There is a spot in London where you may stand perfectly still and see nine streets all at once. Or, at least, you used to be able to: Shaftesbury Avenue swallowed up a couple of them in 1886. But leading thirteen-year-old John Thomas Smith around London in 1779, his mentor Joseph Nollekens could stop him in precisely this magic spot:
“‘There, Tom, stand here, and you will see the entrances of nine streets; my mother showed them to me. There, stand just there, and don’t turn your head, only your eyes’; placing me, with both hands upon my shoulders, at about fifteen feet from Grafton-street, nearly in the centre of Moor-street. ‘There, now look to the left, is not there Monmouth-street? Now let your eye run along the way to the first opening, that’s Great White Lion-street; well, now bring your eye back to the opposite street in front of you, that’s Little Earl-street. Throw your eye over the Seven Dials, and you will see Tower-street: well, now, stand still, mind, don’t move, and bring it a little to the right, and you will see West-street; bring it nearer to the right, and there’s Grafton-street; and then, look down at your toes, and you’ll find yourself standing in Moor-street.’”
The boy had been tagging alongside Nollekens for years already: the celebrated sculptor was his father’s boss, and had inaugurated their lifelong friendship by taking the bewildered Smith, then aged eight, to the public hanging in Oxford Road of the notorious thief “Sixteen-string Jack.” Dressed in his lovely pea-green coat, Sixteen-string was—well, he was strung up—this for robbing a chaplain “of his watch and eighteen-pence in money.”
If life was cheap in London back then, fashion most assuredly was not. Nollekens made out like a bandit himself by smuggling in forbidden foreign lace, gloves and stockings, stuffing his contraband inside hollow plaster busts. He also gleefully dealt in “botched antiques”—what dealers now refer to as “marriages.” You marry an antique by clapping together two unrelated bits to form a valuable but spurious whole. Nollekens was a master of this art, secretly joining together various cheap fragments of busted Roman antiquities with new replacement pieces “aged” brown with tea; presented to rich suckers as a miraculously whole ancient bust or statue, these paste-up jobs netted him huge profits.
As his godson, the young Smith gave the childless Nollekens company that he clearly missed. In return, Nollekens showed Smith how to make a killing in the art world. Some Londoners took the direct route and simply stole art outright, true, and there was even a roaring trade in swiping ornate brass door knockers: but if Nollekens was a bit of a crook, he was no thief. He was, in fact, a fine and entirely legitimate sculptor. Samuel Johnson and George III both sat in Nolleken’s Mortimer-street studio to have their busts made; Prime Minister Pitt was a rather less willing customer, since Nollekens took his death mask.
Smith later recalled watching with wonder as painter Thomas Gainsborough came in to take a bit of direction from the famed sculptor. Gainsborough requested him to look at a model of an ass’s head which he had just made.
Nollekens.—“You should model more with your thumbs; thumb it about, til you get it into shape.”—“What,” said Gainsborough, “in this manner?” having taken up a bit of clay; and looking at a picture of Abel’s Pomeranian Dog which hung over the chimney-piece—“this way?”—“Yes,” said Nollekens, “you’ll do a great deal more with your thumbs.”
The visiting painter noticed the boy gaping at them, and handed it to him: “My little fellow… I am sure you long for this model; there, I will give it to you.” Afraid that firing the thumb-pressed memento in a kiln might destroy it, Smith carefully preserved Gainsborough’s little clay dog for the rest of his days.
This was John Smith’s life’s work until his death in 1833—saving the forgotten castoffs of his era’s culture. The result was a series of extraordinary books—scrapbooks, really—published posthumously and bearing titles like Lives of Famous London Beggars (1885) and An Antiquarian’s Ramble in the Streets of London (1849). Smith had plenty of fellow pack rats and eccentric collectors among his London contemporaries, and these too were detailed in his 1845 compendium Vagabondiana. Here was the woman who went to local dog-dealers each morning and pried the teeth out of any dead dogs to sell them as burnishing tools to bookbinders; over there was the wealthy businessman who got up at 4 a.m. to collect loose horseshoes off the streets, purely out of a collector’s mania. Following them later in the day came the “rich soap-boiler who never missed an opportunity of pocketing nails, pieces of iron hoops, and bits of leather in his daily walks; and these he would spread upon a large walnut three-flapped dining table.”
