Ralph Mills

Objects of Delight

9: Buy Image! The archaeology of a ballad

Singing about miniatures

The figure of the (often Italian) image seller was a conventional sight in metropolitan street life, sufficient to generate a mid-nineteenth century sub-genre of songs about the type in which the seller shows off his figures of leading individuals of the age and provides a satirical commentary on them (McWilliam 2005, 109)

In one of those serendipitous leaps that make research so exciting, in the midst of spotted cats and green parrots, I stumbled (online) across a very special piece of old sheet music. It's stained yellow and foxed by time, but is now preserved in the Lester S. Levy collection of sheet music at Johns Hopkins University. Because I accessed it virtually (as a high resolution pdf kindly provided by the library), I couldn't touch or smell its seven pages, but I'm guessing that the paper is stiff, fragile, crumbly and musty. There is concentration of stains on the edges of its pages, presumably from fingers that turned them in the past.

Sung with enthusiastic Applause by MADAME VESTRIS.
The Words by the Honble T.C.
Piano Forte.
N. YORK      Price /-
Published and Sold by E.S. MESIER 28 Wall-st and BOURNE Broadway 359

On the cover (Figure 1) is a typically nineteenth century mish-mash of type fonts (eight different fonts in eleven lines). Above the title is an engraving of a smiling man, his hat set at a rakish angle, his short jacket stylishly waisted and lapelled. In his right hand he holds aloft a miniature female figurine, while his left hand rests on a tray of his wares. He's a seller of "images", whose street cry of "Buy Image!" inspired the song.

"Buy Image!" is an undated "ballad". It has a pleasant rolling tune and simple piano accompaniment by one G. Maddison, an apparently forgotten composer (I have so far found only find a single reference to a composer named "G. Maddison", a mention in Harmonicon of 1830). I have digitised the melody (audio file). This is almost certainly the first time the music has been heard for nearly 200 years, for the ballad, although popular enough to have existed in sheet form both sides of the Atlantic, has left no other (so far) obvious traces.

"Buy Image!" lyrics excavated

The lyrics, by "the Honorable T.C." (another long-forgotten individual), sound odd to 21st-century ears, but are nevertheless fascinating, informative and relevant to my study (original spelling and punctuation):

Buy Image buy Image Buy Image buy Buy Image
fair la—dies of me...
I sell them so cheep don't refuse me,
I sell them so cheep don't refuse me,
They’re the prettiest thing in the World that can be,
To place on your shelf and amuse ye
They're the prettiest thing in the World that can be
To place on your shelf and a-muse ye.

I've Cupids so small you can put a-ny where
No La-dy should ere be with-out him
He'll go in your pock-et and safe-ly rest there,
Shoud your Mother or Aunt scold a—bout him
Buy, Image buy Image: Buy buy Image fair La-dies of me, Buy Image, Buy Image.
Buy Image buy Image Buy buy Image Buy Image

I've such pretty toys
For ev'ry ones fan-cy to muse on
For ev'ry ones fancy to muse on
There's a Venus Paul Pry
And don’t1 little Boys,
For old maiden ladies to chuse from
There's a Venus Paul Pry,
And dear little Boys,
For old maiden ladies to chuse from.

I've Birds and I've Swains that will ne-ver take flight
Depend where you place them they'll stay
And be quite contented so pretty, and bright,
If you give them a dust once a day...
If you give them a dust once a day...
If you give them a dust once a day....
Buy Image Buy Image Buy I-mage fair Ladies of me Buy Image Buy Image.

I especially like the final lines, those that mention dusting!

"Buy Image!" lyrics excavated

The hawker begins by suggesting that his anticipated audience is predominantly female, "fair ladies", that his figurines are "cheep" and that these pretty things are intended to be displayed, for the amusement of those ladies, on their shelves, presumably mantelpieces.


