This pen, ink and watercolour caricature by Isaac Cruikshank will be going on sale in the UK in a couple of weeks time.

Cruikshank, along with notable contemporaries such as James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and Richard Dighton, produced numerous watercolours during his lifetime. These paintings seem to have served two purposes: firstly, as a means of proofing designs for potential publications prior to the investment in copperplate and other materials required to translate them into print; and secondly, they served a small but lucrative market of wealthy collectors who were interested in buying original works by their favourite satirists.

Cruikshank’s originals usually offer a toned-down version of the themes that he frequently explored in his satirical prints – a love of London life, sociability, and a tendency to occasionally veer towards the saccharine and the sentimental, being apparent in many of his paintings.

The scene here is set somewhere on Grub Street, a locality made famous by its association with satirists and hack writers in the first half of the eighteenth-century, but which by Cruikshank’s time was also becoming a byword for the deprivation and the down-and-out in general. It shows a hearty cobbler, Nathan Saveall, touting for business in the street. He gestures over his shoulder to his ‘shop’ which is little more than a hole in the street with a jerrybuilt timber and glass shed thrown over the top of it. The man he is addressing looks nonplussed, his slightly battered appearance suggesting that he hasn’t the money to buy whatever Saveall is selling and the rolled-up manuscript sticking out of his pocket hinting at the possibility that he is an impoverished writer. In the background a small crowd has gathered around the window of a cookhouse. It includes a ragged ballad singer who bawls out one of the songs from the sheaf of broadsides in her hands while simultaneously tending to her three young children.

I must admit that if Cruikshank is making a joke here then its meaning is largely lost on me. I can only think that if humour was his intent then this image was conceived as a realistic counterpoint to the heavily idealised images of urban poverty presented in popular prints such as Francis Wheatley’s Cries of London series. It’s a nice picture nonetheless and something of a rarity to the collector.