Philip Mercier, 1689-1760
The Fair Oyster Girl
oil on canvas
83 x 67 cm (33 x 27 in.)


A young woman standing beside a window at a table, a basket by her right elbow, opening oysters and putting them on a plate in front of her, looking up towards the viewer, wearing a wide-brimmed hat over a frilled cap


Published by: Carington Bowles biography After: Philippe Mercier  1766-1799 (circa) inscribed in the margin  with the title and ''The Oysters good! the Nymph so fair, Who would not wish to taste her Ware " // 124 // Printed for Carington Bowles, at No. 69 in St. Pauls Church Yard, London.'

'Avenue House, Ampthill, Bedfordshire: The Residence of Professor A.E. Richardson, P.R.A., and Mrs. Richardson', Antique Collector, XXVI, February 1955, p. 6.

M. Webster, Francis Wheatley, London, 1970, p. 70, fig. 85.
J. Ingamells and R. Raines, 'A catalogue of the paintings, drawings and etchings of Philip Mercier', The Walpole Society, XLVI, 1978, pp. 43-44, no. 164, pl. 11a.
E.D.G. Johnson, Paintings of the British Street Scene, 1986, pl. 109.



Mercier settled in England in circa 1716, becoming Principal Painter to Frederick Prince of Wales in 1729. In 1736, however, Mercier was dismissed and escaped London's competitive portraiture market for a more receptive audience in the country. The artist's patrons during this period included the Duke of Leeds, who acquired four pictures; Sir Robert Hildyard of Winestead, who bought a portrait and two 'fancy pictures', and Thomas Worsley, who acquired five portraits (Ingamells and Raines, op. cit., p. 4).

The decade from 1740-50, while he was based in York, was the greatest period of activity for Mercier - over 160 pictures survive from this time. It was during these years that he seemed to turn purposefully towards the 'fancy picture' genre he first started to favour in the late 1730s. The term 'fancy picture' was coined in 1737 by the art critic and historian George Vertue with specific reference to Mercier's work and the influence of French rococo pastoral pictures, such as those of Greuze and Boucher. Employed loosely throughout the 18th century, the phrase 'fancy picture' was used to describe charmingly contrived genre scenes of sentimental realism, incorporating the artist's own whimsy and imagination or references to contemporary literature, with figures shown in various roles and guises.

The rise of the print market at this time furthered the popularity of such pictures, as Hogarth had so successfully demonstrated in the 1730s with The Harlot's Progress and The Rake's Progress. From 1739, Mercier's compositions were widely disseminated through an alliance with John Faber Junior, a well-known printmaker who continued to work with him through the 1750s. Following Faber's death in 1756, Mercier expanded his published work through several other printmakers: McArdell, Purcell, and most notably Richard Houston (1722-1725), who produced single plates of Mercier's work in 1756, 1758 and 1760. Houston engraved The Oyster Girl twice - a testament to its popularity - firstly under the title The Fair Oysterinda and then as Native Meltons. Both were accompanied by the following verse, rather heavy-handedly insinuating that it is perhaps not only the oysters that are for sale: 'The oysters good - The Nymph so fair! Who would not wish to taste her Ware? No need has she aloud to Cry'em Since all who see her Fare must buy'em.'

The iconography derives in part from the European tradition of portraying street vendors, including the characters popularized by Marcellus Laroon's Cryes of the City of London and more contemporaneously Hogarth's The Shrimp Girl (National Gallery, London), but it also relies on themes explored in Dutch 17th century genre painting, where the preparation of food was often associated with the stimulation of sexual appetites. There are clear parallels between the verses which appear in The Fair Oysterinda and those found in French 18th century engravings after seventeenth-century Dutch paintings. A print after Gerard Dou's Girl Chopping Onions (The Royal Collection), for example, includes a caption inscribed by Pierre Louis Surugue, suggesting that the girl depicted may be far more appetising than the meal she is preparing (P. Sutton, Masters of Dutch 17th century Genre Painting, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1984, p. 185).
The taste in England around 1750 moved towards a more classical simplicity often showing a single figure against a plain background. The subjects changed too, tending towards occupations and orthodox domestic scenes, as seen in the pair Bon Jour and Bon Soir. Whilst the influence of 17th century Holland and French seventeenth-century works by Antoine Watteau (see Mezetin, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and then later 18th century works epitomized by Jean-Baptist-Simeon Chardin (see The Soap Bubble, 1731-33, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC), remained important to Mercier, his originality was in his ability to entertain without moralizing or instructing. His intent was to grace his patrons with a spirit of domestic, moving sentimentality, and in this he was a pioneer. His contribution to the art of the 'fancy picture' was taken on and evolved by the next generation of artists who included Henry Robert Morland (d.1797) and Francis Hayman.

In a mid-eighteenth-century print, ‘The Fair Oysterinda’ stares out at the viewer (Fig. 1). Perhaps she is annoyed at the interruption. By her waist, she shucks oysters with skill; a slip of the blade risks a lethal cut. Or maybe her eyes are an invitation. Through the composition, the artist connects Oysterinda to the food she prepares: crinkled clothes and pale skin mirror rugged shells and silver flesh. Below, a short verse makes plain the printmaker’s intention:


The Oysters good! The Nymph so fair!

Who would not wish to taste her Ware?

No need has she aloud to Cry ’em

Since all who see her Face must buy ’em.


The image was published by two members of a prominent print-selling family. John and Carrington Bowles were based in London’s Cornhill and St Paul’s churchyard, centres of the coarse, high-turnover end of the print market.2 Their customers bought a version of a well-known metropolitan character, the female oyster seller, an object of male sexual desire who blurs the roles of provisioner and prostitute.

Fig. 1.
Richard Houston (engraver) and Philippe Mercier (artist), ‘The Fair Oysterinda’, c.1756.

