A moustached man in a pointed conical hat stoops over some kind of wooden container, partially covered by the branches of an unkempt bush. His long-flowing robes are suggestive of classical depictions of a Roman mercator, but his shoes – with pointed toes curling up – seem unusual, exotic, vaguely comical. In the background, indistinct engraved lines suggest rolling hills covered by more of the wild bushes. The vignette is contained inside an ornate frame, within which the disembodied head of a similar figure looks directly at the viewer: the same pointed hat (this time topped with some kind of spherical decoration), and an even longer, free-floating moustache. A smile plays on the man’s lips, though the expression is strangely inscrutable, whilst on either side an organic, leafy, fertile design completes the frame. Above the scene a banner contains the words “The China Man and Tea Tree”.
The scene is fanciful, its depictions of the ‘China Man’ telling us a great deal about eighteenth-century British stereotypes concerning the inhabitants of the mysterious land which alone supplied the dried leaves that had become a British obsession. Its pedalling of these clichés is with good reason: for this design has no interest in realism or scholarly accuracy, but rather in the selling of what was at once both a product of popular consumption, and an exciting opportunity to travel in the mind to a land unimaginably distant, inconceivably exotic. For this is an advertisement – a trade-card, to be precise – for the items sold at the shop of John Harling, located near Somerset House in the Strand. Before street numbering was rolled out in London in the late-eighteenth century, shops were identifiable by their eye-catching shop signs; and Harling’s business – we’re told – is located at (that is, literally underneath) the sign of the China Man and Tea Tree. The trade card’s design, then, is a whimsical portrayal of the symbolic apparatus of the shop’s sign itself.
Tellingly, Harling’s trade is not described as ‘grocery’ (typically the business from which tea could be purchased in eighteenth-century London). Rather, Harling describes himself in terms which were becoming increasingly fashionable on trade cards by the 1760s; for he is a seller of ‘all Sorts of fine Teas, Coffee and Chocolate’. What’s more, there are related side-lines to Harling’s business, clearly aimed to appeal to the lifestyles of his desired clientele. For he ‘likewise’ sells ‘fine China Ware, the best double Flint Glass, Flower’d & cut Glass, Painted & white Tiles for Chimnies’.
We know very little about John Harling or his business – the trade cards preserved in collections such as that of Sir Ambrose Heal, now housed at the British Museum, suggest that the shop was typical of tea-selling grocery businesses in this period. But about Harling himself, a series of traces survive in manuscript and print records that are fully searchable via digital humanities projects which have become available in the last ten years (in this case, searching London Lives 1690-1900 was particularly fruitful). These resources can offer insights that in a previous age may only have been elicited via many years of archival work – Markman Ellis’s observations about the tea-purchasing Rev Mr Tonyn, elsewhere on this blog, provide a good example. From the records of the Middlesex Sessions for May 1764 we learn that the party wall between Harling’s house in the Strand and that of his neighbor, a Mr Peacock, was ‘very bad and ruinous’. The 1749 records of the same Sessions Court (mistranscribed here as ‘1740’), and those of the Old Bailey, document a trial in which the supposed wife of a ‘John Harling of St. Thomas’s Southwark, Chinaman’ was found guilty of having married a second time whilst her first husband was still living. He may (or may not) be the same ‘John Harling’ who appears as a member of the ‘Court of Governors’ of Bridewell Royal Hospital in 1757. A ‘John Harling’ is listed as a shop-owner in the Strand in a ‘Directory of Leading Local Inhabitants’ published in 1774. The Last Will and Testament of a ‘John Harling of the Parish of Saint Mary le Strand […] Chinaman’ was proved on 14 May 1783; his estate was left to his siblings and their children (from which we might surmise he had neither a surviving spouse, nor children of his own).
We imagine that our anxieties about the digital footprints we leave of our own lives via social networking, online shopping, networked gaming, or the harvesting of our internet search terms (to name but a few), are unique concerns of our twenty-first century digital lives. But it’s clear that lives lived over two centuries ago are also becoming amenable to ‘searching’ via specialist and non-specialist tools that are able to bring together fragile, hitherto difficult to access manuscript data sets as if they were just so many tables in the vast database of modern history.