Friday, 27 September 2013

Pearly Throne - The meanings within the pearls!

Pearly Throne

The Pearly Throne was designed and embroidered with pearl buttons by Ruth Eaton to attract support for the work of the London Pearly Kings and Queens Society. It was upholstered by Ruth and Sarah Bolton, Tutor/Lecturer in upholstery at Merton Adult Education and John Walters, Pearly King of Finsbury, acted as advisor for the project.

It was created during the summer of 2013 for completion by Sunday 29th September when the Pearly Kings and Queens celebrate the Harvest Festival.

The Pearly Kings and Queens have been a familiar and much-loved feature of London life since the 19th century. The first Pearly King, Henry Croft, was an orphan and a road sweeper in Somers town market. He collected large sums of money for charity, drawing attention to his cause by wearing an elaborate costume covered in buttons he’d picked up in the streets. Similarly, London’s ‘Pearlies’ still devote their lives to raising funds for charity today.

The Pearly Throne contains many traditional Pearly symbols. These include a variety of triangular patterns representing the ups and downs of life, playing cards because life’s a gamble, a dove for peace, flowers for the flower-selling girls and women, hearts for charity, horseshoes for luck, bells for St Mary le Bow, the cockneys’ church, and wheels for the costermongers’ donkey carts and the circle of life and friendship. It also includes some personal touches –the lucky numbers 3 and 7 for Ruth’s children, one button (different to the others), which belonged to a longstanding family friend, in memory of loved ones who’ve passed away and three stars especially for John Walters because ‘he’s a star’. Finally, as ‘Three pots of flowers’ were sold for one shilling in the traditional song of the same name, Ruth has incorporated a Victorian shilling coin dating from 1875, the year when, aged 13, Henry Croft left the orphanage and started to sweep the streets of London.

A Throne for a Pearly King or Queen... by Ruth Eaton

 A Chair for Charity
View - Sunday 29th September 2013 - Harvest Festival  - Guildhall Hall

All photographs on this page (c) Ruth Eaton

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner … that the Pearly Kings and Queens, with their shimmering costumes, have featured in my world-view since childhood. Like, say, the majestic lion statues at Trafalgar Square, I probably first encountered them from the shoulders of my father, maybe first seeing them strut their snazzy stuff during a Lord Mayor’s Show.

A while back it occurred to me that the elaborate pearl-buttoned designs of their costumes might be suitable for a piece of furniture, and then that, well, if the pearly royalty didn’t already possess a throne perhaps they’d fancy one.

So one bright Sunday morning recently I set off for Columbia Road in search of the genuine article, somewhat nervous about the reaction I might receive. Half-expecting to meet Eliza Doolittle among the colourful crowds in the flower market at any moment, I soon spotted a cluster of Pearlies in full regalia rattling collection boxes. Quickly I realized that I need never have worried about my reception, for barely had I introduced myself and spluttered out my half-formulated plan than the Pearly Kings and Queens were already welcoming me warmly under their iridescent wings.

Among those present were John Walters, Pearly King of Finsbury, a fountain of knowledge and advice, his son Darren, the Pearly Prince, and Gwen Jones, Pearly Queen of Greenwich. All are members of the London Pearly Kings and Queens Society (LPKQS) a registered charity (no 1091098). The monies they collected are distributed among a large number of charitable causes, both small and large and all based in London and the Home Counties (a full list can be found on their website:

As I learned of the huge contributions the Pearlies have made to charity over past decades, it occurred to me that my chair might also serve to raise money for them. If I acquired the frame, the re-upholstery materials, the top fabric and the buttons I could ask friends to sponsor my button-sewing efforts. I discussed the idea with my upholstery tutor, Sarah Bolton, who kindly agreed to help me to source a suitable chair and oversee its re-upholstery and John Walters along with Carole Jolly, Secretary of the LPKQS who encouraged me enthusiastically but also warned me that I was taking on an enormous amount of work.

And so the project began…

The chair Sarah proposed was a Parker Knoll wing chair – one of the Queen Anne Penshurst models (PK 720) in beech. It was very disheveled so I stripped it back to its basic structure, re-upholstered it in calico and re-painted its legs.

Now I’ve set out on the long task of sewing hundreds – nay, thousands – of buttons onto the black fabric with which it is to be covered. Already I feel I’ve become a complete stir-crazy recluse but I’m determined to finish it.  I’ve already completed a few sections and will send out some photos shortly once they’re actually upholstered onto the chair…

I have a deadline – it’s Sunday 29th September 2013 for the Harvest Festival at London’s Guildhall, an important date in the Pearlies’ calendar. (For more information on that see ).