The image seller suggests that the "Cupids" he sells are small enough to go anywhere, including a pocket, to avoid the censure of mothers and aunts. This suggests that these particular miniatures are meant to be portable and had meanings that might be interpreted as improper by censorious adults. In the early nineteenth century most women's pockets were still separate from other garments, rather in the manner of small handbags, though were generally worn between outer clothing and petticoats. It was, however, beginning to be more common to find pockets sewn into seams (Anon 2016a). However the pocket was worn, it is unlikely that anything other than very small figures could or would be carried in them.

The song tantalisingly doesn't provide us with any clues as to the significance of tiny Cupids that had to be hidden from disapproving mothers and aunts. Cupid was, of course, a very popular two-dimensional image on Valentine cards. The figure being offered for sale in Appendix I, Figure 69 is identified as a Cupid, and Cupids are mentioned nine times in the texts listed in Appendix II. Whether these would have been pocket-sized is not clear, and plaster figures would not have been portable in this sense. In the early twentieth century, "Cupid dolls" were handed out as prizes at fairs, and these were then passed on as love tokens: "There was one game [at the 1920s fair] all the boys liked to play because if they won, they got a Cupid doll. Then they would give their girl-friend the Cupid doll. There were a lot of girls carrying around those dolls, and I wanted one so bad" (Neville 2002, 86). It is likely that this behaviour was based on much earlier traditions, but I have yet to find a nineteenth century reference. Contemporary ceramic Cupid figures are not easily identifiable, and those that have survived are too large to fit in an average pocket.

The excavations of pre-1914 debris of German ceramic factories have produced huge numbers of tiny bisque figures, many of which online sellers identify as "Cupids", and significantly these figures appear to merge with figures otherwise identified as "crude white porcelain figures" or "Frozen Charlottes" (see Chapter 2). The Cupids" referred to in the ballad therefore might be early examples of these mysterious figurines.


Venus, whether the Medici Venus or the Venus de Milo, or any other naked or semi-naked female figure that could be given her name, was one of the most popular figurines during the nineteenth century. For my discussion of this phenomenon, see Chapter 10.

Little boys:

"Dear little boys" could apply to a number of figurines, but at the time the song was being written, we know that a matching pair of figures of a boy reading and another writing were the rage (Hone and Chapter 10, Figure ). The reference to them being collected by "old maiden ladies" is perhaps instructive, and links nineteenth century behaviours with those of today's elderly ladies, the denizens of charity shops.

Birds and Swains:

"Birds" and "swains" (Figure 2 and Figure 3) were also common miniatures.

Paul Pry: "I hope I don’t intrude"

The mention of a Paul Pry figurine2 leads to an important aspect of the song and the miniatures it describes. The comedy Paul Pry, by John Poole, was a highly popular production at London's Haymarket Theatre in 1825, and a large number of figurines were immediately produced that depicted the actor John Liston playing the role (Figure 4 and Figure 5), that he debuted. A nosey-parker and peeping tom, the phrase he repeats in the play whenever he is discovered, "I hope I don’t intrude", could be said, in today's parlance, to have "gone viral". The publisher's blurb for the book I Hope I Don’t Intrude (David Vincent 2015) states:

After 1825 the overly inquisitive figure of Paul Pry appeared everywhere — in songs, stories, and newspapers, and on everything from buttons and Staffordshire pottery to pubs, ships, and stagecoaches — and 'Paul-Prying' rapidly entered the language (Publisher's web site)

Madame Vestris was an actress perhaps most renowned for her legs, which she often revealed in roles that demanded male costumes (Figure 6), also appeared in the first performances, and performed a duet with Liston (Figure 10).

Deeper excavation

The cover and lyrics help us to date the piece and learn more about its context. Madame Vestris lived from 1797 to 1856. She first appeared in Italian Opera in 1815, but by 1831 had begun presenting burlesques and extravaganza, so probably she would have sung this piece well before the mid century. Clara Fisher (1811-1898) an actress and singer, moved from Britain to the US in 1827 —she performed for the last time in Liverpool on July 13th 1827. An infant prodigy and versatile actress (she took all six female roles in An Actress of All Work at the Theatre Royal in 1825) she was a sensational success in the US, but appeared less frequently after her marriage in 1834.