And it is thanks to Smith in his volume A Book for a Rainy Day (1845) that we know that the muttering man with a stolen shopping cart—or his very close relative, at least—was as much a feature of cities then as today. Smith created an engraving of Old Simon, a London beggar who could often be found slumbering in a shattered old Dyot Street building known to locals as Rats’ Castle. Simon was fond of discussing with passersby the things he had read, for he was a walking library of sorts:
This man, who wore several hats, at the same time suffered his beard to grow, which was of a dirty yellow-white. Upon his fingers were numerous brass rings. He had several waistcoats, and as many coats, increasing in size, as he was enabled by the extent of his uppermost garment to cover the greater part of the bundles, containing rags of various colours; and distinct parcels with which he was girded about, consisting of books, canisters containing bread, cheese, and other articles of food; matches, a tinder-box, and meat for his dog; cuttings of curious events from old newspapers; scraps from Fox’s Book of Martyrs, and three or four dog’s-eared and greasy thumbed numbers of the Gentleman’s Magazine.
Simon had to share his squat in Rats’ Castle, though, with the dog-snackers: grimy and ghoulish men who caught and skinned unfortunate stray mutts for pelts.
Smith’s penchant for collecting was more discerning but scarcely less varied. Chafing under an apprenticeship of painting portraits of “retired embroidery weavers, their crummy wives, and tightly-laced daughters,” he eventually found his perfect job as the Keeper of Prints at the British Museum. It suited his talents, for it was his gift to recognize great genius before most others did: immediately after the death of his friend William Blake, he eulogized that “Perhaps no man had a higher claim to originality”—adding that, in time, Blake’s work might be as assiduously collected as Michelangelo’s.
Just as valuable was Smith’s eye for art bound for destruction. Upon learning that some murals newly discovered behind wainscoting at Westminster were being pulled down by remodelers, Smith began showing up there at dawn every day. Nobody else had paid much attention to the murals: nobody cared about something so ordinary. But Smith hurriedly drew newly exposed bits of mural each day before workmen came in at 9 a.m. to wreck the very work that he had just captured on paper.
Yet that sort of speed is vital in art. The quiet concentration typically needed to create a finished piece hides the fact that quick reflexes are crucial to superior artistry. There is a talent in suddenly stopping to capture the brilliant flash of the mundane. Smith recalled how engraver William Hogarth, in the middle of getting lathered at Joseph Watkin’s barbershop on Tottenham Court Road, observed a boy out on the sidewalk setting down a hot meat pie too hard upon a wooden hitching post: the plate shattered, sending gravy running down the sides of the post. Hogarth sat up, and then with his head still lathered he bolted over to the barbershop window, comically intent on sketching the steaming mess outside. If someone were to ask me to describe the actual work of aesthetic observation, I might simply point to Hogarth and that smashed plate of pie: it is as true a précis of the artistic mind as the day Smith recorded it.
How many of life’s interactions are cast off with no more thought than those murals and meat pies? Yet one of Smith’s books, The Cries of London (1839), not only preserves the calls of various street vendors of wine, lobsters, and almanacs; it even renders them as sheet music, complete with appropriate time signatures. (In case you’re wondering, wooden spoons are sold in 2/4 time; almanacs in 6/8.) Smith could save the most ordinary conversations whole, including all the interruptions, gossip, subtle put-downs, and chaotic looping back upon itself of actual dialogue.
Here, for instance, is Nollekens strolling about the perpetually ailing hulk of Westminster Abbey and talking shop with its employees:
Old Gayfere, the Abbey-mason… exclaimed, as he came toddling on, “Ah, Mr. Nollekens, are you here?”
Nollekens. “Here! Yes; and why do you suffer that Queen Anne’s altar to remain here, in a gothic building? Send it back to Whitehall, where it came from. And why don’t you keep a better look-out, and not suffer the fingers of figures and the noses of busts to be knocked off by them Westminster [choir] boys?”
