Our venues

'St John's Market, Liverpool, 1827', by Samuel Austin (1796-1834)


See a larger version

About the artwork

This painting is an historic record of St John's Market, Liverpool, one of the first and the largest of the nineteenth-century fully enclosed, roofed market halls. It opened to the public in 1822. The size and innovative nature of St John's impressed contemporary visitors to Liverpool including the American painter and naturalist, John James Audubon (1785-1851), who wrote in his diary of 1826:

"The new market is in my opinion, an object worth the attention of all traveller strangers. It is thus far the finest I have ever seen."

Designed by the architect John Foster junior (c1787-1846) and situated between Great Charlotte Street and Market Street, St John's consisted of a simple parallelogram nearly two acres in size, with 136 stone-trimmed classical arched window bays, supported by 116 interior cast-iron pillars. The structure had a five-division wooden roof, two divisions of which were raised above the others to form a windowed clerestory (a row of windows in the upper part of the main section) that illuminated and ventilated the market below. 'The Civil Engineer and Architects Journal' of 1841 commented in glowing terms:

"... the admirable mode of lighting it gives, at certain times during the day, when the sun is brightly shining through the windows, an aerial effect of light and shade and, in the distance, a dim atmospheric effect, that have (sic.) been often admired by artists..."

In Austin's work, he uses watercolour and scratching out to depict the light streaming in through the windows. At night, the market was gas-lit, allowing for the working classes to do their shopping. Audubon wrote in his diary:

"This market is so well lighted with gas that at 10 o'clock this evening I could plainly see the colours of the (irises) of living pigeons in cages."

The interior of the market was divided into five shopping avenues, which corresponded to groupings of food, with each avenue lined with stalls.

By the 1960s, the Liverpool Market Authorities had allowed St John's Market to deteriorate to the point of being a health hazard. The structure was destroyed in 1964 as part of the re-development of the city centre, and in 1965, the site was incorporated into part of a larger shopping development and a multi-storey car park.

Austin's large and highly finished watercolour is a lively depiction of the hustle and bustle of Liverpool's commercial life in the early nineteenth century. Interestingly, Austin includes two black figures (a page in the centre and a woman worker to the far right of the picture). Their presence is not just a reminder that Liverpool's commercial success in the late eighteenth century was dependent on the slave trade but also suggests that arrivals from Africa and the Americas had become a relatively integrated part of Liverpool life by the early nineteenth century.

Samuel Austin was a landscape and marine painter. He was probably born in Liverpool and certainly attended its Blue Coat School, which was at that time intended for children of the poor. He left the Blue Coat in 1809 and became clerk to William Barber, a Liverpool merchant but gave this up to become an artist. Austin came from a humble background (his father, William, was a joiner) and it was an anonymous benefactor who paid for Samuel to have lessons from the watercolourist Peter de Wint (1784-1849). It was probably this influence that led to his preference for the medium of watercolour, although he did turn to oil painting later in his career (the Walker holds one Austin oil painting, 'Bootle Landmarks', c1830).

At first, Austin made a living from teaching. One story is told of his employment at a school for young ladies in Liverpool. One of Austin's descendants recalls that the artist was asked to leave by the headmistress because he was too attractive and was distracting all the pupils! He opted to take pupils privately instead. In the meantime, he began to achieve a certain degree of professional success as an artist. In 1820, he exhibited for the first and only time at the Royal Academy, London - a watercolour called 'Spellow Mill, Walton, near Liverpool'. Between 1822 and 1832 he exhibited many watercolours at the Liverpool Academy and at other venues elsewhere in the city. In 1827, the year he painted 'St John's Market', he became an Associate of the Old Watercolour Society. In 1834, little more than a month before his death, he was elected a full member.

He was also one of several artists who contributed drawings to 'Lancashire Illustrated', a collection of descriptions by William Henry Pyne and others. It was published serially by H.Fisher, Son and Jackson, London between 1829 and 1831. Seventeen of the one hundred engravings in this work are from original drawings by Austin, including one of St John's Market, which differs slightly from this work in the arrangement of the figures.

This work belonged to Walter Duckworth, a nineteenth century Liverpool cotton merchant who lent it to an exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in 1886. It remained in the Duckworth family until it was acquired by the Walker in 2001.