One of our newest acquisitions here at Cotsen is a really unique item. It's one of our favorite types of materials to have in the collection: juvenilia, an instance of literary, musical, or visual art created by a child artist. This particular piece is a cleverly illustrated French language poster presumably created and inscribed by J. M. Legeay (Jean-Marc?) in September of 1896 (see final panel). The poster tells a story in pictures about a reprehensible killing and the events that ensue after the despicable act, complete with a sobering moral.
Although this murder story is resolved and justice is meted out, there remain, for us, many mysteries surrounding the piece itself. Where was it made? Who made it? Why was it made? I will explore these questions about this intriguing historical object while we simultaneously explore the scandalous pictorial story it presents us with.
Without further ado: Un Crime Effroyable (a terrible crime)
This handmade poster is illustrated in crayon, ink, watercolor, and pencil. The piece features 10 pictorial paper panels and a foldable cardboard border. All the individual segments are backed on black linen cloth in order to join the work as a whole. The poster is designed to be easily hung on the wall, or neatly folded up along the panels' divisions.
The top 2 panels serve as our decorative title:
From these purely physical facts we might infer that this item was diligently worked on. It also demonstrates a good degree of artistic skill (for a young and presumably amateur artist) and craft ability that would have taken young Legeay many hours to illustrate, cut, arrange, and paste together. But we don't get a clear indication of why he spent so much time creating it. What was this young man's motivation? Legeay probably didn't create a moral tale about wrongdoing and lawful retribution just for his own amusement. Rather, it seems reasonable to conclude that the impetus for this kind of project was probably a school assignment, an exercise in moral education. Let's see what the young man learned. . .
In this first scene we are introduced to two characters: a middle class fop in his bright yellow pants, and a small green blob (who we soon learn is our murderer). The dandy seems quite dandy, and why not? It seems he, and at least the character behind him, has just left the wine and liquor store in the background.
Here, with seemingly no explanation and for no reason, our good-natured friend with the cherubic face is stabbed by a mustachioed assailant. But notice the juxtaposition of clothing style and appearance between victim and killer. Stylized against our top hatted and parasol wielding picture of happiness and innocence that is our middle class man, we have our murderer. He appears working class, with his plain green coat and matching kepi; no frills in his dress.
At this point we might venture to say that this depiction of a terrible crime is an illustration of class conflict; an instance of a working class man preying on a defenseless (and seemingly blameless) middle class man. I don't think it would be unfair to assert that Legeay is probably middle class himself. Not only does he seemingly have access to schooling and a variety of coloring materials, he is also evincing a common middle class fear about the brutal and violent lower class wanting to harm the bourgeoisie. Of course, one has to keep in mind that Legeay is just a child; I don't mean to foist upon him some propagandist motivation. I believe, rather, that he is just a young man reflecting the world views around him as he completes a school assignment.
Our murderer contently relaxes in a local café after his grisly deed, as the be-spurred officer enters. From the clues in this panel we get our first guess at the possible region of origin for this poster. On the door we find inscribed "Café" and "Cidre". Cidre is French for cider, specifically the kind popularly produced in the regions of Normandy and Brittany. This familiarity with cidre might be an indication that Legeay is from one of these regions (or just a budding young drunk). But as we will see, there is other evidence that points in a very different direction.
In this scene the action of the story comes to a close. Our killer is being escorted to a smiling executioner manning the infamous guillotine. The perpetrator's escorts are none other than our officers-in-spurs and a crucifix bearing priest. This panel, however, shows us more than just the moments leading up to our murderer's last. Look closely at the left side of the illustration and you might just be able to make out the most puzzling feature of this item, what appears to be debossed text reading: Hollonge.
Provided here are two closer images of the text (one vertical, one horizontal):
It is unclear whether this text is a hand written inscription or whether it is a trade mark on the paper itself. It seems unlikely that it is the debossed trade mark of a paper manufacturer, "Hollonge", because the mark does not appear on any other panel of the poster and no such company has turned up in my research. So it might be an inscription. But who would write it? Why was it written? What does it mean?
Hollonge might be a corruption that is supposed to denote Hollogne. Hollogne being short hand for the town of Grâce-Hollogne, known to English speakers as The Ardennes. Grâce-Hollogne, it turns out, is located not in France, but in Belgium. But if the poster is from Belgium one might wonder why the text is written in French. Significantly, perhaps, The Ardennes is located in the province of Liège, placing it in the region known as Wallonia. This might place Legeay as a Walloon, a French speaking Belgian.
Another aspect of Hollonge is that, if written, it appears to have been erased. All that remains are the recessed markings of the written word, the kind of depression left by a hard pressed pencil. This would make sense considering that if the word is supposed to be Hollogne, it is spelled wrong, and the writer would have reason to erase it. Furthermore the final character "e" also resembles an "l", another reason to erase the sloppily written word.
Maybe Legeay wrote Hollonge. It's possible, considering that, as we will see, Legeay makes spelling errors elsewhere as well. But why would Legeay write the place of origin on his own work? Certainly he knows (and doesn't need to share) where he lives and where he's made his work. Though the erroneous word is an inscription, it probably isn't Legeay's.
It's more reasonable to assume that the inscription was written by a more recent owner of the work, perhaps a collector of juvenilia or an antiquarian bookseller. This owner was probably French, considering that Hollogne is written with two l's as opposed to one (Hologne), which is the Wallonian spelling of the place-name. The word might have been erased because of the spelling error or because the attempt to place the origin of the work in Hollogne was unfounded.
With the limited evidence we currently have, all I can do is offer a few guesses about this work's place of origin. Does the mention of "cidré" point towards Normandy or Brittany as the origin of the work, or does Hollonge point us to Belgium? We might just never really know, with any real certainty, where exactly this work was created.
But what we can be more certain of is that Legeay is probably middle class, that he is a decent illustrator, and that he is not a good speller. This brings us to the final panel:
This final panel delivers the true coup de grâce of the piece, a moral message from our insightful author that caps off the story: "N'assasinez point et vous n'serez point gigotiné" (Don't murder and you won't get the guillotine). Pointedly, young Legeay has spelled two words wrong; Assasinez is missing an "s" (assassinez) and the spelling of that last word, gigotiné (as opposed to the already Francophone guillotine), is very wrong. Legeay seems much more careless with his spelling and word choice than his illustrations. I don't think the boy was very much motivated to really draw out his moral lesson but, in true boyish fashion, was much more interested in illustrating violence instead (probably to the chagrin of his teacher).
But let's return to that very odd word gigotiné. It might mean more than just a child's bad spelling. Using gigotiné might prove that Legeay is cleverer than he appears. Gigotiné, if spelled this way purposefully, has a double meaning. Not only does it obviously denote the guillotine, it also means to associate another word with that infernal machine: gigotin (a prepared leg of lamb). Coupled with this association, gigotiné reminds us of the outcome of the guillotine's use. It's tongue and cheek of course, and not meant to be taken too seriously. It was probably a common euphemism; not something Legeay came up with himself.
This poster is an article of juvenilia that, although humorous and interesting, is still shrouded in mystery. I've tried my best to explain who might have made this work and why they might have made it. But given my limited knowledge and the limited information that the work itself offers, my interpretation of this child's work should be taken with a grain of salt. The origins of this clever little poster remain enigmatic. But what we do end up with is a glimpse into the life of a child during the close of the 19th Century. Though this poster begs more questions than it provides answers, it is nevertheless a charming look into how a child at the time saw and felt about the world around him (particularly, how he felt about murders and guillotines).