Richard Houston (engraver) and Philippe Mercier (artist), ‘The Fair Oysterinda’, c.1756.

Richard Houston (engraver) and Philippe Mercier (artist), ‘The Fair Oysterinda’, c.1756.

Hester Lacke was more respectable. She sold oysters by the door of the White Horse Tavern on Friday Street, just south-east of St Paul’s. In the 1620s, a rival challenged Lacke for her pitch. In support, Lacke’s neighbours testified to her ‘good and peaceable carriage there for the space of thirtye yeares’; the mayor’s court ruled in her favour and the competitor was thrown off. Lacke was a small businesswoman rooted by family and community. In 1617, Hester Sherwin married Walter Lacke in Barking, Essex; in 1620, the couple had a daughter, named after her mother. In 1639, the older Hester was buried in the churchyard of St Mary Somerset, a street away from her long-time standing.

Why was there a gulf between Hester Lacke and Oysterinda? How did working women become imagined as siren-like streetwalkers? These questions are hard to answer because, until recently, street sellers have not received sustained attention from early modern historians. Food hawkers in London have played small parts in studies of poverty, nuisance and social panic. In these works, a typical street trader has emerged: a poor wife or widow, working several jobs on the fringes of urban society, among vagrants, prostitutes and beggars. Yet recent accounts of women’s work have suggested hawking was a way to escape economic restrictions, forge occupational identities and compete with established male traders. Studies of towns and cities in continental Europe have shown how women retailers dealing outside formal markets and shops displayed entrepreneurship and ingenuity in a trade linked to this day with poverty and marginality.

‘The Fair Oysterinda’ belonged to a European, multimedia genre with origins in the thirteenth century. The Cries, as they were known, depicted street characters in printed images, prose satires, elite poetry, ballads, and even music. Since the late nineteenth century, there has been an impulse to raid the Cries for direct evidence of past streets and their people. As cultural objects, the genre has been underestimated. Sean Shesgreen’s detailed survey of the London Cries made little attempt to analyse them within the culture of the early modern capital. But, as Natasha Korda has argued, the Cries were shaped by contemporary attitudes, such as resentment of female traders, and became symbolic of broader tensions, such as illegitimate commercial activity. The Cries were deliberate constructions that bear the weight of complex interpretation.

This article compares the experience of women and men selling food on the streets with their representations. To do this, it focuses on one London trader who provided the raw ingredients for a particularly evocative character – the oyster seller. The article covers the period between 1600 and 1750, when the Cries coalesced as a genre and London underwent a series of dramatic transformations. The city’s population surged, the bounds of the capital stretched, and fresh tensions flared in urban society. What does tracking the oyster seller, in life and art, teach us about the emergent metropolis?

The first of three sections outlines London’s street-based oyster trade and who these hawkers may have been. For this kind of irregular work, hunting for occupational titles, for example in parish registers, is rarely fruitful. Previous studies have mostly relied on sources created when traders were in conflict with authority. Going beyond such material, I looked for cases where street selling was incidental to the source’s subject or could be linked to a specific part of the city, with the aim of accessing this work in everyday practice. This approach has yielded thirty-five individual oyster sellers – for whom we have at least a surname, and twenty-nine incidents of oyster selling – where we have at least the year the trading took place. Incidental material comes from the proceedings of the Old Bailey, biographies of the condemned written up by the Newgate prison chaplain, the records of the lord mayor’s court, and Middlesex quarter sessions papers. Localized sources are pauper examinations from West End parishes, the parish clerk’s book from St Botolph Aldgate, and information presented in Southwark to the court leet, a manorial court still functioning after the suburb’s incorporation by London in 1550. Records of enforcement are from Bridewell prison’s court of governors. Together these individuals and incidents show the variety and sophistication of oyster sellers, and the ways they may have interacted with other Londoners, who heard hawkers’ calls and ate their food. The second section examines the rise of the oyster-seller character. In contrast to most previous work, I analyse the Cries as a multimedia genre, in which similar characters and tropes appear throughout the period in different forms aimed at a range of audiences. This holistic approach to the genre allows us to appreciate the oyster seller’s prevalence and significance in urban culture. The third section unites the two approaches – the socio-economic and the cultural – to examine the entanglement of representation and reality. It places the oyster seller and her depictions within broader contexts: upheaval in London and its food supply, gender relations, and changing ways of imagining the city.

The history of the early modern oyster seller is about the streets, food, and the women and men of the working poor. It leads us to activities that have been difficult to uncover and lives that have rarely reached the historical record. What we find will take us back to larger stories about early modern urban culture. It will suggest that, for women working in the open air, the interplay of reality and representation was not without cost.


Londoners have been eating oysters since before the Roman conquest. In the seventeenth century, most of the capital’s oysters came from the Colne estuary in Essex and, on the other side of the Thames, the Kentish fisheries by the mouths of the rivers Medway and Swale. From these brackish waters hardy boats called smacks raced to the capital’s wharves, with one destination most popular – Billingsgate, the wharf-cum-market east of LondonBridge. By the calculations of chronicler William Maitland, the 991 oyster boats that landed there in 1729 unloaded 116,000 bushels. Not all were sold on the street. Since the fourteenth century, members of the Fishmongers’ company had an exclusive right to sell seafood by retail, in the formal markets and from shops. Despite the Fishmongers’ complaints, aldermen often turned a blind eye towards street hawking as they juggled the priorities of urban provisioning. Seafood poses particular problems: demand spikes at times such as Lent, supplies swell and shrink depending on the catch, and the shelf-life is short. Fresh oysters would keep up to a fortnight, if the weather was cool and they were laid in salty water replaced each day. Fishermen selling straight from their smacks needed a fast route to market. Unlike the fishmongers, tethered to shops and bearing hefty fixed costs, roving oyster sellers spread supplies quickly and adapted to swings in trade. Hawkers offered a vital service to both fishermen and oyster eaters.

