children, mask, old clothes shop, people, shop, street.
Variations of the spelling and punctuation occur, as follows:
'Cutler Street - Hounsditch
' (1887, Whistler). 3
'Cutler St. Houndsditch
' (1887, Whistler). 4
'Cutler Street. Houndsditch
' (1887, Whistler). 5
'Cutler Street Hounsditch
' (1890/1891, Beatrice Whistler
' (1886, Frederick Wedmore
'Cutler Street, Houndsditch
' (1909, Howard Mansfield
'Cutler Street, Hounsditch
' (1910, Edward Guthrie Kennedy
'Cutler Street, Houndsditch
' is the preferred title, with spelling and punctuation regularised.
'Houndsditch' was and is the most common spelling, although the shorter form of 'Hounsditch' is often used. Miller in 1852, for instance, records, 'Having thus become enlightened in the art of pigeon-stealing, we turned up Houndsditch, and visited the real Rag Fair.' and Greenwood in 1867 described the 'Houndsditch Sunday Fair.' 10
3: Written on .
4: Written on .
5: Written on .
6: List, [1890/1891], GUW #12715.
7: Wedmore 1886 A[more] (cat. no. 234).
8: Mansfield 1909[more] (cat. no. 287).
9: Kennedy 1910[more] (cat. no. 292).
10: Thomas Miller, Picturesque Sketches of London, London 1852; James Greenwood, Journeys; or Byways of the Modern Babylon, London, 1867.
On a street corner at left is a shop with old clothes hung over the open door under the shop-sign 'B. ABRAHAMS', and with a lantern projecting over the street to right. A woman, and a man carrying a child, stand in front of the doorway, and a woman sits in the door, to left. Across the crowded street is a row of three- and four-storey buildings, receding into the distance, with shops at ground level, including another old clothes shop. A little girl stands in the right foreground; she appears to be wearing a mask and a pointed hat, like a clown's hat, decorated with bobbles, ribbons or ear-flaps.
The second-hand clothes shop on the corner at left belonged to a Jewish shop-owner, Benjamin Abrahams, who was a dealer in government stores.
Abrahams would have been one of a large community of 12,000 Jews who lived in the City, out of some 18,000 in the greater London area. They lived mostly within the area bounded by Spitalfields, Petticoat Lane, Leadenhall-Street, Aldgate, Whitechapel and Bishops-gate Street. The name Abrahams - though certainly not all from the same family - figures prominently in the Houndsditch area. For instance, in 1855, Timbs quotes a sign at the entrance to the Clothes Exchange, Cutler Street: 'Business will commence at this Exchange on Sunday morning at 10 o'clock. By order of the managers, Moses Abrahams.' 11
11: John Timbs, Curiosities of London, London, D. Bogue, 1855, p. 425.
The masked girl may be a local child, a street entertainer, or, given the date (late October or early November 1887), a child dressed for Halloween or for Guy Fawkes activities.
Benjamin Abrahams' shop was on the corner of Cutler Street, at 115 Houndsditch in the East End of London. 12 Cutler Street was so called because of the small scale metal industry and trades that concentrated there. In 1867 James Greenwood mentioned:
12: London Postal Directory, London, 1889.
'Cutler Street and Petticoat Lane, famous for workmen's tools, musical instruments, and military and marine stores; and Phil's Buildings, where swarm and chaffer among themselves the real "Ole Clo" men and women.' 13
On both sides of Cutler Street, as seen in Whistler's etching, there were shops selling old clothes, which hang above the doors and windows. By the 1880s Cutler Street was the centre of the second-hand clothing trade and site of the Clothes Exchange. Henry Mayhew described this area as it appeared in 1851:
'The trade in second-hand apparel is one of the most ancient of callings, and is known in almost every country, but anything like the Old Clothes exchange of the Jewish quarter of London, in the extent and order of its business, is unequalled in the world.
... until the last few years, the trade in old clothes used to be carried on entirely in the open air, [in] the Petticoat-lane district. ... adjoining Cutler-street. The chief traffic elsewhere was originally in Cutler-street, White-street, Carter-street, and in Harrow-alley - the districts of the celebrated Rag-fair.
James Greenwood was also interested in the shops selling jewellery, and it may be that the extensive stores of silver, oriental rugs, jewellery, and bric-a-brac, rather than old clothes, first tempted Whistler to explore Cutler Street. Greenwood described the area as it appeared in 1867:
'Cutler Street and Petticoat Lane, famous for ... Phil's Buildings ... and the "Exchange," where, collected from Heaven knows what sources, are constantly exposed for sale silk gowns, satin gowns, costly laces, and shawls of Persia and India, tarnished certainly, but still with a thoroughbred air about them ... my impression was that ... it was, as a business ... mean, and miserable; that they who embarked in it were to a man or woman Jews'
A view of Cutler Street, including the back of 119 Houndsditch, the site of the infamous Houndsditch murders, was taken from the Exchange
Buildings in 1907. 16
Except that it is still a slight hill, the street has been developed beyond recognition, running up between bleak office blocks to the remarkably un-Whistlerian multi-storey construction popularly known as the Gherkin.
16: William J. Fishman, The
streets of East London, Nottingham, 2006, p. 107.
Photo © Whistler Etchings Project.
Despite the underlying anti-semitic nature of some of the Victorian writers who described the Houndsditch area, there is no such undercurrent apparent in Whistler's etching. The street is full of people, including a family at left where the man is carrying a small child - which in itself implies, for that time, an unusual sharing of family responsibilities. The Jewish area attracted Whistler, suggesting subjects such as Rembrandt Harmens van Rijn
(1617-1681) might have etched. In the 'Ten o'clock' Lecture
in 1885 Whistler had defined Art :
'selfishly occupied with her own perfection only - having no desire to teach - seeking and finding the beautiful in all conditions, and in all times - As did her high priest Rembrandt, when he saw picturesque grandeur and noble dignity in the Jews' quarter of Amsterdam - and lamented not that its inhabitants were not Greeks.' 17
A few years later Whistler paid homage to the great print-maker on Rembrandt's home ground, when he etched Jews' Quarter, Amsterdam 449.