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.
Sometimes they earned enough to buy tickets for the theatre.
But the early part of James’s career ended in true Dickensian style on a chilly Christmas Eve, in 1865, when he was arrested on Lime Street. This time the eight-year-old was “incarcerated” by the police in Cheapside prison, in the city centre.
But, after a week behind bars, he was transferred to St George’s Industrial School run by Father James Nugent, a man of generosity and vision, whose statue stands in St John’s Gardens. This transformed James’s life. The priest and his staff taught James to read and write, fostering his interest in the arts and other subjects. Six years later, he left, quite an erudite young fellow.
By then his brother, Henry, had moved to Philadelphia and was establishing a reputation as a pavement artist. He paid for James to join him. In the freer atmosphere of the New World, the brothers became celebrities, written about in the press.
The capacity of James to quickly capture the likeness of famous people, particularly prize-fighters and presidents, led to him being hired as “the lightning caricaturist” and he toured the country.
Some six years later, he joined Henry in Chicago and decided to enter a competition run by Harper’s magazine to illustrate a new edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven, first published in 1845.
James entered 33 paintings, but he came second to Gustav Dore, who had already illustrated the Bible, Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost.
FOUR years later, Carling returned to England, hoping to study at the National School of Art in London. Sadly, though, he was drinking heavily and his health was deteriorating fast. He ended up in the workhouse in Brownlow Hill, Liverpool, where he died penniless and largely forgotten.
But Henry had kept James’s Raven paintings and had them exhibited in 1930. Six years after that, his daughter, Marion, presented them to the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, where they have remained, now recognised as masterpieces of the Gothic style.
So the story might have remained, had it not been for Michael Kelly, the historian and retired carpenter, who was also brought up in the Vauxhall area. He included a chapter on James (who had Irish ancestry) in his book, Liverpool’s Irish Connection.
This excited the attention of Ron Formby, editor of the Scottie Press community newspaper, which serves Vauxhall.
He has worked tirelessly to restore the reputation of James Carling in time for the European Capital of Culture next year, writing to all the relevant authorities.
He also traced ancestors of Henry Carling to the USA. One is Paddy Rose, third grandchild of Marion Carling, who had married Gerald Beckwith. They had Patricia Beckwith, who married Francis Rose.
Paddy, 48, a mechanical designer/draughtsman from Clear Lake, Wisconsin, was left some paintings done by James. Prints of these have now been framed at the James William Carling Gallery in Maggie May’s. Paddy also has notes written by the young painter.
Ron is negotiating with Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic about the possibility of flying more of the Carling collection and Paddy to the gallery. Virgin opened its second record shop in the UK at the site of what is now the café.
Meanwhile, organisers of the Liverpool Irish Festival and the Liverpool Mural Project are also working with Ron on ideas for promoting James.
The gallery has been listed in the Liverpool Culture Company’s Cultural Clearing section, and included on its website.
An item high on the agenda for consideration is a street artists’ competition on Bold Street, in 2008. Perhaps somewhere above the clouds a little boy with sad eyes, who once wore rags and bruises, is smiling again.
“Can you spare a penny, mister?”
These are paintings for the people of Liverpool >>>
These are paintings for the people of Liverpool
JOHN LEA has run Maggie May’s for the past 15 years with his wife, Sue, and their children, Andrew, 28, and Carly, 30.
He invited Michael Kelly, 75, and Ron Formby, 58, to a preview of the gallery, which can also be used for other exhibitions.
At the moment, photographs from the Vauxhall neighbourhood Council’s Changing Faces of Local Communities’ exhibition are hanging there.
But the James William Carling exhibition is permanent.
With them in the gallery were James Cummins, 55, another Vauxhall artist, who now lives in Berlin, where his conceptual work is acclaimed by critics, and Richie Springs, 52, an unemployed labourer.
“This gallery is an excellent idea,” says Jimmy. “The young boy obviously had a hard life but he had plenty of artistic potential, which he was trying to realise here in Liverpool before he went to join his brother Henry in America.
“His work had developed a lot by the time he was doing his work for the The Raven.”
“His painting reminds me of LS Lowry,” says Richie, who was brought up in Fontenoy Street, an area known well to young James.
“These are paintings for the people of Liverpool. You look into them and you can see so much,” he adds.
“I wanted to do something for the local community and Ron told me about James William Carling,” says John. “I was interested in local history and pictures and when I heard about Holy Cross School, it made an immediate connection with me and we started working on the gallery.”
“If we can do as much as we can for James William Carling in this 150th anniversary of his birth, it will set the way for the 2008 European Capital of Culture,” says Ron.
As they left the gallery, an old man was playing his accordion in a doorway as people dropped coins into his hat.
So the spirit of James Carling still haunts the street.