So, if you’re feeling generous-spirited and able to make a donation, then a cheque made out to “The London Pearly King and Queen Society” (and posted to me so that I can group/forward donations to them) would be extremely gratefully-received by the Pearlies. I thought about setting up a page on Just Giving or similar but the LPKQS were reluctant to go down that road – hence the cheques. “We’re only a small charity,” they explained – a small charity, yes, but with a big heart!

The Origins of the Pearly Kings and Queens: the Costers

The beginnings of the Pearly Kings and Queens date back to the late 19th century - to a Mr. Henry Croft in fact - but to understand them one really needs to look further back in time, to the history of the costermongers. The word “coster” refers to a kind of apple that was once sold in the markets of London and the “costers” or costermongers were the street traders who walked the city’s streets, selling flowers, fruit, vegetables and sometimes fish.  And walk they did, for most had no license to occupy a fixed position but instead had to keep moving, pushing their carts (unless they were lucky enough to own a donkey) and simultaneously packing up produce or counting change, perpetually on the move from dawn till dusk. It was an extremely harsh life, subject to the vagaries of weather, health, the purses of their clients and the often-cruel control of the moneylenders and the police. They particularly hated the police who’d reputedly book them on the grounds of loitering were they to stop for a fraction of time.

In response to the difficulties they faced the costers organized themselves in various ways. They elected those who were best equipped to defend the group - who literally fought their ground for them, in fisticuffs or words, in the streets or the law courts - to be “Kings”. And thus dynasties came to be created, with titles passing from generation to generation through birth or marriage across the centuries. To this day, the titles of the Pearly Kings and Queens are almost always transferred this way.

This sense of solidarity and organization also expressed itself in other ways and the costers supported one another financially when times got particularly tough. Often they passed a collecting bowl among their members, who were most generous despite being strapped for cash themselves, in the pubs, the music halls or the streets, to aid a colleague in dire need. They were also great benefactors of the hospitals that provided care to them in the 19th century and were an important source of funding before the creation of the National Health.

Henry Croft and the Pearly Tradition

Henry Croft, the first Pearly King, was born in 1862 and raised in an orphanage in Charlton Street, London NW1. In 1875, aged 13, he left that institution and became a municipal road sweeper, working in the market of Somers town where he befriended many costermongers. He appreciated their hard-working, often hard-playing and charitable way of life and decided to emulate this, helping those who were less fortunate than himself, supporting various causes including the London Temperance Hospital. In order to boost his success at this he realized that he needed to find a way of drawing attention to himself – and this is where the pearl buttons made an entrance in earnest.

Now, there is a legend that the pearly fashion started in the 1880s when a Japanese cargo ship laden with buttons foundered in the Thames during a fog and its pearly cargo was washed ashore into the hands of the costers gambling on the wharves behind the barges. Another version tells that a ship was seized for excise infringement and its cargo sold off cheaply to a costermonger clientele. Indeed the costers were a stylish group and those that collected money had already begun to sew a few buttons onto certain areas of their clothes, such as along the seams of their trousers. This, reputedly along with a brass-button-covered suit belonging to a music hall comedian, inspired Henry to sport lots of pearl buttons rather than just a few, and so, as he swept the market floors, he began to collect those that had fallen from the visitors. He sewed them onto his cap to start and then, little by little, added them to his suit until it became filled and the first ‘smother’ suit was created.

In the 1880s the then relatively recent cult of Pearly buttons merged with the coster tradition of London regional Royalty completely as Henry Croft was elected to the first Pearly Kingship of Somerstown. By 1911 all 28 of the metropolitan boroughs of London had its own pearly royal family, often members of the local costermonger community. In 1926 Henry claimed publicly that he was the “original Pearly King in London” and, when he died in 1930, he’d become so famous that some 400 Pearlies attended his funeral. A life-size marble statue of him, originally sculpted for his grave in Finsbury Cemetery, can now be found in the crypt of the Church of Saint-Martins-in-the-Field.

Pearly Costumes

The costumes of the Pearlies are the expression of considerable creative talent. No two are the same though a number of traditional symbols are always incorporated into their designs and tell us much about their life. Outlines are often bordered as a sign of protection and many features indicate the precarity of coster life and their fatalistic attitude to it. The rank and realm of the Pearly Royalty are proclaimed in buttons on the back of the jacket or waistcoat. Among the most important recurring motifs, we find triangles (the ups and downs of life); playing cards and/or clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades (life is a gamble); horseshoes (luck); hearts (charity); anchors (hope); crosses (faith); doves (peace); wheels (circle of life/friendship/wheel of a coster’s cart); donkey carts (costers’ donkeys and carts); donkey heads (idem); flower pots (the trade of selling flowers (also recalling the old coster song, “Three Pots a Shilling”) and John Walters told me he also includes stars (cos he’s a star!).

