The Crossing Sweeper was one of Frith's most popular compositions. He painted numerous versions of the subject over several decades, and it is fascinating to compare the costume of the version painted in 1858 (see fig. 1, Christie's, London, 7 November 1997, lot 146) with this example, painted thirty-five years later. When the 1858 version was engraved in the Art Journal of 1864, opposite page 64, it was noted: 'One or two centuries hence, many of Mr Frith's pictures will be referred to as illustrative examples of the people, manners and customs of his time, and speaking more intelligibly that the most lucid descriptions of the historian, however comprehensive and faithful these may be. His scenes drawn from life are not Hogarthian, for he does not assume to be a moralist, and certainly is not a caricaturist. He is a student in the life-school of Nature, with his countrymen and women of all ages and conditions, sitting as his models... His smaller pictures, such as that before us, present little episodes, so to speak, in the social history of the middle of the 19th Century. The picture is painted with the artist's usual care and brilliancy of colour. It is a gem in the small but well-selected collection of the gentleman to whom we are indebted for permission to engrave it'.
Anecdotes concerning the painting of the subject abound in Frith's autobiography: 'I began a small picture of a lady waiting to cross a street, with a little crossing-sweeper besieging her in the usual fashion. A model of the lady was easily found, and there was a large field of selection open to me as regarded the boy. I discovered a young gentleman with closely-cropped hair, naked feet, and wonderful broom - in all respects what I desired, except in regard of honesty: and for a further description of this young person and his unsuccessful attempt to rob me, I must refer my reader to my chapter on 'Models'. I may note here the impression the youth made upon me at this first sitting. In my diary under date 17th July, I find: 'A low, dull Irish boy for crossing-sweeper, one degree removed from a Pig'. ... my little crossing sweeper's face warned me not to leave him alone in my painting room' (see My Autobiography and Reminiscences, 1888, vol. 1, pp. 296-8, vol. II, p. 216).
The Art Journal, however, noted what a lucrative post it was to hold a broom walk in a great thoroughfare, and how 'the majority of [crossing sweepers] rarely [fell] into the hands of the police for their misdemeanours.' The author considered the sweeper's face 'bright and intelligent, showing material which would work well in the hands of the schoolmaster, and which, properly employed, would turn out advantageously. If the fair lady would only condescend to turn her glance on him, she could not resist his earnest appeal: but she is evidently measuring her distance as regards the approach of some vehicle.'
The lady is making her crossing in front of a hackney carriage bound for Notting Hill, an area, then as now, full of contrast, whose Ladbroke and Norland estates had only recently been developed.