A true talent for the art of despair
A Liverpool urchin rejected by high society is back in a fashionable street some 150 years after his birth. David Charters reports
THERE was an artist’s sensitivity in the sad gaze of his pale eyes and, on those frosted mornings of thin broth, he felt the pain and he sensed the humiliation even more than usual; but still the policemen clipped him with their staves, as he raised his hands.
Mockers laughed at his rags and begging-cap. He wasn’t fit to be seen in a fashionable place then, though in his unspoken imagination, he was worth 10 of any one of them.
But you can’t eat imagination.
So his pavement chalkings were rubbed away by the careless shoes of the passing rich and the colours faded in the rain, though some shoppers were kind enough to drop coins into his cap.
For this was a parade of the grand. What business, they asked, had a little boy to be here, begging?
But he’s there now, a folk hero of Liverpool, brought back by good friends, determined that his memory should never die.
And you’ll never guess what. The rich and the famous are eager to be associated with his return, hoping to hook their names to his new success.
However, we’ll never know what James William Carling would have thought about that because he was rolled into a pauper’s grave at Walton Park Cemetery, Liverpool, in July, 1887. He was only 29.
But during breaks from his boyhood work as a pavement artist, young Carling had made a few appearances at Holy Cross School, Fontenoy Street, in Liverpool’s Vauxhall neighbourhood.
About 100 years after this brief brush with primary education, John Lea, son of Annie and the docker/merchant sailor Billy, also attended the school.
Well, in the spirit of old boys helping each other out, John, who now runs Maggie May’s Café on Bold Street, Liverpool, is putting the finishing touches to a gallery dedicated to James William Carling in the upstairs rooms.
And here’s the rub. In later life, James would speak of his childhood days: “I knew I was too small to be incarcerated, for I was often arrested for drawing sidewalk pictures and taking the brutal beatings as a matter of course. I drew my pictures, preferring a bloody face and a bruised limb to inanition (exhaustion from want of food) and death by starvation.”
But he reserved a special contempt for what was then Liverpool’s most fashionable thoroughfare. “Bold Street! My heart sickens at your name,” he wrote. “And well it might, for not only could I not draw in that street, I could not walk on it. The sight of a ragged coat was enough to bring the harsh ‘move on’, or, what was worse, the most brutal application of the staff. On Bold Street, promenade of the local aristocracy, the gocking (slang for pavement artist) did not draw.”
Soon, John hopes to have on a blank stretch of wall above the café a mural, depicting James in his most familiar pose holding out his cap.
Then the boy will be able to look down on the people, perhaps remembering how they had once looked down on him. But we will have to look up to see him.
James was born 150 years ago at 38, Addison Street, Vauxhall, the sixth child of Henry Carling, who made boot-blacking, and his wife, Rose, who died in his early childhood. Despite their dire poverty, the children had been encouraged to draw and paint.
The father then married a local widow, described by James in a way which would match any Liverpool sarcasm of today.
“Starved by a stepmother of a very unusual disposition, I sallied out into the world like Jack of the fairy tales to seek my fortune, and a living as well, at the grand old age of five.”
So with his older brothers, Willy, Johnny and Henry, James set out with his paints, crayons and chalks to become a pavement artist, alongside the pinched tribes of urchins, who danced, scraped violins, sang, juggled, recited poems and Shakespeare, or provided secret favours for “quality” gentlemen, simply to survive.
Although sensitive, witty and creative, the Carling boys were also tall, tough and well-built. They could exchange punches with anyone who elbowed on to their pitches. There were frequent beatings and fights with the police, who regarded them as beggars, but there were areas of the port, where they were welcomed and their takings would buy seafoods.