Gayfere. “Why, what an ungrateful little man you are! Don’t it give you a job now and then? Did not Mr. Dolben have a new nose put upon Camden’s face the other day at his own expense? I believe I told you that I carried the rods when Fleetcraft measured the last work at the north tower when the abbey was finished.”
Nollekens. “There’s the bell tolling; Oh, no, it’s the quarters; I used to hear them when I was in the Abbey working with my master Scheemakers. There’s a bird flying!
Gayfere. “A bird? Ay, you may see a hundred birds; they come in at the broken panes of glass.”
Nollekens. “Here comes Mr. Champneys. Well, you have been singing at St. Paul’s, and now you are come to sing here: why don’t you put a little more powder in your wig? Why it’s as brown as my maid Bronze’s skin now is: that’s what’s called a Busby [wig], an’t it?”
Champneys. “It is, Mr. Nollekens. Pray how is Mrs. Nollekens? I was once a beau of hers.”
Nollekens. “Oh dear! I was looking at this monument, to see if it was the same wig, but he has a cap on.”
Champneys. “That’s a fine monument, Mr. Nollekens.”
Nollekens. “Yes, a very good one; it was done by [Francis] Bird. Mrs. Nollekens says he was fond of flogging the Westminster boys.”
Champneys. “It is said so. Our friend Roberts, of the Exchequer, has Busby’s house at Ealing, where Busby’s Walk still remains, on which the Doctor used to exercise of a morning, to ‘wash his lungs,’ as he used to say.”
On the conversation goes, skittering hither and thither. Reading it is like falling asleep sprawled across a Westminster pew and miraculously waking up two centuries earlier, eavesdropping in on three men who did not notice your slumbering form when they walked in. You cannot see them, and yet you can hear perfectly: they are living, breathing voices in the room. They have come alive.
Now, I think it is safe to say that a typical history of London might include a great deal more about Edmund Burke and George III than, say, about a muffin-man or a butter sculptor. And this is why I love Smith: when he chooses to describe a politician of the era, he picks the Muffin-Man of Garrat. The town in question was a pretty little village on the road to Tooting, where a sober local committee had gloriously mutated by Smith’s time into a crazed electoral bash: after every General Election, the pubs of Garrat would throw open their doors, get everybody roaring drunk, and elect some agreeable idiot as the town’s supposed “Mayor.” One such barmy burgher was Sir Harry Dinsdale, a London knight whose main occupations seemed to be disrupting the peace at night and the social order during the day—though he settled down a bit by finding himself a bride in a local workhouse. For no particular reason, Dinsdale would roam the streets in the afternoon, having appointed himself to the profession of a muffin man: “He had a little bell, which he held to his ear, smiling ironically at its tingling. His cry was ‘Muffins! Muffins! ladies come buy me! pretty, handsome, blooming, smiling maids.’”
Pretty maids indeed: one day, Smith ogles a young woman who arrived on Nollekens’s doorstep bearing pats of butter. I am not engaging in Georgian euphemism, for I mean she actually carried in a tray of the stuff for the sculptor. She was Mrs. Wilmot, an out-of-work housekeeper who hoped that her abilities with butter might get hired at the home of the famous sculptor: “My friends tell me I have a peculiar talent for modeling in butter,” she explained, “and I have brought a few pigs and sheep in this butter-boat to show you.” Nollekens was deeply impressed by both the art and the artist—rather too deeply impressed, perhaps. Young Mrs. Wilmot and Smith strained to listen as Nollekens and his wife bickered about their visitor in the next room: the situation was immediately apparent. “She is jealous,” Wilmot confided to Smith. “So far my good looks are against me.”
You would think that Mrs. Nollekens had little to fear; the sculptor’s wife had been, it was said, Samuel Johnson’s inspiration for Pekuah, the adventurous attendant to the Princess of Abyssinia in his great parable Rasselas. But she nonetheless ordered the butter-artist out of the house. Perhaps Mrs. Nollekens preferred her husband to follow the art of Mrs. Dards—an elderly lady whose hands and handiwork, rather less alluringly, both stank of fish. Dards spent decades visiting London taverns collecting fishbones and fisheyes from publicans who gently humored her odd requests, and then painstakingly assembling these humble materials into extraordinary little curios of flora and fauna. She became famous, in her way, and by 1800, she was handing out ornate engraved cards bearing the following notice:
I would not know of any of these fine artists working in butter and fishbones were it not for John T. Smith and his miscellanies.
