Monday 30th March 2020

GREENWICH PENSIONERS With a View of the Hospital which was founded in 1694, by King William and Queen Mary, for the use of disabled Seamen & the Widows & Children of such as were slain as Sea.

Following our recent visit to the Painted Hall, we return to Greenwich Hospital for another early nineteenth excursion with this spirited popular print of Greenwich Pensioners in Grand Square.

This is an English cottage print, a cheap engraving drawn in a charmingly naïve style, usually highly coloured, and aimed at the popular market. This example does not bear an engraved price but being a folio sized plate, the image measures approximately seven by eleven and a half inches, it probably cost twopence plain or fourpence coloured. Smaller prints, printed from quarto plates, were sold for a penny plain and twopence coloured. Later on, as the trade became more cut throat and competitive, other publishers reduced the size of plates and issued even cheaper prints for half this price.

Cottage prints were merely one manifestation of a rich flowering of all sorts of vibrant printed imagery that burst onto the early nineteenth century scene and they have a close affinity both in spirit, colour and sometimes in publisher, with the toy theatre prints of the same period. The subjects depicted embraced genre scenes representing childhood, courtship, matrimony and domestic life; events from scripture and history; scenes of trade and industry, town and country, soldiers and sailors, royalty and criminal.

The most interesting, however, as here, are those that depict contemporary London scenes offering a fascinating glimpse of metropolitan life and incident. These present a distinctive and often overlooked example of pictorial reportage.

One’s attention is immediately drawn to the spirited trio of Greenwich Pensioners, deep in conversation doubtless regaling each other with ever more outlandish and salt-laden yarns. These three old sea dogs possess four real legs between them but even one of those appears to be lame.  There are over twenty Pensioners in this print, and about the same number of visitors from fashionable ladies, gentlemen and children, sporting Sunday best bonnets and parasols, to the humbler sailors and their sweethearts. Note the boy whipping his hoop in the shadow of the statue of King George II and the lively dog jumping up expectantly under Jack Tar’s hat. The spectators leaning against the railings are viewers of the ever changing animated panorama of the river craft, embracing sculls, sail and steam; the steamer with its solitary silhouette standing astride the paddle box.

The exaggerated perspective of the Hospital, with the King Charles Block steeply receding into the distance, continues the tradition of vues d’optiques, a genre of architectural print that gained widespread popularity throughout Europe in the eighteenth century, as does the particular pink and blue colouring of the sky.

The colouring is instinctively unselfconscious, and the results are delicious. The palette is limited but versatile and was drawn from the three primaries of carmine, gamboge and Prussian blue from which almost all else was achieved, here enhanced by green, pink, buff and a splash of tan on the dog’s coat. In the hands of a professional colourist the effects resulted in an incomparable joie de vivre. Sometimes black was also sparingly used, though not on this occasion where the dark hats, windows and funnel are entirely due to the density of the engraved line.

A particular artistry of these prints was the colourist’s unerring knack for knowing what to leave uncoloured. In this case the entire Hospital buildings and the whole of the London skyline are left untouched, with the white of the paper showing through to achieve the desired effect. The bold wash of pink sweeps breezily through the towers of the Hospital, effortlessly evoking the intensity of late afternoon sunshine. Note also the background detail: the square tower of St Nicholas Church, Deptford is clearly visible on the left whilst the dome of St Paul’s features as the most prominent feature to the right. As so often in these prints the depiction of architecture is simplified to the essential elements, as if constructed from a child’s set of building blocks.

Although the artist and the colourist are destined to remain anonymous, the publisher of this view was William Belch who in his day was an important name in the lower end of the London print trade. Nowadays, he is most celebrated by the cognoscenti for his charming series of small children’s books. Originally in partnership with Edward Langley as publishers of prints and maps in the early years of the nineteenth century, from 1820 Belch worked independently from a series of addresses south of the river in Bermondsey.

The most detailed chronology of Belch’s career and his various addresses is summarised in Linda Hannas’ excellent history of The English Jigsaw Puzzle 1760-1890 published in 1972. Thanks to her pioneering research it is possible to date this particular engraving to between 1832 and 1840 when Belch was operating from premises at 6 Bridge Street, Union Street, Borough.

This is numbered 74 in Belch’s series of folio cottage prints and gives some indication of the volume of his output. The frequency of the rate of issue of these engravings is unclear but the assumption is that they were numbered in chronological order of publication. If so, it suggests this was published after Belch's view of The destruction of both Houses of Parliament by fire, Oct. 16 1834, number 57 in the series. A further clue to a more precise dating of this print is the fact that all the Pensioners appear to be wearing knee breeches, which may place it before April 1835 when the Hospital's regulations were relaxed to allow the wearing of ‘Trowsers’.

Belch also issued a companion print entitled Chelsea Pensioners, inspired by David Wilkie’s painting The Chelsea Pensioners Reading The Waterloo Despatch, though this is the work of a less self-assured artist and rather flat in comparison to its Greenwich counterpart.

It may be that the close proximity to the River of Belch’s premises in the Borough gave him a particular affinity to the Thames for he produced splendid engravings of this subject commemorating the opening of St Katharine Docks (1828), King William IV and Queen Adelaide landing at Greenwich (1830), New London Bridge (1831) and the fire at the Tower of London in 1841. By the time of the last he was approaching the end of his career and Belch seems to have gone out of business in 1843. The preceding year saw the establishment of The Illustrated London News heralding a new and highly influential tide of pictorial representation with the proliferation of monochrome wood engraving very much to the fore.

The wholehearted embrace of wood engraving coincided with the birth of photography and combined to largely draw a black and white veil over our perception of the second half of the nineteenth century. Perhaps these Victorian innovations necessarily heralded the departure of Belch, who remained in both art and spirit very much a Regency publisher. Admirable though these new developments were they ushered in a new respectability which sadly lacked the raffish vitality, exuberance and colour of William Belch’s popular prints.



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