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The James William Carling Story

The Pavement Artist (A Liverpool tale)

Addison Street 1929
James William Carling (1857–1887) was a pavement artist from Liverpool.

Carling was born at 38 Addison Street, Liverpool in the Holy Cross parish in 1857. He was the son of extremely poor Irish parents. From an early age James was known as the "little drawer" or "The little chalker" and used Liverpool's street pavements for his art and to beg for money. Carling attended Holy Cross School.

Industrial School Addison Street 1900
His Father was a blacking maker Henry Carling, has mother being Rose and he was the youngest of their six children. Catherine was the eldest born in London, and the next two sons William and John were born in Hull, Yorkshire. The younger of the children, Henry, Terence and James were born in Liverpool. In the 1861 census there was a married couple Terence and Ann Jane Lynch living with the Carling family at 38 Addison Street. It is possible Terence was the brother of Rose Carling.

The 1861 Census

Living at 38 Addison street in 1861
Henry Carling age 33, born Hull
Rose Carling age 33, born Ireland
Catherine Carling age 15, born London
William Carling age 11, born Hull
John Carling age 9, born Hull
Henry Carling age 7, born Liverpool
Terence Carling age 5, Born Liverpool
James Carling age 3, born Liverpool
Terence Lynch age 40, born Ireland

Ann Jane Lynch age 40, born Ireland

James’s Mother Rose died when she was thirty-six, and, James the youngest child was only seven years of age. His father married a widow whom James, it seemed, remembered with some bitterness, because as a grown up, he wrote:

“Starved by a stepmother of a very unusual disposition, I sallied out into the world like Jack of the fairy tales to seek my fortune, and a living as well, at the ripe old age of five”

James and his brothers earned pennies as errand boys and as a result of singing at English parish festivals, he could also quote Shakespeare and other poets.  He learned the classics at an early age, and with his brothers was in regular attendance at Liverpool’s theatres, gaining admission to the ‘gods’ for pennies. He remembered playing at Liverpool’s Pier head on a Sunday morning and listening to the chimes of the bells at Our Lady and St. Nicholas Church. James's brothers, Willy, Johnny and Henry had gone onto the streets at an early age as pavement artists. Pavement artists were the kings of the street Arabs,but the police were no friends of theirs, they drove them off the streets seeing them as beggars and a nuisance and a further addition to the many homeless and hungry children the police had to keep under control.

The Carling boys were big for their years in a town where many poor children had stunted growth through lack of proper nourishment.  Five-year-old James Carling, who had observed his older brothers practicing their street art, was given his chance to follow in their footsteps when his brother Johnny gave him some paints and crayons. Early the following morning James made his way to Ranelagh Street in the town centre to claim the most suitable smooth flagstone to practice his art. He was fortunate in that his subjects that morning, were the prize-fighters, English champion Tom Sayers and Irish American champion John C. Heenan, who passing by were so amused by the talent of one so young they started throwing coins into his little upturned hat and this encouragement drove him on.  The streets of Liverpool became the studio of little James Carling and the flagstones the canvas on which to display his works of art. James accepted guidance from his older brothers who were by now accomplished street artists and he soon became well known, among other children and passers-by.  Unlike most of the street artists in town he did not draw the same picture twice. Working drawing onto the pavement had its pitfalls, on rainy days, the rain could wash his work away.  At other times a policeman would beat him and move him on from the streets used by the gentry.  An enterprising James however found the right spot on rainy days, under an arcade at the bottom of James Street, just a few hundred yards from where Liverpool’s Liver Building would be built many years later in 1908.  This was, he found, a good place to catch the eye of the wealthy toffs who would throw a few coppers into his upturned  hat.   As most of his admirers were working men who had little or no money.  They did not have the money to show their admiration for young James who could produce such fine artwork on a paving stone. Instead they would supply him with cockles, shrimps and periwinkles, or any other food they might have on them. Seamen however, with  a few shillings in their pockets, were amongst his most generous and some days he would collect up to two shillings a day off them. Lime Street was another of his favourite thoroughfares; here was a never-ending flow of people who hopefully would appreciate his art.

James Carling self-portrait as a child pavement artist, c.1880.

Lime Street was another of his favourite thoroughfares; here was a never-ending flow of people who hopefully would appreciate his art. 

