Grounded in Tradition
1. A History
“Bert, what a lot of nonsense! Why do you always complicate things that are really quite simple?” Mary Poppins and Bert the street painter take the hands of two children and jump into a chalk painting. Colorful clouds of dust arise, and the four characters are transported into a magical world. The adventure lasts until the first rainstorm, when their fantasy world melts away and they are returned to the London streets to watch the colors of the street painting dissolve. This famous scene from the film Mary Poppins, with Julie Andrews as the nanny and Dick Van Dyke as the pavement artist, immortalized street painting and introduced the art form to millions of people. Disney studios created the choreography of the scene, but the story itself was the work of a popular children’s book author Pamela Lyndon Travers.
In her book, the character of Bert is a Cockney jack-of-all-trades who mixes pavement art and street music with chimney sweeping to make his living. The book was first published in 1934, and was an instant success. At that time, most people in the United States had never seen a street painting, and the book was a rare source of allusion.
A year earlier, George Orwell, one of the most influential and admired writers of the twentieth century, was among the first to write about pavement artists in his book Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. Although educated at Eton, Orwell could not afford to attend university and could not get a scholarship. At the age of twenty-five, he moved to Paris to become a freelance writer. Orwell’s outrage at the conditions of the underclass prompted him to live the life of a tramp and write about his experiences. Among those described in Down and Out in Paris and London are pavement artists, whom Orwell treats with a compassion born of shared poverty.
In the 1930s, according to Orwell’s account, there was a pavement artist every twenty-five yards along the London Embankment. Pavement artists appear in literature by the end of the nineteenth century, but except for Orwell’s and Travers’s stories, few written records of them or their works have survived. The street painters Orwell met described universal experiences that could have occurred at any time. One artist who had studied in Paris and made remarkable copies of Old Master paintings on the stone pavement recounts his experience:
My wife and kids were starving. I was walking home late at night; with lots of drawings I’d been taking round to the dealers, and wondering how the devil to raise a bob or two. Then, in the Strand, I saw a fellow kneeling on the pavement drawing, and people giving him pennies. As I came past he got up and went into a pub. ‘Damn it,’ I thought, ‘if he can make money at that, so can I.’ So on an impulse I knelt down and began drawing with his chalks. Heaven knows how I came to do it; I must have been lightheaded with hunger.
Unlike other people Orwell met on the street, the pavement artists were not demoralized by their poverty. He writes of an artist who called himself Bozo:
He had managed to keep his brain intact and alert, and so nothing could make him succumb to poverty. He might be ragged and cold, or even starving, but as long as he could read, think, and watch for meteors, he was, as he said, free in his own mind.
Travers would have also seen the many pavement artists on the Strand, and it’s possible that Orwell’s account inspired her to include pavement art as one of Bert’s many talents. At the time of Orwell, a street painter in England was called a screever. The word appears to refer to the written text that often accompanies the image and asks passersby for a donation, or appeals to their generosity by quoting biblical passages. Early colloquial dictionaries assign the term Scottish or Dutch origins but are uncertain. The word could possibly come from the Italian word scrivere (pronounced scree-ver-eh), which means “to write.” The first screevers in England may have actually been Italians who brought the tradition with them. As can be seen in the film Mary Poppins, a pavement artist often wrote a caption under the image, and added a word or two of gratitude for any offerings. Even today, it is not unusual to see a written description and a word of appreciation for a donation.
Orwell does not speculate on the origins of pavement art any more than he speculates on the origins of street musicians, or any of the other ways that people tried to feed themselves and their families in times of need. It’s likely that the large number of street artists and musicians was a result of the law, as busking was tolerated in London and panhandling was not. Simply asking for money would bring an arrest for vagrancy, so some act had to be performed in order for there to be an exchange. Impoverished people without much skill were forced to join the ranks of tramps and move from town to town to avoid arrest. They survived on rations of tea and bread with margarine. These were doled out in bleak shelters where people could stay for a night or two before moving on to the next town.
Unfortunately, Italian pavement artists never had a George Orwell to join their ranks and describe their experiences. The last of the traditional Italian street painters would, however, receive recognition and acclaim in their later years, and eventually see the art form officially recognized, transformed, and diffused throughout the world.
Continued on Part 2- Icons