I well remember the Onion Johnnies, Breton farmers who loaded their bicycles with their harvest of pink onions, crossed the Channel to England, and pedalled around selling their produce from late summer through the autumn. They were still quite common in the 1960s, but had all but abandoned their trade until a revival at the end of the twentieth century.
They’re an example of my theme for this weekend: paintings of tinkers, hawkers, road-menders and the many other itinerants who spent much of their lives on the roads of Europe before the advent of motorised transport. Once some of them gained motor cars, they became known in Britain as commercial travellers, and could drive hundreds of miles in a day. On foot it had taken them days or weeks to walk from one town to the next.
My first examples both come from the brush of Hieronymus Bosch. The exterior of his now reconstructed Wayfarer triptych from 1500-10 shows the figure of a travelling man in the foreground, against a countryside background with a single tumbledown building.
The man is thin and gaunt, and looks slightly anxiously towards the lower left of the panel. He wears ad hoc clothing for walking: a long-tailed jacket and trousers, with a soft cloth chaperon hat. His clothes are tatty, in need of repair, and a dull grey-brown. The right knee of the trousers has a large hole, and the left lower leg is pulled up above a dirty bandage tied around a wound in that leg. His footwear is odd, with a short black boot on the right foot, and a low, flat black ‘mule’ on the left.
In his left hand, he carries a brimmed hat, which has a bobbin stuck into it, and in his right hand a walking stick, which he holds upside down, its club-like handle close to the ground by his right foot. He has a knife in a sheath secured to his belt, and carries on his back a large wickerwork pack, which is secured across his chest. Attached to the outside of the pack is a ladle, and an animal skin.
Behind him, on the left of the painting, is a dog cowed and possibly growling towards him. Behind that is a sow and half a dozen piglets feeding at a small trough. There are also a couple of chickens. Behind the animals is a dilapidated building, which bears the sign of a white swan outside. In the doorway, a man is conducting negotiations with a woman. Another woman looks out from a broken window. At the left there is a bird in a cage, and at the right side of the building a man is urinating by a small fence.
That is remarkably similar to the exterior of The Haywain Triptych from a decade later. Over those years, Bosch’s traveller has aged significantly. He now has white hair and a close-cropped full beard, and looks to the left of the panels. He wears a black chaperon-style hat, a long brown tunic, and matching brown trousers. His tunic is loosened at the neck and upper chest to reveal a black waistcoat and white underclothing. The left knee of his trousers is split to reveal most of that kneecap. He wears a pair of short black boots. A sheathed knife is on his belt, and he holds a walking stick, with its club-like end on the ground, in front of a collared dog which is snarling at him.
On his back is a large wickerwork pack, a large wooden spoon on its side, which is fastened around his arms and chest with a leather strap.
Behind him, on the left, three robbers are tying another traveller to a tree, having stolen his outer clothing and his pack. They’re armed with a crossbow and pikes, which rest on the ground by them. On the right, in the distance, a man and a woman are dancing amid their flock of sheep, to the music provided by a bagpiper, who is sat underneath another tree, which has a large box fixed to its trunk. The background shows rolling pasture and woods, rising to a hill on which a large gallows is being erected. A church tower rises from a town in the far distance.
Although there are further glimpses of these itinerants, they didn’t really catch on with artists until the middle of the nineteenth century.
One notable exception is George Morland’s fascinating Ratcatchers from 1793, which shows a couple of itinerant workers with the dogs they used to catch vermin such as rats. The man on the left is holding up one of their successful catches.
It took Gustave Courbet to draw attention to those folk who travellers met on the road, in the form of stone breakers and miscellaneous peasants, in the country around his home town of Ornans in France.
Tragically, Courbet’s most important painting of his early career was destroyed during the Allied bombing of the German city of Dresden in 1945: The Stone Breakers from 1849. This surviving image of the painting is of sufficient quality to give an idea of what it must have looked like. The artist later explained that he encountered this group of men on the roadside one day, apparently when he was in Ornans. He felt they were so complete an expression of poverty that he was immediately inspired to paint them, and invited them to attend his studio the following morning.
The two are working beside a rural road near Ornans, breaking rocks into smaller stones used to provide a surface for the road. Both their faces are obscured, giving them anonymity, and their clothing is badly worn, torn, and frequently patched. The man on the right kneels on one knee as he brings a long-handled hammer down to break a rock, while the other carries a large wicker basket of broken rocks. One wears wooden working clogs, the other a pair of worn-out leather shoes.
Like the many thousands of other such teams who would have been scattered around the roads of France at the time, they are living on the job, at the roadside, their pot and a large cooking spoon on a sheet at the far right.
Courbet’s Peasants from Flagey Back from the Fair from the following year shows countryfolk driving oxen and other animals along a country road by the light of the setting sun. These are not the rural poor by any means, but middle class farmers. In the right foreground, a man with a black eye (presumably from a punch-up) holds an umbrella and lets a small pig lead the way. Strapped to his back is large metal kettle with a spout and other goods.
In the summer of 1857, presumably after he had seen Courbet’s masterpiece, the Pre-Raphaelite landscape painter John Brett started work on his response.
Brett’s Stonebreaker (1857-58) was painted close to his home, at a popular ‘beauty spot’ in the south of England, near Box Hill, which dominates the distance. The milestone at the left shows the distance to London as 23 miles, and David Cordingly considers this places it along a historic track known as Druid’s Walk, which leads from the Pilgrim’s Way, over the Leatherhead Downs to Epsom and London.
Brett made extensive sketches and studies of the motif, and worked on the final oil painting for at least twenty days en plein air, but then completed it in the studio during the following autumn and winter. The painting was shown at the Royal Academy in 1858, where it aroused considerable critical interest.
Among others taking up the theme was Constant Troyon, the animal artist. Of all his paintings, On the Way to Market from 1859 is perhaps his most atmospheric. Its melee of sheep, cattle, dog, donkey and horse are outlined by the brilliant sunlight, which combines with the breath of the animals and the dust kicked up by their hooves to create a remarkable shallow-focus effect. Who knows how long and far these people and their animals had travelled? They could have come from a nearby village, or driven for days with those lambs in their panniers.
The nineteenth century brought increasing urbanisation, and with it transformation of the roads. In Britain, labourers from Ireland, whose predecessors had dug the canals, travelled around installing utilities for the middle and upper classes.
Ford Madox Brown started work on Work, often considered to be his greatest painting, as early as 1852, but didn’t complete the original or his second version for over a decade. This is the Birmingham (second) version of Work, painted between 1859-63, showing a crowded street scene in Heath Street, Hampstead, at the time one of London’s ‘leafy’ suburbs.
At its centre is a gang of navvies, that term originating with the word navigators, who had dug the canals of the previous century. Here they’re engaged in digging up a road, probably to lay a sewer as part of the campaign to improve the hygiene of Victorian London. Inspired by the social satirical comment of William Hogarth’s many prints and paintings, Brown is effectively giving a meticulously detailed account of the breadth and depth of contemporary society.
Although an elaborately constructed artifice, Work is probably the closest that Brown and the Pre-Raphaelites came to the Naturalism which was developing in France, whose depictions of the itinerant appear in the next article.