E. S. Mesier and George Melksham Bourne both printed lithographs and published in New York in the late 1820s and 1830s. Given the careers of the two singers listed on the sheet music it is likely that the piece was published between 1826 and 1830. This is borne out by the Victoria and Albert Museum's dating of its figurines of Paul Pry and Broom Girl (see below). Many US-published works at the time were pirated from European copyrighted publications. The image seller on the cover of Buy Image certainly has a somewhat raffish European air about him. Paul Pry premiered in New York in 1826, so "Buy Image!" may have been attempt to ride on the popularity of the show in that city. It is remarkable that the event of a popular stage show could so rapidly not only travel around the world as news, but also create enough interest to make it worthwhile to compose songs and print sheet music and make figurines of the stars that would also attract international interest.

The image-seller's stock-in-trade

In his right hand, the vendor is brandishing an apparently female figure (Figure 7. This figure represents The Broom Girl, the singer of a ballad first performed by Madame Vestris is the Haymarket Theatre in 1826 (Figure 8). The figurine would originally have held two brooms made from twigs (Figure 9). Madame Vestris also performed a comedy duet of the same song with John Liston, who dressed in drag (Figure 10) so the figurine may have represented him.

Despite the seller being drawn as oddly out of scale when compared with the street he is standing in, the poor quality of the engraving presents a challenge in identifying his stock (Figure 11). He is resting his tray of figurines on what seems to be a bollard (see Chapter 10). A female bust with a bow in her hair faces us. Next is a figure that is almost certainly Paul Pry with a bust (of Wellington? or Napoleon?) to its left. Another slightly different figurine of Paul Pry stands next to the bust. Behind the seller's left arm is yet another figure of Paul Pry, and a second Broom Girl figure stands on the far corner. The other figures are unidentifiable.

Fair ladies

The "Buy Image" ballad illuminates several strands of nineteenth-century everyday life. Firstly it tells us that images were familiar, and interesting, enough to inspire a balladeer with the confidence that his creation would be listened to and enjoyed by theatre audiences. It informs us that women in the early 1800s formed an important part of those audiences — it would be pointless addressing a song to "fair ladies" if they weren't sitting in the stalls. The versions of the ballad were sung by performers of both genders, and at least one of those performers, Madame Vestris, was well-known enough to have a place in theatre history.

"Buy Image!" The London Version

There were probably several more editions of this ballad. In his book Staffordshire Portrait Figures, Gordon Pugh published an illustration of "Buy Image!" (Figure 12) that had been published in London (Pugh 1988, 20).

The design is almost exactly the same as the New York version. The quality of the lithograph is better, which suggests that this is the original, and the American is a copy. However the illustration of the image seller is reversed, which might not be an issue except that in this version the figurine of Buy a Broom is also reversed, and therefore she is depicted as holding her brooms in the incorrect hands. The shop front in the background bears the name "W. Rose, Publisher", so one would expect this to be the publisher of this version, yet the publisher is listed on the cover as being Golding and D'Almaine. It seems therefore that "W. Rose" reversed another unknown publisher's original, which was subsequently copied by Golding and D'Almaine. Pugh unfortunately did not record the source of this illustration.

Hudson's "Buy My Images"

There were several other songs celebrating or at least making use of the image seller. Hudson's "Buy My Images" was published in about 1842 (Pugh 1988, 11). Like "Buy Image!", the cover of the sheet music carries an illustration of an image-seller (Figure 13).

