The photo below of a French sign painter in London appears in the 1975 publication ‘A Cockney Camera’ with an extended caption placing it in the 1870s. After posting this to Instagram, some more information about the origins of the photo, and the man in it, were shared by Mick Gard in a series of messages.

Photo: A Cockney Camera (1975) by Gordon Winter, p.60

The picture originally appeared in ‘Street Life in London‘, an 1877 publication by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith. They describe the life of a Parisian known only as ‘Tickets’ who arrives in London after some time in America. His efforts to find work are met with limited success, but he has settled, at the time of writing, into a partnership with another Frenchman “who possessed considerable skill as a sign-painter”.

‘Tickets’ efforts are directed towards soliciting work for the sign painter, and he does so by trawling the streets looking for shops with showcards and tickets “of dingy appearance, stained in colour, dog’s-eared, bent, and altogether disreputable”. He then pitches for the job of replacing/improving them through the efforts of his anonymous partner.

He enjoys some success getting work from linen drapers, perhaps due to his earlier training in the trade, and also from “eating-houses”. He finds that the drapers are best approached in the morning, while the catering establishments are less busy in the afternoon. The economics of the arrangement are such that ‘Tickets’ is on just over 40% commission for his efforts, as detailed in the book.

“The price charged for an ordinary card is generally a shilling, each letter measuring two or three inches in size. The money is thus divided:- ‘Tickets’ gives his associate 4d. for painting the card; but he supplies brushes, colours, ink, cardboard, &c., and this he estimates generally at a cost of about 3d. There remains, therefore, a profit of fivepence, to remunerate the trouble and time spent in getting the order. Of course there are many cards that cost more than a shilling, but the division of the benefits is generally maintained in about the same proportion.”

Thomson, J. & Smith, A. (1877) London Street Life, p.41

Perhaps the above arrangement accounts for the slightly downbeat look in the sign painters’ eyes. However ‘Tickets’ justifed his larger share of the spoils with “the chief difficultly being to get the orders”. The reality is that neither of them were prospering, with both barely scraping a living in their endeavour.

Tickets hopes that with an increase in customers, he might be able to save enough to return to France and take over a small shop. His frugal lifestyle will be an asset in this respect, as detailed in Adolphe Smith’s account.

“He never drinks. His bed costs him two shillings a week. His breakfast consists of cocoa and bread, and butter, the former being more nutritious than tea. For dinner he generally consumes a pennyworth of potatoes, with a herring or a haddock and a cup of tea, while his supper consists of bread and cheese to the value of twopence. It is only on days of exceptional good fortune that he indulges in a little meat.”

Thomson, J. & Smith, A. (1877) London Street Life, p.42

This book and photo convey a vivid picture of life as a pair of struggling entrepreneurs in Victorian London’s sign game. The entire chapter can be read from page 39 of the book which is available in two formats on the LSE Digital Library website, where the photo below is taken from. There are then a further 35 images and short texts documenting a variety of other lives in London in the 1870s.

Photo: LSE Digital Library, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) license.