My normal process of work is to go on-site to begin initial drawings and watercolours of the scene in front of me. These visual notes are then used as a basis for the final painting. Earlier this year I was given a rather unusual commission. My client requested a scene that no longer exists.There is, in fact, absolutely no sign it ever existed at all.
The request was for a painting of Warren’s Blacking Factory at 30 Hungerford Stairs somewhere on the north side of the River Thames in London, just below The Strand.
Warren’s Blacking Factory has long since been demolished and would have also been long forgotten were it not for the fact that a 12 year old Charles Dickens was forced to work there to help out his impoverished family.
Warren’s Blacking Factory
Charles Dickens’ father, John Dickens, who Charles described as “a jovial opportunist with no money sense”, got himself into debt and was imprisoned in the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison in 1824.
This of course, left the family nearly destitute, so to make ends meet, Charles gained employment at Warren’s Blacking Factory.
Here he would stick labels onto bottles of boot blacking for 10 hours a day where he earned six shillings per week. Not a great deal even in those days though it prevented his family from starving.
It was a frighting, dreadful experience for the 12-year-old Charles, and it is described in The Life of Charles Dickens.
‘The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscoted rooms, and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again. The counting-house was on the first floor, looking over the coal-barges and the river. There was a recess in it, in which I was to sit and work. My work was to cover the pots of paste-blacking; first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string; and then to clip the paper close and neat, all round, until it looked as smart as a pot of ointment from an apothecary’s shop. When a certain number of grosses of pots had attained this pitch of perfection, I was to paste on each a printed label, and then go on again with more pots. Two or three other boys were kept at similar duty down-stairs on similar wages. One of them came up, in a ragged apron and a paper cap, on the first Monday morning, to show me the trick of using the string and tying the knot. His name was Bob Fagin; and I took the liberty of using his name, long afterwards, in Oliver Twist’
John Dickens was eventually released from prison after receiving an inheritance, and Charles could then leave the misery of the blacking factory. He was only there for around a year, but the experience affected him for the rest of his life.
Good from bad
Although a dreadful experience, the blacking factory was also the crucible from which some of his finest stories and characters sprang from. We can see this in his most autobiographical, novel, David Copperfield, where David is forced to work at the Murdstone and Grinby’s warehouse.
Here too we see a representation of his father in David’s landlord, Wilkins Micawber, who is also arrested for debt and sent to the debtor’s prison. The poverty stricken Micawbers also took lodgings in a “little, dirty, tumble-down public-house” at Hungerford stairs which is next to the blacking factory.
Many of the main characters of his novels are young, vulnerable, and poor such as Oliver Twist and Nell Trent. It is easy to see that Dickens saw more than a bit of himself in them.
Also, the arch villains in his works such as Bill Sykes, Uriah Heep, and Mr Bumble are all exploiters of the impoverished and defenceless. One can only think that some of the bosses at the blacking factory were the basis for these characters.
To get an idea of what the blacking factory looked like, I had to trawl the internet for old images. There are plenty of paintings of the blacking factory (on the left had side of the painting) available so that was a good basis. I noticed too that the church of St Martins in the Field was in the background of many of the paintings, so I ensured I put that in.
In Villiers Street, to the right, there was not much evidence and much of what I could find was contradictory, so I took the liberty of researching the common architecture of the time, adding that in under the great umbrella of ‘artistic license’.
In my initial visual I decided to insert a barge and a few boats to give an indication of the river which was a great deal wider before the building of the Thames Embankment. I also did a fair bit of research on the clothing of the time.
Once the client and I were happy with the visual I then went onto the final painting. As I did so I noticed that there were two pubs on either side of the stairs. The White Swan and The Old Fox. I wonder if this was where the Micawber family lodged?
Where was Warren’s Blacking Factory?
Whilst I was working on the painting, I took it upon myself to locate the exact spot where the blacking factory was situated. The original street and buildings, including the blacking factory, were torn down in 1860 to make way for Charing Cross railway station and the railway bridge, built in 1863.
I took a contemporary map of the time and overlaid Charing Cross Station and bridge. It is clear the factory was opposite where Gordons Wine bar is situated today, at the old water’s edge of the 1820s.
With my back to the wine bar, I looked opposite and beneath the arch where I could see the main foyer of PriceWaterhouseCoopers which would have been the location of Warren’s Blacking Factory.
So there we are, Charles Dickens worked at PriceWaterhouseCoopers- Sort of!
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