibitionsNet.com
Once Scharf arrived in London, he married his landlady’s sister. London was then a thriving centre for lithography – the new printing process, and Scharf was to enjoy success with mostly topographical views and genre scenes that could be transformed into prints.* These three scenes show how dairies operated in London. Cows were milked on the premises. In the Cow Keeper’s Shop, a customer is making a purchase while the man on the right pours milk into large tin pails.
The milk was collected twice daily and taken out into the city streets by girls, usually Welsh or Irish, who carried two heavy pails on a yoke. Their routes varied, but were usually a few miles long. The girls called out through the streets and squares for customers to purchase the fresh milk. Their cries included, “Milk below, Maids!” and “Buy any milk?” In the scene below, a wealthier class of customer makes a purchase in Westminster Dairy. City conditions for cows were not optimal, cooped up inside as they were. A few lucky beasts would spend their day grazing in Green Park, where maids sold milk by the cup.
During this era, the city of London was transformed into a modern metropolis. Massive renovations included gas lights, new canals, sewers, and water mains, creating a boon for construction. George Scharf captured these scenes of upheaval time and again, focusing on the laborer more than the surrounding buildings.
Placard carriers were a common sight in early 19th century London. People were hired to carry signs or wear sandwich boards and circulate in targeted areas.
Shooter’s Hill, which offers splendid views, is the tallest point south of London. Situated along the Dover Road, it was notoriously dangerous at night, attracting highwaymen and robbers. In the 18th century a hotel was built for wealthy travelers on this spot, but Shooter’s Hill was also well known for a nearby gibbet and gallows. Samuel Pepys wrote in 1661: “I rode under a man that hangs at Shooters Hill and a filthy sight it was to see how the flesh is shrunk from his bones”. (British Library, Online Gallery)
Tens of thousands of sculptures, paintings, animals, and scientific artifacts arrived from abroad during this era of exploration, war, and colonization, and were displayed in newly built museums and galleries.
Like today, people purchased tickets to attend art exhibitions. Painters jockeyed for prime positions for their paintings,which were hung one on top of the other. The best wall space was reserved for the better known artists or the larger, more important works.
Glass and wood cases contained artifacts brought back by explorers or filled with collections from private individuals. Exotic animals were stuffed and displayed in halls big enough to contain them. The plundering of important artifacts and antiquities from other cultures, such as the Elgin Marbles, was controversial even then and remains controversial to this day. While some bemoaned the pillage, others enthusiastically came to see the exhibited items.
George Scharf also created illustrations for a number of London’s scientific institutions, such as the Zoological and Geological Societies and the Royal College of Surgeons. This work brought him into contact with leading scientists, including Robert Owen and Charles Darwin.*
A row with Darwin over the pricing of drawings of South American fossil bones – Darwin thought he was being ripped off – curtailed this lucrative source of income and marked a decline in Schaff’s fortunes.*
The artist’s last years were rather abject: living apart from his family, he was reduced to trying to sell his London drawings to the City Corporation, who turned him down. He even solicited minor German royalty for a pension in exchange for all of his work, but was again rebuffed. Following his death in 1860, his wife, Elizabeth, sold over a thousand drawings and watercolours to the British Museum. *Joe Staines, The Guardian
More about the topic:
- *Art Review, George Scharf’s London
- George Scharf, British Museum
- British Library, George Scharf Painting
- George Scharf
- V&A Prints
- London Events: Several images of Scharf’s paintings
- Science and Society Picture Libary
- George Scharf, Westminster Elections, Covent Garden, Sotheby’s
- Entry, The Dictionary of National Biography, 1909
A short word about Sir George Scharf, George Scharf’s son (1820-1895). Sir George was a British art critic who studied in the schools of the Royal Academy. He illustrated books related to art and antiquity, largely taught and lectured, and helped to design the Greek, Roman, and Pompeiian courts at the Cyrstal palace. Sir George Scharf was also appointed director to the National Portrait Gallery. (1911 Encyclopedia, Sir George Scharf)