Who were these useful dealers? Because of their uneven appearance in the sources, any quantitative analysis of the thirty-five individual sellers should be done with caution. That said, one fact is obvious, based on the attribute we have for all of them – gender. There were men, such as Daniel Peirce, a former indentured servant, and William Larwood, a ‘seller of Pickled oysters’. But the men were in the minority, as thirty-two of the thirty-five were women. When we are talking about the street trade in oysters, we are discussing a female business. As we shall see, the dominance of women shaped the way oyster sellers would be represented, the cultural concerns they came to reflect, and the power of those representations to constrain their work.

Those women and men selling oysters were not homogenous. As Peter Earle and Amy Erickson have suggested, hawking could suit married women whose husbands worked in a separate trade. While nine of the thirty-five were married, that experience was not universal. Margaret Waite had a husband, Jeffrey, and four children, all baptised in the 1690s in the parish of St Sepulchre Holborn. Hester Goff, a twenty-year-old apprentice to oyster woman Mrs Pimble, was at a very different stage in life. In just three cases do the sources indicate the oyster seller’s age and for another two it can be estimated by using other documents. Ages range from twenty to forty-two. Goff was the youngest; Sarah Dyall, baptised in St Andrew by the Wardrobe in July 1706, would have been in her forties when she recalled ‘going along with my oisters’ one night in 1748.

Where these hawkers started their days tells us something about their status. For twenty-two of the group, we can identify the parish they called home. Mapping these residences (Fig. 2), it is clear that oyster sellers tended to live in suburban parishes beyond the old city walls, particularly to the east and west. This pattern might tell us something about their relative wealth. London’s east and west ends had both grown rapidly in the century before 1650, but had followed different trajectories. Eastern parishes like Stepney and Whitechapel were overwhelmingly home to modest households of seamen and textile workers, who lived in small, densely packed houses; the west was more socially mixed, with pockets of poverty not far from grand dwellings.25 The several hawkers in St Martin in the Fields may have lived only streets away from their wealthier customers in Westminster. From these outlying parishes, the oyster sellers had to tramp across the metropolis, into the city’s heart and down to the river, if they needed to stock up at Billingsgate. This on-foot commute was made on top of their working day.

Fig. 2.
Parishes where street sellers of oysters lived, c. 1600–1750. Sources: see text. Base map from William Morgan’s Map of London 1682, ‘Mapping London’ project, Centre for Metropolitan History, Institute of Historical Research, University of London.

Parishes where street sellers of oysters lived, c. 1600–1750. Sources: see text. Base map from William Morgan’s Map of London 1682, ‘Mapping London’ project, Centre for Metropolitan History, Institute of Historical Research, University of London.

Parishes where street sellers of oysters lived, c. 1600–1750. Sources: see text. Base map from William Morgan’s Map of London 1682, ‘Mapping London’ project, Centre for Metropolitan History, Institute of Historical Research, University of London.

Oyster sellers ran different kinds of operations. William and Hannah Hodson of Spitalfields sent a servant, Elizabeth Draper, into the night-time streets with a ‘Sieve of Oysters’. Apprenticeships were possible. Mary Mills was placed with Ann Watson, who kept an oyster stall off Fleet Street. The arrangement ended badly, when Watson presented her apprentice at Bridewell for being idle, disorderly and ‘lying out of Night’. Itinerant food selling was one of the lesser trades into which poorer youths, including large numbers of girls, could be placed by the parish. Hawking oysters involved skills, such as bargaining and shucking, that could be learned. Traders could work independently of a spouse or alongside them. Hester Lacke’s rival, Simon Smallwood, sold shellfish with his wife, while Mary Kilpatrick, who dealt outside a mercer’s shop, traded separately from her husband, John, a soldier. Street sellers could also join forces. When Elizabeth Tetherington reached London in the 1690s, she teamed up with Jenny Creed ‘in the business of Selling Oysters at Billingsgate’.

Oyster sellers set up shop in a variety of locations (Fig. 3), but these workplaces were united by high traffic and a liminal nature. London was filled with overlapping and interpenetrating spaces, in which economic activity blurred with domestic life, entertainment, sociability, and movement. More than a quarter of the twenty-nine oyster-selling incidents occurred around places of drink, such as inns, taverns and alehouses. Given that many venues offered food with the beer, ale and wine, perhaps this is not surprising. But, because of the proximity to booze, traders were vulnerable to accusations of impropriety. In 1678, a constable of Bridge ward charged Sarah Webb as a ‘Com[m]on nightwalker’. Webb’s defence was that ‘shee selleth oysters’ at the Swan Tavern in Smithfield. Street trading often meant working on or crossing thresholds, such as doorways. When Anne Macklen went to Edward Prat’s house with oysters, she was accused of stealing two gold rings. Bridges funnelled walkers and passengers, and made them potential customers. In 1693, Rosemond Phillips was hauled to Bridewell for selling her oysters on FleetBridge, which ‘causes pickpockets to gather together’. The crossing became a target: the vestry of St Bride’s parish ordered prosecutions against oyster and fruit sellers on the same bridge in 1702 and 1705. When hawkers threatened the bridge’s primary function, for traffic to pass smoothly, they attracted the attention of authorities.

Fig. 3.
Locations of oyster-selling outside markets and shops, c. 1600–1750. Sources: see text.

Locations of oyster-selling outside markets and shops, c. 1600–1750. Sources: see text.

Locations of oyster-selling outside markets and shops, c. 1600–1750. Sources: see text.

