Symbols & Secrets

Walking the City of London

Category: Art

Whitecross Street Art and a very naughty lady

At the north end of Whitecross on the corner with Old Street a plaque on a wall tells us that there once lived here a lady called Priss Fotheringham who had been ranked ‘the second best whore in the City’. This description appeared in 1660 in a serial publication called The Wandring Whore by John Garfield, which described in some detail the antics of London’s prostitutes.

The tongue in cheek plaque is by ‘English Hedonists’ and was ‘Mad in England’

Described when young as a ‘cat-eyed gypsy, pleasing to the eye’, Priscilla Fotheringham (nee Carswell) was a colourful character very famous in her time. It is thought she was born in Scotland around 1615 and little is known of her early life. What we do know is that in 1652 she was sent to Newgate Gaol having been found in a house of ill-repute …

… sitting between two Dutchmen with her breasts naked to the waist and without stockings, drinking and singing in a very uncivil manner.

In 1658 she was still misbehaving and was bound over by a Middlesex Justice of the Peace for …

… being a notorious strumpet … that had undone several men by giving them the foul disease … and for keeping the husband of Susan Slaughter from her and for also threatening to stab said Susan Slaughter … and also for several notorious wickedness which is not fit to be named among the heathen.

She had married Edward Fotheringham, an odious character from a brothel-owning family, in 1656, and he set her up as a madam at the Jack-a-Newberry Tavern on the corner where her plaque now stands. As her looks faded with time she became more ‘creative’ in the way customers were entertained – you can read more detail in her Wikipedia entry. She made enough money to set up her own brothel and died (of syphilis) a wealthy woman around 1668.

I have found a great 17th century ballad about the area and placed it at the end of the blog.

Whilst walking up from Beech Street to visit Priss’s little plaque I was struck by the extraordinary variety and quality of the street art, much of it a legacy of Whitecross Street parties.

The one that always catches my eye is this mural by Conor Harrington, an Irish artist living and working in London …

It was created in 2012

Beneath it and to the left is one of my favourites, the cherubs assembling a bazooka …

Stencil work by DS Art


Paul Don Smith is a prolific artist and I have come across a lot of his work around Brick Lane. Here are two of his Whitecross Street offerings …

You can also catch a glimpse of his work here, the lady on the side of the street furniture on the left …

I think the figure on the door with the party hat is a homage to Jean-Michel  Basquiat

And I always smile when I see the installation by the Italian artists Urban Solid below the window of the Curious Duke Gallery …

And what about this rather rude representation of someone taking a selfie …

Referring back to Priss and the days when much of this part of London was a centre of prostitution, I would like to end with this from the Roxburghe Ballad collection …


In Whitecross Street and Golden Lane
Do strapping lasses dwell,
And so there do in every street
‘Twixt that and Clerkenwell.
At Cowcross and at Smithfield
I have much pleasure found,
Where wenches like to fairies
Did often trace the ground.

Nowadays the big attraction is Waitrose.



Some of my favourite City Art

If you haven’t yet visited the Guildhall Art Gallery I do strongly recommend it (EC2V 5AE). Established in 1886 it contains works dating from 1670 to the present. A visitor described it as ‘free and fabulous’ and I wholeheartedly agree.

Here is one of my favourite pictures, William Logsdail’s painting entitled The Ninth of November 1888

It is, of course, the Lord Mayor’s procession, but in this picture he is nowhere to be seen and the artist has concentrated on the liveried beadles (who he actually painted in his studio)…

… and the people in the crowd …

There is a minstrel in blackface with his banjo and, although I have studied this picture dozens of times, I have only just noticed the little boy next to him nicking an orange from the old lady’s basket. On the right of the picture the man in the brown hat, next to the soldier with the very pale face, is Logsdail’s friend the painter Sir James Whitehead. It’s a sobering thought that, not far away in the East End that afternoon, police were discovering the body of Mary Kelly, believed to be the last of Jack the Ripper’s victims.

Up the stairs at the far end of the gallery, in a space specially designed for it, you look down on the action-packed painting by John Singleton Copley: Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar 1782

A Spanish attack on Gibraltar was foiled when the Spanish battering ships, also known as floating batteries, were attacked by the British using shot heated up to red hot temperatures (sailors nicknamed them ‘hot potatoes’). Fire spread among the Spanish vessels and, as the battle turned in Britain’s favour, an officer called Roger Curtis set out with gunboats on a brave rescue mission which saved almost 350 people.

Look at the painstaking detail in the faces of the officers and Governor General Augustus Eliot, who is portrayed riding to the edge of the battlements to direct the rescue …

The officers were dispersed after the Gibraltar action and poor Copley had to travel all over Europe to track them down and paint them – a task that took him seven years at considerable expense. He recouped some of his cash in 1791 by exhibiting the picture in a tent in Green Park and charging people a shilling to see it (about £10 in today’s value).

Here is a facsimile of an admission ticket …

And now some more contemporary pieces of art.

In the entrance hall to the London Mithraeum at 12 Walbrook (EC4N 8AA) your eyes are drawn immediately to this stunning tapestry by Isabel Nolan: Another View from Nowhen

You can just pop in to look at the tapestry but I hope you will also book a time slot to go downstairs and visit the beautifully restored and exhibited Temple of Mithras. You can read all about it and see some pictures in my blog The Romans in London: Mithras, Walbrook and the Games.

In September 2017 Banksy paid a clandestine visit to the City to coincide with a retrospective of the work of American graffiti artist-turned-painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. The first work, a Ferris wheel with people queuing for tickets, is captioned as follows on Banksy’s website:

Major new Basquiat opens at the Barbican – a place that is normally very keen to clean any graffiti from its walls …

The three-pointed crown is a symbol often used in the artist’s own work.

The painting on the other side of the road references a Basquiat picture showing a New Yorker being searched by the police …

Steps have been taken to protect both paintings and you can see them at the junction of Beech Street and Golden Lane (EC1Y 0QT).

And finally, I often smile as I walk along Whitecross Street and see this jolly illustration of the street’s shops portrayed on street furniture …

… along with this cheerful picture inviting you to nip around the corner and dine at the lovely, friendly Baracca Restaurant, highly recommended …

 

 

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