Even when recognizable names appear in his works, it is often from the oddest angles. Smith was not easily awed—for to him his contemporaries are merely men and women, and still far from being the names whomped upon the spine of a Penguin Classic. But even he was a little cowed when, in his walkabouts, he encountered the formidable old Samuel Johnson. The Doctor was, it seems, a man you’d want to stay on the good side of.
He was tall and must have been, when young, a powerful man…. I once saw him follow a sturdy thief, who had stolen his handkerchief in Grosvenor Square, seize him by the collar with both hands, after which he quickly let him loose; and then, with an open hand, gave the thief so powerful a smack upon the face, that [it] sent him off the pavement staggering.
Watching Johnson out and about with his thick walking stick and even thicker books—Johnson wisely bought coats with immense pockets, nearly large enough to hold two folios—young Smith could see the effects of time on the man. Nearsightedness made Johnson lean in so close over his books and candles that his wigs were always singed at the front.
It is just as well that Johnson could not see what was coming. When the old writer died, the vultures were immediately upon him: as a surgeon performed the autopsy in the writer’s own house, in an adjoining room the executor and a local silversmith weighed out and assayed Johnson’s silver teapot. It was sold, as the teapot’s new owner put it, “at the very minute when they were, in the next room, closing the incision through which Mr. Cruickshank had explored the ruinated machinery of its dead master’s thorax.”
Death ends most arguments. Getting angry and staying angry at the dead takes a certain resolve, an emotional reach which exceeds its grasp, as the dead are always kept six maddening feet away. And this makes the book I have sitting before me all the more extraordinary for its devotion to pummeling a mortally unreachable man. A copy was first shown to me by a book dealer years ago. “This,” he claimed, “was Evelyn Waugh’s favorite book.” The volume he handed me looked and sounded old and unremarkable—Nollekens and His Times.
But it was published in 1829 by none other than an elderly John T. Smith. It is, as one might expect of Smith, absolutely crammed with delightful minutiae. Fittingly enough, its last major incarnation was the 1917 edition compiled by arch-antiquarian Wilfred Whitten, and featured the editor’s labyrinthine footnotes on the fine points of milkmaids, glass wigs (a fashion that never caught on), and local characters like those living Gorey cartoons known as the Tapper Sisters—a pair of elderly spinsters on Russell Street who always wore riding habits and men’s hats. One was famous for stealing the clothes of boys who trespassed into the pond behind their house, and of the other “it was her spiteful delight to ride with a pair of shears after boys who were flying their kites, purposely to cut their strings.”
Whitten, a newspaper columnist who felt so deeply saturated by his city’s arcana that he wrote under the pen name John O’London, was perfectly suited for the task of editing Smith. He bickers with J. T. over everything, right down to the location and order of specific city blocks mentioned in the text; he will walk out into the street mid-sentence and draw you a map to illustrate his point. On some pages commentary overwhelms the story altogether, leaving Smith with only two or three actual lines crammed into the top of a page obliterated by footnotes. If you have seen a medieval text, you will know how this paradox exists in an illuminated manuscript or a beat-up copy of Whitten & Smith alike: too many footnotes are tiresome, but way too many footnotes are exhilarating. When done well, they are like a foundation underneath a tidy little home; when overdone insanely well, they are like secret tunnels that take you from an ancestral mansion’s library and out to the antechamber of the family crypt.
But this book is at least ostensibly about Nollekens and His Times: so what of our titular sculptor? Here is where the book becomes stranger reading still. This, for example, is how Smith describes his old childhood benefactor:
His neck was short, his shoulders narrow, his body too large, particularly in the front lower part, which resembled that of Tenducci and other [castrati] falsetto singers; he was bow-legged and hook-nosed,—indeed his leg was somewhat like his nose, which resembled the rudder of an Antwerp packet-boat.
Yes, Joseph Nollekens was a regular dreamboat—or, at least, an old Antwerp tub. He was also, it turned out, rich. No, not just rich: he was good-god-almighty-rich. Nollekens had always patted his devoted godson on the head, assuring Smith that he’d be remembered in his will. But when Nollekens died in 1823, with an estate worth a staggering £200,000, the old miser had left his devoted Smith… £100.