James Carling never forgot his boyhood on the streets of Liverpool. He would often recall his time spent in Ranelagh Street which was not free of policemen, who would often beat him although he was only six years of age, On Christmas Eve, 1865, James had just reached his eighth birthday and made his way to Elliot Street hoping to make some money for Christmas. It was a cold day with a biting wind, and as the day went on, he made his way to Lime Street, and no sooner had the young pavement artist started working than he felt the hands of a policeman as he was jerked to his feet. The young James Carling was dragged off to Cheapside Bridewell were he spent Christmas eve. On Christmas day he was transferred to the workhouse for a week. It was then decided that James William Carling be ordered to spend six years in St. George’s Industrial School. The Headmaster at St’ George’s was Father Nugent a man who cared about the welfare of his young charges, and the six years in the care of Father Nugent and his staff gave James Carling the opportunity to learn to read and write and the ability to express himself. James,  in later life never forgot what the school and Father Nugent did for him and when he returned  to his school for a visit he was shown around by his old headmaster.  A statue to Father Nugent, with his arm around a young boy, stands in St. John’s Gardens, William Brown Street, Liverpool.

James Carling illustration for
The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe.
In 1871, having been released from his schooling at St Georges, James set off for America to join his elder brother Henry who had arranged his travel. His intention was to attempt to become as successful an artist as Henry. When in America, James supported himself as a sidewalk artist and Vaudeville caricaturist before devoting his talents to illustrating the poem "The Raven". The poem's author, Edgar Allan Poe, Carling felt, was the "greatest poet this world has ever seen". Carling's drawings, created in the 1880s, are a graphic visual representation of the images Poe constructed in his poems. It was in Chicago, at the age of twenty-three, that James went in for a competition in Harper’s Magazine for illustrations for a special gift edition of The Raven a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. He entered thirty-three of the forty-three illustrations he had done in his brother’s studio in Chicago. However in 1883 Harper’s magazine announced to the world the winner of their competition. To illustrate “The most magnificent book of the year was Gustave Dore”. He was a specialist in the bizarre and fantastic, whose editions of Paradise Lost, Divine Comedy, The Bible, the works of Balzac and others classic and contemporary works had made him the most popular and internationally famous illustrator of his century.  

Another James Carling illustrations for
The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe.
Fate had delivered a hammer blow to James Carling when it snatched away his chance to walk in the sun and leave behind the cold pavements of Liverpool. George F. Sheer in his research on James Carling wrote: “He returned to Europe, probably at this time to collect his grandfather’s songs and ballads. He returned to Liverpool in the spring of 1887 with the intention of studying at the National School of Art”. It is doubtful, however, that he even entered the school, for by the summer, James Carling became ill. His death was recorded as the 9th July 1887; he was 29 years of age. he was so poor and unknown that he was buried along with 15 others in 1887 near the demure little chapel at Walton Park, in what was then called the Liverpool Parish Cemetery. The grave was registered Section F, Grave 16, but no one raised a marker of any kind until 1984.  

James Carling’s eldest brother Henry Carling made a successful career for himself and settled in Minnesota in the United States. He won membership of the Beaux-Arts of Paris and the Royal Academy of Liverpool. It was Henry Carling who kept the memory of his brother alive by looking after his drawings. In 1930 when Henry was seventy-four years of age he gave an exhibition of his own work and hung several of the ‘The Raven’ drawings amongst his own. After that exhibition the works of James Carling were once again stored away, but six years later, following the death of Henry, his daughter, Stella took on the job of promoting the work of her uncle James. Stella was determined to find a fitting place for these illustrations of Poe’s poem. They were lent to the Poe Shrine in Richmond, Virginia, for the Edgar Allen Poe memorial week in 1936, where they can still be seen.  In September 1984, Walton Park Cemetery was the scene of an unveiling ceremony when the grave of the forgotten Liverpool artist was marked. Members of the Rice Lane Community Association, Liverpool,  worked long and hard to uncover Carling’s history and produced the simple grave monument. The ceremony was carried out by Dr. Roscoe Brown Fisher of North Carolina, author of  the book The James Carling Illustrations of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’.
This portrait was painted by James William Carling
the subject is ‘unknown man’ most likely to be a patron from the St. Paul, Minnesota USA area.
Information courtesy of Philip Battle
(link below)

Memorial to James Carling at Holy Cross School

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