Because of where they worked, hawkers impressed themselves on other Londoners. Selling in the street did not just mean wandering along: Samuel Billington placed baskets outside his house on the high street in Southwark; in the evenings, Susan Hawkins ran an oyster stall off Holborn; other traders pushed barrows or sat down in a regular spot. Like most of street life, these practices have left no material evidence and only fragments in the archive. This does not reflect their importance to urban culture. Throughout this period the streets were thoroughly public spaces, home to arguments, brawls, economic transactions, and community life. Hawkers worked among all this activity right out to London’s far reaches. For twenty-four of the oyster-selling incidents, we can identify the parish where they took place. When these parishes are mapped (Fig. 4), it is clear that Hester Lacke near St Paul’s was unusual. Most of these oyster sellers did not work in the heart of the City, but in fringe or suburban districts. Particularly popular was the bustling West End, where professional activity, shopping and leisure existed side by side, between the commercial and political poles of London and Westminster.

Fig. 4.
Parishes with oyster-selling incidents, c. 1600–1750. Sources: see text. Base map from William Morgan’s Map of London 1682, ‘Mapping London’ project, Centre for Metropolitan History, Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Parishes with oyster-selling incidents, c. 1600–1750. Sources: see text. Base map from William Morgan’s Map of London 1682, ‘Mapping London’ project, Centre for Metropolitan History, Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Parishes with oyster-selling incidents, c. 1600–1750. Sources: see text. Base map from William Morgan’s Map of London 1682, ‘Mapping London’ project, Centre for Metropolitan History, Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London.

As they crossed the city, oyster sellers spread cultural knowledge. Their sounds and the taste of their food marked the passing of the seasons. In John Gay’s 1716 poem Trivia, the return of the hawker marks autumn’s arrival: ‘When all the Mall in leafy Ruin lies, / And Damsels first renew their Oyster Cries’ (Book I, lines 27–8). Oysters were not the only street food with finite seasons. Gay’s poem mentions mackerel in June, walnuts, plums and pears in autumn, and rosemary and bay near Christmas (Book 2, lines 431–7). The oyster’s availability can be traced through several sources. We can pick out the months in which twenty-seven of the oyster-selling incidents occurred. With three exceptions, all were between September and April, still the typical season for English oysters. Those exceptions might be explained by a slightly different seasonality in this period – one eighteenth-century guide gives August to February as the prime months – or perhaps out-of-season traders were breaking rules to feed hungry customers. As oysters cast their spawn in spring, fishing over the summer risked ravaging the population. In the sixteenth century the Essex borough of Colchester, which had jurisdiction in the Colne estuary, introduced a closed season from Easter to Holy Rood Day (14 September). As they filled the streets at certain times of the year, oyster sellers reminded increasingly urbane Londoners that they lived in a riverine city, where their diet was still determined by the natural world.

Oyster sellers also passed on a sense of provenance. Varieties were called after the towns where they were landed. From Kent, for example, famous names such as Milton, Faversham and Queenborough carried a premium. As we shall see, London’s oysters were associated with one origin above all – Wallfleet. Today, no English town or modern variety exists with that name. In representations, the label evoked the Fleet River and London’s western wall, an area frequented by oyster sellers but also notorious for prostitution and Bridewell prison. But Wallfleet also referred to a real variety. Triangulating from the inconsistent testimony of authors John Norden and Daniel Defoe, and debates in the House of Lords, we can identify the origin of these small, delicious oysters: what is now Wallasea Island, in Essex’s River Crouch.This detective work clarifies a curiosity of past London’s lexicon. It shows too that the suggestive wordplay of the Cries was based on a fact of the food chain.

Who ate oysters on the street is hard to piece together. One option is to consider contemporary dietary advice, which suggested oysters suited certain people and occasions. In prescriptive texts based on Galenic humoral theory, Tobias Venner and James Hart both explained that raw oysters were best digested by those with choleric, hot and dry bodies. Another physician, Thomas Moffett, contested that ancient theorists had not tried English varieties, such as the Colchester or Wallfleet, which were ‘wholesome and to be desired of every man’, regardless of their stomach.All three concurred over when and how oysters should be eaten. Oysters were to be slipped down before meals, because ‘through their saltnesse, they excite the appetite’. To help digestion, they should be seasoned with pepper and vinegar, and accompanied by strong beer, claret, or sacke (a fortified white wine). Oysters were not the heart of a meal, but a snack or appetizer, often taken in a social setting, preferably with drink.

They were eaten by Londoners across the social scale. Though oysters were fairly cheap, like most seafood they had few calories for the price, so may not have been a staple for city’s poorest. But the scrappy evidence for oyster eating, particularly on the street, suggests a range of Londoners sampled them. One night in 1744, an unnamed woman sold four-pence worth to a soldier. At eleven in the evening on 18 December 1747, Sarah Dyall sold oysters to Edward Acton, a clerk.The city’s social elite noted eating oysters in their diaries. Roger Whitley, the member of Parliament for Chester, took some in London taverns on nine occasions in the 1680s, usually with a crowd of friends and colleagues. William Byrd, a Virginian in London for business, ate oysters in drinking houses and what may have been brothels. On the evening of 14 September 1719, Byrd ‘went to Mrs. Smith’s where I met Molly and had some oysters for supper and about eleven we went to bed and I rogered her twice’. Among the diarists, the most prolific shellfish consumer was naval administrator Samuel Pepys, whose writings show that oysters were not necessarily tied to drink and sex. Through the 1660s he ate oysters on dozens of occasions, often in company and in taverns. But he also recorded buying them on the street. One time, Pepys recalled a quick bite, ‘two pennyworths of oysters, opened for me by a woman in the Strand’. He also favoured a Gracechurch Street vendor, who he visited at least three times and gladly reported was alive after the 1665 plague. Street hawkers served a swath of Londoners as part of an essential, variegated system of eating out in England’s capital. In early modern London, an oyster seller on the move or at a pitch was a common sight. This ubiquity was one reason why they lodged themselves in the urban imagination.

