The townscape and sky are by William Hodges and the figures are by Julius Caesar Ibbetson.
Eighteenth-century London was a city rich in worldly goods. Elegant shops and bustling markets dazzled tourists. The quantity and variety of commercial merchandise imported and displayed to a cultivated society made trading and shopping a perpetual source of amusement. When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, declared Samuel Johnson in 1777, for there is in London all that life can afford.
The only child of a London blacksmith, William Hodges was brought up among the bustling multitudes of the London streets, hearing the distinct cries from a wide diversity of street sellers. There is nothing which more astonishes a foreigner and frights a country squire, than the Cries of London. My good friend, Sir Roger, often declares that he cannot get them out of his Head, or go to sleep for them the first Week that he is in Town. Milk is generally sold in a Note above Elah, and in Sounds so exceedingly shrill, that it often sets our Teeth on edge. The Chimney Sweeper is confined to no certain pitch; he sometimes utters himself in the deepest Base, and sometimes in the lowest Note of the Gamut.(1)
This rare view of Seven Dials shows the beating heart of fashionable city life with costermongers crowding the streets and pavements, filling the air with: “Cherries-O! Cherries ripe!”, “Sweep! Sweep!”, “Knives scissors to grind!”, “Old chairs to mend!”, “Milk below maid!”, “I sell old clothes. For one penny, for two pennies old clothes to sell!”, “Fresh cod, oh! Cod alive, oh!”(2). The shops advertise their wares with brightly painted signs, selling wine, brandy, cordials, men and boy's clothing and wooden clocks. George Robinson, whose linen drapers shop and warehouse stands on the corner of Little Earl Street and Little St. Andrew Street, is first recorded as a trader in Seven Dials in 1787(3). Robinson continued publicising his business well into the following decade, consistently named in Kent’s renowned London Directory of London traders(4). Two pedestrians peer eagerly through the window of the business that he promotes with a painted sign of a lengthy description of his wares and an anchor, an early example of an advertising logo.
The overcrowded city of London was a curious place in the 1780's. Some areas were decidedly grand; others were irredeemably squalid. In many middling districts, the lodging-houses where strangers slept head to toe existed side by side with the respectable households of tradesmen, clerks and smaller merchants. There was a continual shifting overlap between them: the servant maid down on her luck in a Seven Dials flophouse might, with a stroke of good fortune, be maid of all work to a respectable butcher in Smithfield next week. The widow of a shopkeeper with a small private pension might lodge next door to a pick-pocket or shoplifter.(5) The tavern, the Wooden Clock Maker, across the street on the corner of Great St. Andrews Street and Queens Street, may well have qualified as such a ‘Seven Dials flophouse’.
A stone’s throw from the famous Covent Garden market, Seven Dials was built in 1690 when Thomas Neale was granted the freehold of an area known as Marshland or Cock and Pye Fields. The Great Fire of 1666 caused enormous pressure on city planners, and houses and tenements were hastily thrown together. Neale designed a centre point for seven radiating streets that allowed a greater number of houses to be built.(6) As soon as the streets were laid out, a commemorative pillar was commissioned from Edward Pierce, which was decorated with six sundial faces to represent six of the streets, the seventh street being represented by the pillar itself. It was erected in 1694. The Dial does not appear in the painting because it had been removed by the municipality in 1773.
1. Joseph Addison, The Spectator, number 251, 18 December 1711.
2. Frances Wheatley, a tailor’s son who trained with William Hodges at the school, created the famous series of prints, The Cries of London, which are still reproduced today.
3. Listed in Kent’s Directory – an alphabetical listing of name and places of abode of the directors of companies, persons in public business merchants and other traders in the cities of London, Westminster and Borough of Southwark, 55th edition, 1787, page 141
4. In Kent’s Directory of 1794, the company is still listed as at this address.
5. Sian Rees, The Floating Brothel, Review London 2002, page 19
6. The street running north today is known as Monmouth Street, formerly Great St Andrew Street and then clockwise are Shorts Gardens, formerly Queen’s Street leading to Shorts Gardens (hidden behind the building), Earlham Street, formerly Great Earl Street, Mercer Street, formerly Little White Lion Street from where the viewer stands, Monmouth Street, formerly Little St Andrew Street, Earlham Street, formerly Little Earl Street and Mercer Street, formerly Great White Lion Street.