In the process of documenting our Sweepiana collection of items relating to chimney sweeps, Leila Prescott made some interesting discoveries of some of the portraits in the collection.
In 1956 Dr Sidney Henry donated his wonderful collection of ‘Sweepiana’ – items relating to chimney sweeps and their histories, folklore and literature – to Leeds Museums and Galleries. This collection contains hundreds of books, prints and objects, some of which are currently being photographed and their details added to the museum object database to make the contents of the collection more accessible. Over the past few months I have had the pleasure of documenting some of these objects and the experience has been like opening a historical treasure chest and peering through a quirky chimney-sweep-coloured lens.
One of the first books I documented was Italian, “L’Arti da Bologna”, a collection of 17th century prints by Giuseppe Maria Mitelli (1634-1718) based on 16th century drawings of street traders by the artist Annibale Caracci. In this picture the Bolognese sweep (or “spazzacamino”) is depicted in ragged clothes and characteristic broad-brimmed hat with a scraper, the tool of his trade, in his belt. His mouth is open as he calls out for customers. There is an air of the tragic about him.
Portraits of street tradespeople became fashionable subjects for artists. I later discovered a whole series of similar characters in an early 19th century Portuguese book of prints.
This sweep (or “alimpa-chaminés”) has brushes and poles rather than a scraper, and seems altogether more refined and happier with his lot.
A more unpleasant portrait turned up in a rare book of prints by “J. N.” published in 1795. “Sketches from Nature” is a series of prints of named individuals whom the artist encountered travelling in England and Ireland. “Mr Benjamin Birch a chimney sweeper at Salisbury” shown below has the trademark brush, soot-blanket and broad-brimmed hat, but he is pictured next to a defecating dog. This detail is intended to be humorous, but makes Mr Birch seem like a rough and dirty sort of character; his shrewd face looks out at the viewer with a menacing expression.
Thomas, Lord Busby published his “Costumes of the Lower Orders” around 1820, which depicts a London sweep in company with his climbing boy. They carry short brushes, a scraper, blankets for the removal of soot and they are ragged and dusty. The boy seems very small.
To advertise to potential customers, street traders would shout out their services (think of the “Who Will Buy?” scene from the musical “Oliver!”). The Young England’s Pictorial Library series published in 1835 includes a verse and illustration about chimney sweeps in its little book about “London Cries”, presented in the style of a nursery rhyme.
Later Victorian portraits sentimentalised young sweeps, depicting them on their own without their masters for maximum pathos. The example below from around 1847 presents a symbolically apt contrast of the black sweep with the cold white snow of his surroundings.
There are many images of sweeps represented throughout the collection, in cartoons, figurines and illustrations. These few examples highlight the extraordinary scope of Dr Henry’s source materials and provide a snapshot of some of the many pictorial treasures in this unique and curious collection.
By Leila Prescott, Henry Collection Project Placement
Learn more about our Social History Collection.