Though she would become one of the most recognizable Cries characters, the early oyster seller was indistinct. The first English contributions to the genre were large grids depicting street folk, printed on broadside sheets. These were inexpensive, with lower-quality versions priced at a few pence, and were posted as decoration in homes and alehouses.In ‘The Common Cryes of London’, published sometime after 1667, the oyster seller is one of thirty-seven figures. She is a woman carrying a basket and pot, but she needs the label, ‘Oysters’, to illuminate what she offers.59 In a mid-seventeenth-century set over two sheets, ‘The Manner of Crying Things in London’, one hawker calls ‘New wall fleete Oysters’ (Fig. 5). She balances on her head a basket, with some shells and a measuring dish inside. Yet she is still hard to distinguish from the set’s other women, particularly the one dealing mackerel. The two seafood sellers have the same face, hair, and broad-brimmed hat. In these early visual Cries, the oyster seller was a variant of the fierce, foul-mouthed fishwife. These grids with large numbers of figures did not allow detailed characterization. Their main theme was the symbolic arrangement of the urban poor, drawing on a medieval tradition of images in which the world was categorized and ordered.

Fig. 5.
Street sellers (clockwise: onions, apples, flounders and oysters) from Anon., ‘The Cries of London’, c. 1650.

Street sellers (clockwise: onions, apples, flounders and oysters) from Anon., ‘The Cries of London’, c. 1650.

Street sellers (clockwise: onions, apples, flounders and oysters) from Anon., ‘The Cries of London’, c. 1650.

The theme of arrangement rang out clearly in the musical Cries. In courtly music, popular songs and ballads, the advertising shouts of hawkers were tuned and organized into sweet-sounding song. Around the turn of the seventeenth century, three composers, Richard Dering, Thomas Weelkes and Orlando Gibbons, employed the oyster seller’s call in complex, polyphonic pieces that brought to mind the hubbub of London’s streets. The ‘Cries’ sound more orderly than the city’s actual soundscape: they employed one or many voices over several viols, were carefully structured and closed with voices in unison, and were probably performed by professional musicians. All three composers were highly trained and wrote for exclusive musical milieus, with Gibbons and Dering both serving in the court and Weelkes at Chichester Cathedral. As with the early printed Cries, in these pieces the oyster seller did not always stand out. Weelkes uses a single voice that switches from cry to cry. Of the four voices in Dering’s work, the oyster seller is placed in the tenor line, a male part. Gibbons wrote the most elaborate oyster call. His treble part sings: ‘Oysters, oysters, oysters, three-pence a peck at Bridewell dock, new Wallfleet oysters’. Though a boy may have sung the line, it was clearly a feminine role. The prices and provenance also had suggestive undertones, with ‘Bridewell’ and ‘Wallfleet’ suggesting the city’s western fringe and hinting at prostitution and crime. Whether or not Gibbons was deliberately making bawdy allusions, these were subversive pieces, which used the noises of the street to play with established, elite musical forms.

Over the period, the oyster seller took on salacious characteristics in more popular songs and ballads. Musical collector Thomas Ravenscroft, in his 1609 miscellany of simple, vocal songs, included two three-voice catches that used the Cries of ‘New oysters’ and ‘new walefleet oysters’. Compared to the pieces for viols and voices, these rounds might have been sung in less rarefied locations. This was especially true of ballads. These verses matched to well-known tunes would have been heard on the street and in alehouses, and their broadsheet sheets were pinned up in homes and shops.68 In some seventeenth-century ballads, the figure of the oyster seller is overtly sexualized. In one early ballad, the London milkmaid’s sweet song is compared to the rattling sound of the ‘Oyster whore’.69 Another balladeer used the story of an ‘Oyster Wench’ in an argument between a gentleman and a tradesman. The tradesman accused his rival of one night wooing the hawker, but pretending not to know her the following day. In an early eighteenth-century song, ‘As Oyster Nan stood by her Tub’, the trader actually becomes a prostitute. The four verses tell of a tavern-door oyster seller, who is asked inside by a vintner. The pair sleep together behind the bar. The woman becomes pregnant and makes sex her profession, having ‘learnt the pleasing Game’. The song’s closing line, that Nan ‘shuts and opens like an Oyster’, links the food she sells to a woman’s sexual parts.

Around the time that song was collected, the oyster seller appeared as free-standing, sexualized character in other forms of the Cries. The fullest imagining of the female oyster seller was in John Gay’s Trivia, a poetic guide to walking through London that was named for a goddess of the streets. As well as practical advice, this urban interpretation of Virgil’s Georgics invents mini-epics and mythic characters for the eighteenth-century city. At one point, the narrator takes readers to a particular pavement, where underneath ‘Fleet-Ditch with muddy Current flows’. There he finds ‘brown Ostrea’ offering her ‘shelly Ware from Wallfleet Sands’. If the part of town and oyster provenance are winks towards sex and social deviance, what follows is less subtle:


The Damsel’s Knife the gaping Shell commands,
While the salt Liquor streams between her Hands.
The Man had sure a Palate cover’d o’er
With Brass or Steel, that on the rocky Shore
First broke the oozy Oyster’s pearly Coat,
And risqu’d the living Morsel down his Throat.
        (Book 3, lines 185–98)


The imagery is redolent of penetrative sex, as the knife and shell stand in for the male and female genitals. There is also a hint of danger: the narrator calls eating the raw oyster – buying Ostrea’s wares – a risk. In Gay’s description, the oysters themselves are not the temptation; their shape and the way they are eaten are used to make the woman the object of illicit desire.

