Chimney Sweep Portraits in the Social History Collection

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.

Black and White painting of a Sweep walking somewhere. He is wearing an old outfits with hole in it. He is also wearing a hat and boots.
“Spazzacamino” by Giuseppe Maria Mitelli, Di Bologna L’Arti per Via D’Anibal Caraci. © The Ernestine Henry Collection, Leeds Museums and Galleries

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.

Colour painting of a Sweep walking somewhere with his equipment. He is wearing an old outfit. A green jacket and some brown trousers.
“Alimpa Chaminés” from collection of prints of Portuguese street traders, Coleção de estampas intitulada ruas de Lisboa, published in Lisbon, 1826. © The Ernestine Henry Collection, Leeds Museums and Galleries

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.

Funny black and White painting of a sweep standing next to a dog. He is carrying his equipment on his back. He seems a bit grumpy.
Drawn & engraved by J. N. Esq., and published by E & S Harding, London, c.1795. © The Ernestine Henry Collection, Leeds Museums and Galleries

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.

Painting of a two sweep walking somewhere with their equipment. They are wearing dark cloths and have a sad expression. The background is white.
“Chimney Sweepers” from Costume of the Lower Orders of London, designed and engraved from Nature by T.L. Busby”, 1820. © The Ernestine Henry Collection, Leeds Museums and Galleries

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.

colourful painting of an adult sweep and a child walking somewhere with their equipment. They are wearing dark blue cloths. The background is not detailed and seems to represent Georgian architecture. The title is The Chimney Sweeps
Illustration from Young England’s Pictorial Library, London Cries, p.6 © The Ernestine Henry Collection, Leeds Museums and Galleries

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.

Black and White painting of a young sweep walking into someone's house. He is carrying his equipment on his back. He seems tired and scared. There is snow on the ground.
“Sweep-ho!” by H. G. Hine, from The People’s Journal, volume 4, c. 1847. © The Ernestine Henry Collection, Leeds Museums and Galleries

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 and The Ernestine Henry Collection  here

 

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