Generally men wear suits, of black or dark fabric, kingsmen (neckties) and caps and ladies skirts (usually long) and fabulous hats decorated with long ostrich feathers. There have been exceptions to these rules and indeed Henry Croft preferred a top hat to a cap and other Pearlies have broken with tradition by, for example, wearing collars and ties. The decoration is described as ‘smother’ when the beads are sewn on densely and ‘skeleton’ when images are applied sparsely and the underlying fabric is left quite exposed. The clothes often weigh a good 30 kilos under the burden of literally thousands of buttons and 60,000 buttons is apparently not uncommon for a royal suit - yet the ultimate smother costume surely belonged to the famous Beatrice Marriott, Festival Pearly Queen of London, who launched the P&O Cruiser Spirit of London in 1972 - reputedly it had 90,000 buttons!

Monday, 9 September 2013

Victoriana : The Art of Revival – Guildhall Art Gallery - Open Now until 8th December 2013

'Self Portrait' with kind permission of the artist
Piers Jamson (c)

An excellent evening at the Guildhall Art Gallery on Thursday for the Preview of this new exhibition. It was wonderful to see the place packed with an enthusiastic guests and the Twitterati out in force!

Initially slightly disconcerted to see my favourite London Gallery converted into a Victoriana ‘emporium’ of delight; my guiding ‘tools’ missing! The Grimshaw, The Silent Ceremony and the Fire Judge.  However, didn’t take long to get absorbed in the exciting displays which were fascinating just like a Victorian cabinet of curiosity but on a giant scale.

From the handsome ‘Self Portrait’ by Piers Jamson, in silhouette, not the tiny weeny things hung on ribbons, but life size, viewed from the stairs going down into the gallery – the artist was very pleased with the hang.  He makes a fine Victorian dandy.  See also his framed photograph ‘The Drawing Room’.

Also gaze across or lift up your eyes, to view the hanging displays - one with bees being ridden by tiny skeletal warriors! This encouraged a ‘buzz’ of conversation about bee keeping and how fascinating it is!

Then on to the taxidermy (armchair) in The Reimagined Parlour, not to everyone’s liking but the foxes looked beautiful and very snug. Stimulated a conversation about fur coats and how it was OK as long as they were second-hand or granny’s old fur stole.

Butterflies were also represented, fluttering down from the ceiling coming from a ‘chrysalis' in the form a ethereal pink dress. A Jane Eyre collection by Paula Rego some pictures associated with the story, others not, all unsettling and thought provoking.  Then Dorian Gray novel/play/film displayed as photographs with an interesting twist, drawn primarily from the 1945 Hollywood adaptation using restaged stills. You may recall how pale he was? This time he has a much darker complexion.

So we wound our way through the galleries, getting smaller and narrower (it’s not a big exhibition but it feels it - in a good way!) film and fantasy abounds, and do not forget to peek behind the black curtain, more butterflies but will play havoc with your vision and mind!

Oh there is also the steam gun and inventions taking inspiration from those clever Victorians. There is also the ‘Neo Victorian Alphabet’ and wireless and Time Travel. Fanciful tattoos are there as well.

Believe me there is something for EVERYONE at this extravaganza of an exhibition, even if you are not particularly fond of things Victorian, you will enjoy the ‘revivalist’ take on it. Also lots of emphasis on the Gothic.

My favourite piece, or second favourite, cannot make up my mind having met the artist of one in person, is Dress 09. A lazar cut full length dress, over a yellowing crackling silk, look closely at the pattern, it does seem to move and glower at you. Influenced by a Victorian short story the ‘Yellow Wallpaper’ a must read – see links for a 360 degree view of dress

and the story:

Do check out the Octomaids – woman-mullusc hybrids ‘that have crawled and slithered their way into the contemporary artistic imagination’.  A tiny version of the altered engraving.

There is not your usual catalogue to the exhibition but a lovely hard back book called ‘Victoriana A Miscellany’ – it has lots of interesting writings about the exhibits plus a ‘conversation’ with Sarah Waters.

Hats off and a loud hurrah to Sonia Solicari and her team  for this extraordinary exhibition.

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