While Gay’s classical allusions made Ostrea mythic, other versions drew an earthier figure. Around 1740, an unknown printmaker, G. Child, put out a single sheet, ‘M’st ye ha’ some Golden Pippins’, on which an apple seller pushes her barrow, with St Paul’s in the distance. The print reproduces a work of Venice-born painter Jacopo Amigoni, who made a four-part set of innocent, childlike traders. Child parodies Amigoni's original by subverting the trader’s purity. An accompanying verse explains that the girl, Nell, only sells apples with the ‘Season o’er for Oysters’. This realistic detail about the food supply lets Child hint at Nell’s inconsistency and unsettled nature. Like Gay’s Ostrea, when Nell advertises the ‘soundness of her Ware’, she is selling more than seafood. We learn that ‘She’d Education in the Mint’, the Southwark district known for crime and poverty, and are warned how ‘Ev’ry Whore may seem a Saint’. In the city, sweetness and innocence veiled lewdness and disorder. The mysterious G. Child may have been one of a cabal of English writers and artists, including William Hogarth and James Ralph, who resented Amigoni’s success and assailed him in newspapers through the 1730s. The Venetian sold his fine set to collectors of the middling sort and up from his publisher’s West End shop. Compared to Amigoni’s elegant, sentimental images, Child’s parody with its subversive rhyming couplets, had more in common with ballads and popular song. At just sixpence, this oyster seller would have been within reach of a broader audience.

Like the ‘The Fair Oysterinda’, these images were part of a fast-growing market for visual prints that took off in England from the late seventeenth century. Initially the impetus came from foreign-born artists such as Marcellus Laroon, whose landmark set of engravings, ‘The Cryes of the City of London’, went through eight editions after its first publication in 1687.77 From being a ‘backward outpost’ of European print, London became a hub of production and exchange, as home-grown artists and engravers produced skilful images at a range of prices. Like Gay’s allusion-rich Trivia or the courtly musical Cries, many of these works were aimed at well-educated or wealthy audiences. We know more about this top end of consumers: Pepys collected several versions and other professionals and members of the nobility bought the expensive sets, such as Laroon’s, in which single characters were displayed on dedicated pages. Some Cries were more affordable. Publishers put out cheaper copies of costly suites and sold prints wholesale to a secondary network of smaller retailers, who spread the images beyond the publishing hubs of St Paul’s, Cornhill and Covent Garden.80 Men and women of different status across the metropolis could line their walls with these characters.

These diverse audiences consumed the Cries in several ways. As with the social and geographical reach of prints, the broadside ballads and group songs were likely sung in humble venues, where their sounds and meanings would have resonated in ways text-focused historians cannot hear. Within the forms of the Cries, there was an interaction between the texts, images and sounds. This was not just about shared characters and themes, or the addition of verses to a print. In a diary of a visit to London in 1710, German traveller Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach recorded buying a copy of Laroon’s suite, but was disappointed one version was sold out, which had ‘notes, for the curious tones that they call or sing can be freakishly imitated on the violin’. Von Uffenbach had hoped to read, see and hear the figures, which might have resembled hawkers he heard shouting across the city. A few months earlier, on his arrival at London, he noted how ‘common wares are cried in the streets’ even on holidays. The Cries contained a cast of characters with distinct appearances, sounds and associations. Though these characters were inspired by women who called out food on the street, in the diverse expressions of urban culture they took on a life of their own.

Why did the oyster seller feature so often? At work on the street and represented in the Cries, this particular hawker was caught up in tensions within London culture and society. The city the Cries portrayed was transforming. Over this period, the capital’s population ballooned, from about two hundred thousand in 1600 to almost a million by 1800.Most of those new city folk found homes in the suburbs. By the end of the seventeenth century, perhaps four-fifths of Londoners lived in the ‘large, rambling and in some cases poor and poorly policed parishes’ to the north, east, south and west of the old City. This transformation manifested in how urban space was experienced and conceived. For individuals, the city became harder to grasp, evolving from a ‘compact, integrated, comprehensible London’ to a metropolis, ‘extended, amorphous, inadequately underpinned by formal structure’. The physical change also affected how people bought food. New markets eventually sprang up, but meeting the unrelenting demand relied on mobile, informal traders. Street hawkers were bound up in these changes: they lived in these emerging neighbourhoods and kept suburbanites fed.

Women who sold food were barraged by efforts to exclude them from the trade. Regulations targeted female food sellers explicitly on the basis of gender. Through the decades around 1600 there were frequent attempts by London’s aldermen to cap the number of hawkers, with fresh orders issued and committees established every few years. This culminated in a 1612 Act of common council that introduced a licensing system. Its stipulations, such as that each licensee had to be a freeman’s wife or widow and be aged thirty or older, aimed to restrain younger female traders. Similarly, in 1618 aldermen ordered a cucking stool to be set up at Billingsgate to punish ‘Wenches yonge girls fish wives hearbe wives’. What the rules around female hawking show is that certain women, a number of wives whose husbands were free citizens, could legitimately do business. But even their numbers were limited and those who were young or single, like many of the oyster sellers, were a particular source of concern.

As the old City sprawled into a metropolis and regulating suburban food sellers became more difficult, controls on women traders shifted focus. Their right to deal food was more secure. Aldermen referred back to the 1612 Act, but there is no evidence it was ever put into full practice. In the late 1660s, a group of ‘poore women’ who sold fish petitioned the mayor and aldermen to complain of fishmongers ‘ingrossing & unlawfully obetyning’ supplies. In response, the aldermen confirmed the right of licensed women to buy seafood at Billingsgate to sell across the city. The informal traders had their right to stock up formalized in the 1699 Act of parliament that made Billingsgate a ‘free’ market. From the later seventeenth century, restrictions on street selling turned to when trading created a nuisance. The orders against oyster sellers on Fleet Bridge after 1690 complained about gathering thieves and blocked traffic. Orders for arrests by the Middlesex justices of the peace in 1699, 1700, 1707 and 1715 did not take aim at hawking itself; the justices complained about traders obstructing streets and lanes with wheelbarrows of ‘Oysters Oranges Decayed Cheese Apples Nutts Ginger bread’. To London’s governors, women had become less of an economic threat. At issue was how hawkers unsettled orderly life on the streets.

