Saturday, September 14, 2013

Figure of the Day: Billy Waters, 1823-1830

Billy Waters
Staffordshire Porcelain Factory
The Victoria & Albert Museum

In the early Nineteenth Century, it has been recorded that several Britons of African descent worked as street entertainers. These men were well-known throughout London, garnering good reputations for their remarkable talents and many charms. Perhaps the most famous of these was Billy Waters who, among with several of his counterparts, has been immortalized in British art and literature.

Billy Waters had served in the British navy, and, while in service lost a leg. While he received a Navy pension, it wasn’t enough to maintain his family in their home in the London parish of St. Giles. In order to pay all of the family bills, Waters turned to working as a busker. He became quite well-known—immediately identifiable for his peg-leg and feathered hat. He was famously sketched by George Cruikshank who also brought us some of the earliest drawings of Mr. Punch. Waters usually performed outside the Drury Lane Theatre, paying his violin to entertain the posh of London coming and going to the fashionable shows. Waters’ dog, his constant companion, is said to have held a hat in his mouth, entreating passersby to deposit coins in it. He was sketched outside the Drury Lane by Cruikshank who had the drawing published in Pierce Egan’s “Life in London” in 1821.

“Life in London” was transformed into a monumental operatic piece by W.T. Moncrieff. The show opened at the Adelphi Theatre in 1821 with Billy Waters as a character. Sadly, Waters received nothing from being represented in the extravaganza and was given no extra publicity for having his life immortalized on the stage. Had he been compensated for the use of his name and likeness, he might not have died two years later at the age of 45 in a workhouse. Shortly before his death, at least, he was recognized by his fellow buskers and declared “The King of the Beggars.”

Somehow, greater fame found Waters after his death. This Staffordshire figure depicts the Beggar King with his familiar costume. He’s playing his violin while waving his wooden leg in the air. Waters ever-present and loyal canine companion is depicted at his side—holding the hat. The figure was made between 1823 and 1830. 

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