'In everyday life there is an inexhaustible fund of paintable incident; but simply because it is of the threadbare drama of our workday cares, it is more difficult to paint than less immediate matter. We have never been at the Post-Office one minute before six, but we take the artist's work for it, that what we see in this dissertation is based upon truth. The episodes may not all have been of simultaneous occurrence; but yet each may, at some time, have had its event at St. Martin's-le-Grand. The picture describes the rush to save the post; newspapers by sackfuls are thrown in at the window, and, singly, they are thrown in by those who reasonably despair of reaching the box. Women and children, with letters in their hands, look imploringly for aid in their trying difficulty, the field being entirely possessed by the interests of the press. There are some characteristic figures in the foreground, who congratulate themselves that they have sped their missives, and so creditably acquitted themselves. This artist has already produced a picture from material somewhat similar, but this work is in everything superior to it.' (Art Journal, 1860, p.170)
The present picture is a reduced version of Hick's Royal Academy exhibit of 1860 (sold in these rooms from the collection of the British Rail Pension Fund, 19 June 1990, lot 31), apparently worked on simultaneously with the painting of the larger version. It shows the rush to catch the last post at St. Martin's-le-Grand post office built by Smirke in 1812 but now demolished. The chaotic scene, which became a mid-Victorian tourist attraction, was described by Charles Dickens and W. H. Wills in Household Words, 30 March 1850: 'A fountain of newspapers played in at the window. Waterspouts of newspapers broke from enormous sacks and engulfed the men inside...The Post Office was so full already that the window foamed at the mouth with newspapers...All the boys of London seemed to have gone mad and to be besieging the Post Office with papers. Now and then there was a girl; now and then a woman; now and then a weak old man; but as the minute hand crept near to the six such a torrent of boys and such a torrent of newspapers came tumbling in together pell-mell, heads on heals, one didn't post themselves nightly along with the newspapers and get delivered all over the world. Suddenly it struck six. Shut, Sesame!'
When exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1860 The General Post Office proved to be one of the most popular pictures in the exhibition, drawing vast crowds. According to Punch '...the crush represented in Mr Hicks's picture gives only a faint idea of the crowd around it. The glimpses which you catch of it, between hats, over shoulders, and under arms, increase the reality of the scene!'
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