Moving through the city, women had a paradoxical experience. By the late seventeenth century or earlier, London’s population became more female than male. Working women, independent and unsupervised, were constantly passing through the capital. But this was their bind: metropolitan women were less tied to a particular street, shop or home, but faced restrictions on the kind of work they could do and suffered reputational attacks that focused on their sexual morality. Throughout this period, women bore the brunt of campaigns aimed nominally at illicit sex. These started in the late sixteenth century, spurred on by the Reformation and enabled by the establishment of Bridewell. From the late 1680s, successive campaigns for the reformation of manners targeted ‘lewd and disorderly women’. Considering oyster sellers helps us see, first, how some women were particularly vulnerable to assault and accusation and, second, how print, music and poetry portrayed them as posing danger to the city’s moral and social order. These hawkers typically worked alone, often at night, in the busy street, around places of drink, and on the thresholds of homes. This was the nature of their work. In the Cries, these characteristics became signs that these hawkers were also selling sex.

The proliferation of the oyster seller character was entangled with developing notions of gender and sexuality. Early on, the oyster seller was subsumed in the long-standing character of the fishwife, whose gender was ambiguous as she mixed independence, unpredictability and ferocity. The fishwife was also a ‘wife’, who challenged her marital subordination. By contrast, the oyster seller, who in the decades around 1700 became a distinctive character, was clearly a young woman, apparently single, who used her body to draw men into sexual acts. Perhaps the oyster seller was a product of a sharper, two-sex model of gender difference, which Thomas Laqueur has argued took over from the more nuanced one-sex model at some point in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In this argument, the oyster seller’s eroticism was a product of a new ‘phallocentric and increasing heterosexual culture’. Yet the continuities across the period are more pressing. Laura Gowing has shown that clear differences between male and female bodies were articulated in the early seventeenth century, and women’s and men’s reputations were evaluated on different terms. For the eighteenth century, we know that beneath the level of prescription, gender roles were still complex and plural. The two-sex transition does not fit the Cries: in the earliest versions, the fishwife was clearly a married woman whose defiance threatened the male-dominated food trade; the emerging oyster woman remained, like the fishwife, playful and subversive. Another continuity is the dominant perspective of the Cries, drawn by artists, composers and writers who were all, as far as we know, men. What was different was that the oyster seller represented a particular model of metropolitan womanhood. An emergent feature of London life was the large number of single women who worked independently in the capital, often drawn in the first place by domestic service. Unlike the married fishwife, the young, single oyster seller was fully detached from the patriarchal structures of the household, the livery companies or the City’s government. The Cries suggested this kind of urban woman tempted men into immorality.

The Cries portrayed a cast of characters that represented different aspects of metropolitan life. As Karen Newman has argued, eighteenth-century Londoners had the symbolic resources, through novels, poems, pamphlets, ballads, and prints, to walk their streets in their imaginations, as well as their bodies. Some Cries mediums did not undergo dramatic change in this period: vast numbers of ballads had been in circulation since the late sixteenth century, for example. But the market in visual prints expanded significantly, as English artists and engravers joined the scene and images became more affordable and appeared in increased numbers. These prints were culture as commodity, objects to be purchased, consumed, and displayed. This was an amorphous, extended development that accelerated in the nineteenth century. The Cries can help us think about features of this process. The rapid growth of print interacted with other forms, as they employed the same themes and characters. A figure such as the oyster seller reached a range of London audiences in words, pictures and music. Though these characters of urban life had an independent, imaginary existence, they still had a connection to the hawkers who inspired them in the first place. The sexualized oyster seller was a symbolic commodity in this new London, even as the character diverged from the women selling salty snacks on the street.

This characterization was not necessarily harmless. We lack testimony of how Londoners reacted to the Cries characters. In their diaries, von Uffenbach and Pepys did not compare the prints, ballads and songs with women who hawked food. But there are models for this kind of association. Judith Bennett, working on medieval and early modern brewing, argued that the gradual exclusion of women from the industry was influenced by misogynistic representation. In his study of the body and urban life, Richard Sennett proposed that, because of the pace and stimulation of the metropolis, walkers and passengers were forced to rely on repertoires of stereotypes they held in their minds. The evidence of the oyster seller cannot conclusively prove a connection between reality and representation, in the manner of these theories. But we can say that many kinds of Londoners would have done business with an oyster seller and also met the fictional character through the several forms of the Cries.

On the street, there were cases when the sexualized representation blurred with reality. Take these two incidents, mentioned in trials at the Old Bailey, London’s central criminal court. In August 1730, Anne Nowland was selling oysters near Bartholomew Fair when Edward Lloyd came up and asked if she would ‘go and drink with him’. On her refusal, Lloyd ‘swore he would cut her Gown off' and called her ‘You Bitch’. Afterwards, he ‘hal’d her to him, tore her Gown and took the Money out of her Pocket’. Charged with assault and robbery, Lloyd was acquitted. By Temple Bar, on a Friday night in 1734, Grace Long, ‘an Oyster-woman by Trade’, was sitting with her stock. Evan Edwards stepped out from the nearby Devil Tavern and called over. On recognizing Long’s face, Edwards said, ‘Is it you my Dear? How do you do? Will you go and take a Night’s Lodging with me?’ When Long said no, he threw her wares across the street. Edwards paid a crown for some oysters and she led him to her cellar in the district of St Giles. Long claimed she left Edwards with another woman. Edwards claimed Long robbed him while he slept. A jury found the oyster woman guilty, and she was sentenced to transportation. In these cases, the imagined city and life on the streets were hard to tell apart. The proceedings of the Old Bailey, printed and consumed by a literate audience, mingled with other, well-established representations. Some Londoners buying oysters looked at women like Nowland and Long, compared them to characters in the Cries, and asked: food seller, or prostitute, or both?