Unlike "Buy Image!" the lyrics of "Buy My Images" mimic an Italian accent, or at least an imagined or deliberately comic Italian accent:

Will you buy Images? I Images cry,
Very fine very pretty, very cheap will you buy?
Poor Italiano him never in de glooms
All sort Images beautiful your rooms.
First one Prima LORD BYRON head,
BYRON live longtimes after him dead
Loves tales Poeta-all very true one,
Every body's knows him call DON JUAN,
Will you buy Images? I Images cry
Very fine very pretty-cheap-will you buy?
Poor Italiano better laugh as cry,
Will you buy Images? very cheap, will you buy?

We can date the song by the last verse, in which Victoria is praised for having “two Royal babies:

Now Finitissimo nex' one seen
Dis FAIR VICTORIA Old England Queen
Got two Royal Babies ready for store
Every years mean haves one little more
Best Lady for Queen ever could known
Reign Peoples heart and grace Inglese Throne
Buy dis Images be Lealta seen
You not want Sovereign God save de Queen.
Buy my Images

The lyrics of a second, anonymous, version state that Queen Victoria now has six children, which dates its publication to between 1848 and 1850.

Though the lyrics are music-hall doggerel, they still tell us something of the image sellers, whose poor English is parodied. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the song is that it expects its audience to recognise and appreciate a list of literary greats — Byron, Shakespeare, Scott, Burns, and Milton, as well as the usual Nelson, Wellington, Albert, and Victoria. These characters also feature on the image-seller's tray (Figure 14), helpfully labelled. One wonders how many of these names would mean anything to a modern audience. The list also confirms the impression that these individuals would have graced the mantelpieces of ordinary people, for it was those who were in the music- and concert-hall stalls who bought the images. It is worth noting a few wry touches, such as Prince Albert being paid £30,000 a year just to "ride" with Victoria, though given that by the time of Reeves' version the Queen had given birth to seven children there may have been a sexual undertone to this line. I have not been able to locate the music for this song.

By the time a third version of this "celebrated comic song, as sung by T. C. Reeves at most of the principal London and provincial concerts" was printed in Leeds (Figure 15) the Queen had had a seventh child, so dates from 1850-1853. This broadside, the words of which differ slightly from Hudson's ballad, states that the music is available from "Duncombe" (John Duncombe) of Middle Row, Holborn. In another demonstration of the links that spread from the Holborn mantelpiece, Duncombe is connected to Madame Vestris (see above), having published a reputedly scurrilous account of her love life in The Adventures and Amours of Madame Vestris (Kirkpatrick 2014). She sued him, unsuccessfully, in 1826, to prevent publication of the third part of this tale. Surviving illustrations (for example Figure 16) from the publication not only hint at its contents, but also show why her legs were so notorious! So admired were these limbs that the enterprising James Papera made and sold plaster casts of them. (Jacob 2011). This caused much amusement, and inspired a Henry Heath caricature (see Chapter 10 Figure 51).

Madame Vestris' legs, in plaster form, caused mirth on the other side of the Channel, where La Revue de Paris of 1832 noted jocularly that English champions of the arts had accused the French of barbarism and demanded reprisals for selling a leg for only 3 francs 75 cents while in England a leg had achieved three shillings (Véron 1832, 50).

James Papera's somewhat bumpy career, certainly in those early stages recorded, oddly enough, in 1843 on the pages of The Phrenological Journal and Miscellany, shines some light on the erratic lives of itinerant image sellers. Phrenologist Richard Beamish describes Papera living a life "subject to hardships of no common kind; having no change of clothes or of linen; sleeping on the ground in the open air; often destitute of food, or driven to the necessity of satisfying hunger by eating of the wild-fruits which the country chanced to afford" (Beamish 1843, 155). But later, Papera, restless despite having recruited ten boys from Italy and creating a well-regarded business in London, decided to combine selling figures with acting, creating a troupe that toured Scotland and the North of England, and then South America, making money from selling "waxen images of saints" (Beamish 1843, 157).

