A picture tells a thousand words

The benefits and challenges of using art to trace the experiences of street sellers. As the saying goes a picture can tell a thousand words but how many are true?

A city built on baskets 2
Unkown maker, Figure / pedlar, Mid 1800s, Wax figure on an ebonised wooden base, National Museums of Scotland. Image Copyright, The Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland.

The individuality of sellers and their experiences is hard to find both in records and art works depicting them. Many like figures, those depicted in Samuel Dukinfield Swarbreck, rely on the stereotypes like the hawker's doll. Rosy-cheeked sellers acting almost as set dressing to the beautiful architecture ( the main focus of the prints). This reliance on stereotype is not limited to prints, within the collections of the National Museums of Scotland show.

Within these collection sits a remarkable a doll of a pedlar in the collections of the national Museums of Scotland. Fragile and complex the doll is a beautiful model, her basket brimming with stunningly crafted items, minute replicas of the knitted wears the pedlar might sell. A beautiful lace bonnet rests on her head. She is an attractive piece and but far, far removed from the practical realities of these women, as is discussed elsewhere in this project many of these sellers were poor women living on the margin, with only the clothes on their back never mind a lacey bonnet. She is an idealised figure, painting a palatable and romantic image of life to middle-class audiences who would have purchased such an item. This disconnect is striking and something I hope to examine further by investigating the real and imagined space of the street.

Amidst these depictions, one artist shines through; Walter Geikie. Born in 1795, Geikie was an artist fascinated with the daily life of Edinburgh. A son of a perfumer and wig maker and left deaf after a bout of fever aged 2, he was a prolific artist producing works in oil, ink and etchings. In these, he captured Edinburgh's humanity and frequently focused on the Labouring classes. In these images, women gather and share a joke, babies cry and reach for their mothers and sellers gather around their baskets lit only by a candle. Known for walking around the city with his sketchbook in hand, these images capture a sense of individuality that is missing from other works. These people are not set dressing to a grand vista. Instead, their lives and actions make the urban space.