Artists have often sentimentalised gypsies, using them as local colour in idealised rural settings. Here, however, it appears that David Cox has sketched these people from life, and they are the main subject matter of the painting. He has observed their way of life with close attention - the construction of their tents, and the laying out of the washing on the hedge. For Cox they seem to exist for their own sake, not simply as an enhancement to a landscape.
While there is no evidence to suggest that David Cox’s watercolour represents gypsies observed near Birmingham (it may have been painted in Dulwich), it is perfectly possible that he did see them close to his native town. The tents (or ‘benders’) depicted in Cox’s painting, made from flexible willow overlaid with canvas, are similar to those shown in photographs of gypsies in Birmingham later in the century. Gypsies have been in England since the 16th century, and the 18th century saw them spreading along the canal networks.1 In the Birmingham area they congregated around the ‘black patch’ to the west of the town, on the borders of Birmingham, Handsworth and Harborne, from the 1850s.2
There is evidence that gypsies also appeared further south.
'So swift has been the change, in the parish of Edgbaston, that within sixteen years, gipsies used to encamp in the narrow little green lane, then called "Grindlestone" or "Grindstone Lane", which skirts the side of Mr. Tonks’ present garden […] the writer, who is not an octogenarian, and who lived close by, in the Hagley Road, for many years, has passed these picturesque vagabonds, Sunday after Sunday, on his way to Edgbaston Church'.
These words appeared in the Edgbastonia magazine, in February 1892. Perhaps small groups of gypsies came from the black patch to rural Edgbaston periodically for farm work. The area around Grindstone Lane must have offered plenty of vacant land, as a horse and cow keeper applied for pasture for his animals there in 1870.3
There is a hint of nostalgia for gypsies in Edgbastonia – they are remnants of a bygone age, a colourful and slightly exotic adornment to the rural landscape enjoyed by the middle class. However, we also find mistrust of travellers:
'Equally certain was it that the fences of the neighbouring farmers contributed to the boiling of that savoury-smelling pot, in which might possibly have been discovered a few potatoes or turnips which had never been purchased at any retail greengrocer’s'.4
It was clearly easier to idealise gypsies once they had moved on. Later, we find hints that younger Edgbaston residents are horrified to be told gypsies used to inhabit their area:
'When we are venturesome enough to hazard so incredible a statement to a youthful resident in Westfield Road, […] he regards us with a furtive shudder, and seems to be apprehensive of some impending portent'.5
1 Ted Rudge, Brumroamin: Birmingham and Midland Romany Gypsy and Traveller Culture (Birmingham: Birmingham Library and Information Services, 2003), p.12 2 Rudge, p.26 3 Calthorpe Estate Minutes, 2 Nov 1870 4Edgbastonia (July 1881) 5Edgbastonia (August 1892)
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