One. Hundred. Bloody. Pounds.
Blind with fury—but not too blind to locate his inkwell—Smith smashed out one of the most magnificently peevish works of biography in the English language. Copiously illustrated. In two volumes. And now you begin to understand why it was Waugh’s favorite book.
“I believe,” Smith muses in Nollekens and His Times, “every age produces at least one eccentric in every city, town, and village… some half-witted fellow under the nickname of Dolly, Silly Billy, or Foolish Sam, who is generally the butt and sport of his neighbors… In some such light, Nollekens was held even by his brother artists.” Nollekens is, and in approximately this order, a fool, an idiot, a simpleton, and a skinflint. Just how stupid was he? Well: “Nollekens often baited his [live catch] rat-trap with an unusual quantity of cheese, thinking to catch all the vermin at once: never dreaming that when one was caught, the trap would shut the rest out, and that the solitary visitor would eat up the whole.”
Still inclined to admire old Joe for his fine marble busts? You needn’t. One of Smith’s great innovations in biography hatchetry is his interviewing of disgruntled neighbors and servants, thus unearthing a rich vein of So ’e says, an’ then I says testimonies that invariably render husband and wife as cheap bastards. The servant testimonies have the ring of truth: petty, nasty, amusing little truths. And so here we find rich old Nollekens, attending Royal Academy functions, observed surreptitiously pocketing nutmegs and condiments off the hors d’oeuvres table to smuggle home; while over there we find Mrs. Nollekens stiffing a poor widow over the price of a mop:
“What! half-a-crown! My good woman, why, I only gave two shillings and three-pence for the last.”
“Yes,” observed the shopkeeper, “but that was ten years ago.”
Mrs. Nollekens certainly had a rich reputation for cheapness: instead of paying for her dog-offal, she constantly circled her beloved hound, Cerberus, around butcher stalls so he could feed for free on anything that fell on the floor. The resulting enmity between local butchers and the wife led bizarrely, one snowy day, to some butchers boyishly inviting her husband into a snow-fort they’d built: once inside, they surrounded him menacingly and shook him down for their long-denied pennies.
But there is no shakedown quite like two misers when they are set upon each other. One of the household servants, Bronze, gave Smith a gleeful ear-to-the-wall account of Mr. and Mrs. Nollekens arguing vehemently over paying postage for a letter. He says he already paid for it, she says he didn’t; wife angrily smashes her writing slate on the floor; husband retorts he won’t be paying for that either—thus wife shifts from yelling to wheedling sobs—“You know—you know—you vile little thing! You paid me only two-shillings and seven-pence on last Thursday’s [expenses].” The argument is terminated only by the arrival of an Irish fishwoman knocking on their front door; Mr. Nollekens, wearing only one slipper, informs the fishwife that, no, we don’t want your goddamned fish.
His cheapness is not entirely surprising. Nollekens had augmented his early fortune through art scams and by being, quite literally, a stingy little chiseler: he once fleeced Cambridge University by charging them £1,000 for an old marble pedestal that had cost him only £12. But cunning is not the same thing as intelligence, in Smith’s view, and so the litany of misdeeds reaches its height—or nadir—when Smith visits Miss Welch, Nollekens’s now elderly sister-in-law. She enables Smith to wave before the reader proof positive that Nollekens really was an idiot. The man couldn’t spell. For Miss Welch had, in 1780, kept a notebook of all of Nollekens’s misspellings, which Smith obligingly copies out for us:
The following instance may serve as specimens: “yousual, scenceble, obligin, modle, wery, gentilman, promist, sarvices, desier, Inglish, perscription, hardently, jenerly, moust, devower, jellis, reiter, sarved, could for cold, clargeman, facis, cupple, foure, sun for son, boath sexis, daly, horsis, ladie, cheif, talkin, tould, shee, sarch, paing, auld mades, racis, yoummer in his face, palas, oke, lemman, are-bollon, sammon, chimisters for chymists, yoke for yolk, grownd,” &c. &c.