Oyster sellers in London were part of a complex food chain with a deep history. They varied in their backgrounds, their social standing and the way they arranged their businesses, as they helped Londoners place themselves in time and connect with the origins of what they ate. These traders were the inspiration for the siren-like character, who reflected attitudes towards city women and the position of informal traders. Ostrea and Oysterinda were part of deeper shifts too, in how contemporaries understood sexual difference and imagined life in the fast-growing, complex metropolis. The character of the oyster seller was an unattached feminine figure: she was depicted by male artists, never allowed to be simply a trader, and conceived in opposition to the patriarchal structures of London society. Representation and reality were not sealed off. How these women were drawn, rhymed and sung may have shaped how they were treated on the street. The tangle of connotations – single women, illicit sex, a harsh, indifferent city – has also stained the archive. When we read the records of oyster selling, we read a city that had the stereotype of the oyster seller in mind.

Artist biography

Mercier, Philip [formerly Philippe] (1691–1760), painter and etcher, was born in Berlin, the son of Philippe Mercier, a Huguenot tapestry weaver at the royal factory in that city. ‘Reicrem’ (his surname in reverse) was sometimes used as a signature on his paintings. He studied in Berlin at the Akademie der Künste and under Antoine Pesne, from 1711 court painter to Frederick I of Prussia, whose brother-in-law, George, elector of Hanover, became king of England (as George I) in 1714. It was probably in 1716 that, 'recommended from the Court at Hanover' (VertueNote books, 3.37), Mercier went to London, bringing a portrait of Frederick, the little grandson of George I (probably of the type represented at the Welsh Girls' School, Ashford, Middlesex). On 17 July 1719 he married Margaret Plante at St Martin-in-the-Fields and between 1720 and 1727 lived in Leicester Fields. Between 1726 and 1735 he attended the annual dinners of the St Luke's Club, acting as steward in 1728.

In the early 1720s Mercier's work was dominated by the influence of Watteau, with whose work he was clearly intimately acquainted. He etched a number of Watteau's works and painted variations on the theme of the fête-champêtre with either commedia dell'arte figures or English family groups of loyal Hanoverian courtiers. Such groups, of which there are fine examples at Belton House, Lincolnshire, and in the Tate collection, launched the conversation piece in British painting. Mercier was also active at this time as a picture dealer, selling a number of paintings ‘collected abroad’ (Cock's, 21 April 1724).

In December 1728 Frederick, having attained his majority, went to London and the following January was made prince of WalesMercier painted a series of whole-length portraits of the prince and his three sisters, the princesses AnneAmelia, and Caroline (Shire Hall, Hertford), all four being engraved by John Simon, who described them as painted in 1728. They presumably brought about Mercier's appointments in 1729 as the prince's principal painter (on 17 February) and page of the bedchamber (on 6 March). On 26 January 1730 he was also made library keeper. In addition he shared with the prince an interest in the theatre; in 1729 they collaborated in a production of Thomas Doggett's Hob at Richmond, and in 1733 Mercier was a shareholder in Rich's Theatre at Covent Garden, London. His informal portrait of Handel (c.1730, priv. coll.) further suggests his interest in the performing arts. He painted more portraits of the prince in 1730 (priv. coll.) and about 1736 (National Portrait Gallery, London), and in 1733 he contrived an informal musical group of the prince with his three sisters (versions in the Royal Collection; National Portrait Gallery, London; and Cliveden, Buckinghamshire). Frederick's patronage, however, proved capricious. By 1736 he had sat to at least five other artists in London and there were rumours of a quarrel between Mercier and his royal patron. In October 1736 Mercier left his service, though he continued to receive payment as librarian until 1738.

On 25 June 1735 Mercier, described as a widower of St Giles-in-the-Fields, married Dorothy Clapham of St James's, Westminster. In 1736 he withdrew to an estate in the country, probably in Northamptonshire. Between October 1737 and May 1739 he was living in the Great Piazza, Covent Garden, but by October 1739 he had settled in York, where he stayed some thirteen years. While he found plentiful employment as a portrait painter, he also produced an increasing number of fancy pieces, often reminiscent of Chardin, for engraving in London. These addressed a popular market and included literary illustrations, domestic scenes, groups of children, and sets of, for example, the Seasonsthe Times of Day, and the Senses.

Mercier visited Ireland in 1747 and Edinburgh in 1750, but in 1751 he let his house in York and returned to London. In 1752 he went to Portugal, where he was joined by his family. It is not known how long he stayed, but one of his last portraits, of the Burton family of London (Musée du Louvre, Paris), may be dated to about 1755. From this last decade there are some fancy pictures, painted with increasing economy, two of which, a Girl Sewing and a Girl Washing (both untraced), he exhibited with the Society of Artists in 1760.

Philip Mercier died in London on 18 July 1760, and was survived by his second wife. Although his best portraits have a fine French elegance, his work was inconsistent, and in his later years it apparently failed to sell. His influence on British painting was, however, considerable. His second wife, Dorothy, painted on a small scale in her husband's manner. She became a printseller in Little Windmill Street, Soho, London, in 1762 and retired from business in June 1768. Their daughter Charlotte Mercier (1738–1762) also practised in pastel, but she died in reduced circumstances in the workhouse of St James's, Westminster, London, in February 1762.