Come buy my pretty images

Another song, "Come buy my pretty images" (Figure 17 and Figure 18), attributed to J.W. Fielder was published in 1856 (audio file). The lyrics (see Appendix II) refer to a long list of celebrities, including Victoria, Albert, Omar Pasha, Lord Raglan, Admiral Graham, Charles Napier, General Windham, Field Marshal Campbell, Admiral Lyons, Earl of Cardigan, Earl of Lucan, Florence Nightingale and the Earl of Clarendon. They are again written in a comic imitation of an Italian accent:

Come buy dese pretty Images, Vot to you now I show,
De old ones I have sell dem all, And dese are new you know,
Dese Images so vary sheep, to sell I now vill try,
Vary fine, vary sheep, vary pretty vill you buy,
Vill you but my pretty Images, dese Image vill you buy,
Vary fine, vary sheep, Vill you buy vill you buy,
Of a poor Italian, Vat'd sooner laugh as cry,
Come buy my pretty Images dese Image vill you buy.

The ballad celebrates the Crimean War, and a number of political and military celebrities.

Celebrities and cupids

The characters/figures mentioned in these songs are a fascinating mixture of "classical" (Cupid and Venus), intellectual (Shakespeare, Milton, Walter Scott and Robert Burns), patriotic (Victoria and Albert), celebrity (Paul Pry, Wellington, Nelson) sentimental (little boys, swains) and faunal (birds). This mixture obviously meant something to the audiences; there would be no point in including unknown figures in the lyrics. And, importantly, it would not have included figures beyond the class-knowledge, to coin an ungainly phrase, of the listeners. By "class-knowledge" I mean a general, widespread knowledge amongst the working classes of, say, people from history or writers. It could be argued that theatre audiences weren't the poorest of the poor, but it is also unlikely that those who queued to see and hear Madame Vestris in London and New York, who laughed at the mock-Italian accents, who recognised Paul Pry or who bought the ballads were all middle class. And in an era when to own a piano was a sign of achievement (Parakilas 2002, 226) the ballads, with their easy accompaniments, would probably have featured in DIY entertainment. There was also a vein of racism in the ballads, especially that by Hudson, who makes fun of the itinerants' misuse of English. This almost certainly reflected life in the streets, and contrasted with the more colourful vision of the image seller as communicated by the romanticising artists and writers of the time.

Le Petit Marchand de Statuettes: a voice from the past

The enigmatic French chanteuse, Berthe Sylva (Berthe Faquet, 1885-1941), had three-decade long career in the early twentieth century. She was idolised at the time, having a raw voice that suited the emerging technologies of recording, and which seemed suffused with the sorrows and pain of someone who had started her working life as a chambermaid, had a child at 16 who she saw again only three times in her life, and though a successful artiste, died of drink and poverty.

Sylva, about whom we know very little apart from her recordings and a handful of photographs, often performed narrative songs – "chansons vécues" — about the hardships facing the poor, so Le Petit Marchand de Statuettes — The Little Statuette Seller — fits well within her repertoire4. It is likely that Sylva would have come across and heard image-sellers in the Paris of her early life. The song was composed in 1909, so by the time she recorded it in 1933 little image-boys may have been just a memory, but her rendition of the spoken words Jolies statuettes, Signor? Jolies statuettes, Signora? Santa Belli! in her YouTube recording (audio file) is perhaps the nearest we can get to actually hearing one of the street cries of nineteenth and early twentieth century France. Santa Belli should perhaps have been more accurately rendered as Santi Belli.

The lyrics (Figure 19) milk the sentimental image of a little seven-year-old orphan peddler, with large blue eyes, long curly hair "like that of an angel" and his cruel treatment by his master, who spends his takings on carousing:

Le Petit Marchand de Statuettes
C'était un tout petit enfant,
Venant de Rome;
Il avait à peine sept ans,
Pauvre petit bonhomme!
Sans pèr ni mèr, seul dans la vie,
Venant de la ville jolie,
Il avait de grands yeux très bleus,
Des yeux étranges,
De longs cheveux bouclés, comme ceux dun ange
D'un ange blond de cieux!
[Parle] Jolies statuettes, Monsieur?
Jolies statuettes, Madame?
Santa Belli!