It is hard to know what is more amazing: Nollekens’s atrocious spellings or that his pain-in-the-ass relative was keeping a notebook of them… or that she could produce the notebook forty years later when Smith came visiting and looking for reminiscences. It may not surprise you at this point to hear that brother and sister-in-law did not get along.
Even Smith himself seems aware of how ludicrous Miss Welch is. “I detest a critic of words,” he quickly adds, throwing a gregarious arm around his reader. The only reason he has copied out her entries, he explains, is to show that perhaps the simple-minded Nollekens didn’t understand the meaning of the words in his own will.
At last Smith’s crowning bit of evidence is produced—the will itself, which Smith had (not that he mentions it) instigated a lawsuit over. It becomes easy to see why he was annoyed: Nollekens didn’t include him until a thirteenth codicil, added years after the original testament and twelve additions had not bothered to mention Smith at all. Even then, it is only to assign Smith as one of the executors, to replace a deceased friend; his £100 is for this work, and not as any particular fulfillment of old godfatherly promises. Yet Nollekens has not forgotten Smith entirely; nor has he forgotten dozens of other friends and colleagues, or a smattering of a various charities that seem to have been added in no particular order.
It is not the will of a bad man—just a careless one.
Smith never did quite figure out his mentor. Here was a man, he puzzled, who didn’t care about Shakespeare but was utterly delighted by a fellow who had “the wonderful and singular power of scratching his ear with his foot like a dog.”
Well, who wouldn’t be? The problem with trying to show how foolish other people are is that your audience is liable to secretly see themselves in your designated numbskull. Nollekens’s childlike inability at grasping the basic logic of cheesing a rat-trap, say, is the kind of everyday household idiocy that anyone can relate to. It is the veritable flashing 12:00 on the VCR. And his penny-pinching seems no less absurd than that of most people, today or back then; for Smith himself spies the beloved and utterly ancient stage actor Charles Macklin—having just made his final performance as Shylock in Covent Garden at the age of ninety-nine—out at a street stall, scowling over a greengrocer weighing his purchase of a bag of cherries. “I will have my weight,” the esteemed geezer mutters repeatedly. “Give me my weight.”
One extraordinary section by Smith even inventories Nollekens’s entire house, wall by wall and furnishing by furnishing. It’s to show what a slob he is. I’m not sure whether you or I would survive such an inventory, and it only heightens the sense that Nollekens is just a regular guy like the rest of us. After describing a living room filled with puttied-up old windows, jars of worn-out utensils, and jumbles of priceless Gainsborough paintings, Smith turns his attention to an unremarkable nook:
Near the corner window was a closet, in which were placed candles—though, as for soap, [servant] Bronze declared the house had never known any for forty years,—and a few preserves, pickles, or other little presents from persons who had great expectations. Caleb Whitefoord’s wine also found a safe depository in this closet, together with an uncut loaf, or a bit of fresh butter, a little scalded milk, a paper containing the academic nutmegs, fragments of string, and old screws and nails, which were picked up as things that might be wanted some time or other.
Oh my. Smith has not described the house of some Regency git: he has described my own kitchen drawer.
Detail someone’s domestic life long enough and closely enough, and they start becoming too real to simply write off as a cartoonish boor. Nollekens and his wife could smash slates and yell over postage: but then you come across a touching scene of Nollekens, during his wife’s long decline after a stroke, spending a large part of his day reading the entire newspaper aloud to her in bed—the entire paper, beginning with theatre ads on the front page, right through to and including the editor’s address on the back page. That his reading was a stream of mispronunciations only makes it all the more poignant.
And yet Nollekens and His Times went down among antiquarians as the greatest hatchet-job in the history of biography. Reader, this is hardly so. Smith is the world’s worst hatchet-man because he is one of its best historians: he is hopelessly incapable of leaving out all the evidence of simple humanity in his fellow men. He cannot even maintain the convenient fiction of a narrative structure; his work is a chaotic and truthful scrapbook of contradictory humanity and remembrance. And this is what makes him believable, what brings his world alive. Stand at any place in work of John T. Smith, and you stand in the middle of London: you are always in that magic spot where nine streets converge at once, where crowds rush by as a man cups your chin, points, and bids you to follow his gaze.