The boy, who dreams of Italy and of having a beautiful mother, one day meets and befriends a stray dog in an alley and they become inseparable. Finally the brutish master ejects the terrified boy on a snowy night. The pair die of cold, huddled together in a doorway.


Last updated 24th April 2020


Footnote 1

"don't" is almost certainly a misprint of "dear"


Footnote 2

See also Chapter 5.


Footnote 3

For full lyrics see Appendix II.


Footnote 4

Lyrics by Luccia Folver, music by H. Roberty and Cloerec-Maupas.


Footnote 5

See Appendix II


Figure 1

The cover of the ballad sheet music BuyImage! showing an image-seller
Figure 1: The cover of the sheet music for the song "Buy Image". The Lester S. Levy Collection, Johns Hopkins University.

Figure 2

A plaster of Paris bird
Figure 2: Plaster of Paris bird, nineteenth century.

Figure 3

A plaster of Paris figurine of a shepherd boy
Figure 3: A plaster of Paris figurine of a "shepherd boy", nineteenth century.

Figure 4

Figurine of the actor John Liston, as Paul Pry
Figure 4: Figurine of John Liston as Paul Pry, 1830. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Figure 5

Illustration of John Liston as Paul Pry
Figure 5: John Liston as Paul Pry.

Figure 6

Illustration of Madame Vestris in male costume
Figure 6: Madame Vestris.

Figure 7

Detail of the objects on the image-seller's tray
Figure 7: Enlarged detail of the image seller's tray.

Figure 8

Close up of figurine in the image seller's right hand
Figure 8: Enlarged detail of the figurine in the seller’s right hand.

Figure 9

Sheet music of ballad, showing girl holding brooms and musuic staves
Figure 9: Sheet music of Buy a Broom? Sung by Madame Vestris.

Figure 10

Figurine of broom girl
Figure 10: Madame Vestris as the Broom Girl, 1827-30. The brooms, which were wooden twigs, are missing. Fitzwilliam Museum.

Figure 11

Illustration of two actors, one female, one male dressad as woman, performing the ballad Buy a Broom?
Figure 11: Madame Vestris and Mr. Liston In their Duet Buy a Broom, 1826. Lithograph, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Figure 12

Cover of sheet music published in London, showing reversed image of image-seller
Figure 12: "Buy Image!" published in London.

Figure 13

Cover of sheet music of song Buy My Images, showing an image-seller
Figure 13: Cover of "Buy My Images" c1842 (Victoria and Albert Museum). The image-seller is holding a bust of Wellington in his right hand. Note the presence of a bollard on the right.

Figure 14

Detail showing portrait busts on image-seller's tray
Figure 14: "Buy My Images", 1842. Busts on the image seller's tray: left-right Scott, Victoria, Shakespeare, Albert, Byron.

Figure 15

LKyrics of ballad
Figure 15: Version of "Buy My Images", sung by T.C. Reeves and printed in Leeds (1850-53) (English Folk Song and Dance Society).

Figure 16

Madame Vestris on stage, wearing a short costiume to show off her legs
Figure 16: Madame Vestris, from The Adventures and Amours of Madame Vestris

Figure 17

Cover of sheet music for song Come But My Pretty Images
Figure 17: "Come buy my pretty images", 1856. J.W. Fielder.

Figure 18

Closer view of the image-seller's tray of figurines
Figure 18: "Come Buy My Pretty Images". Detail of the image-seller's tray. (left-right) Florence Nightingale, Omar Pasha? Queen Victoria, General Windham?, Charles Napier?, Prince Albert, Admiral Lyons, Field Marshall Campbell?

Figure 19

The score and lyrics of Le Petit Manchand de Statuettes
Figure 19: The Score and Lyrics of Le Petit Marchand de Statuettes ou Santa-Belli 1909 (Bibliotheque Nationale).