Curator’s Choice: The Cover Designs of Jemmy Catnach’s Chapbooks

The disreputable printer Jemmy Pitts was highlighted in the post for Twelfth Night 2013, but he was not the only no-good early nineteenth-century job printer in the seedy Seven Dials district near Covent Garden in London’s West End.  Seven Dials marked the convergence of Little and Great White Lyon streets (now Mercer), Little and Great Earl (now Earlham), Little and Great St. Andrews (now Monmouth), and Queen (now Shorts Garden).

Seven Dials was also home to Jemmy Catnach (1791-1841), who was vilified quite correctly for catering to the reading public’s insatiable appetite for rude ballads, accounts of violent crimes, sensational divorce cases, etc.  He was the subject of the chapter “Catnachery, Chapbooks & Children’s Books” in Percy Muir’s Victorian Illustrated Books (1971).  Muir, who knew how to turn a phrase, damned Catnach for having printed his stuff with “mean and old typefaces” and adorning them with blocks “worn to a degree of indecipherability that hid their almost complete irrelevance to the text they were supposed to illustrate.”  Never one to mince words was Muir.

In Cotsen there’s a stout volume consisting of thirty-odd  pamphlets, many issued by Catnach, which make a liar out of  Muir.   Bound in are several titles in the so-called Catnach “series” of Large Books.   Here is a typical list, from the rear cover for Little Tom Tucker, [ca. 1835?].

pamphlet advertisement

The advertisement gives no clues as to the production values of the pamphlets.  If Muir is to be believed, then it should be taken for granted that a job printer like Catnach always produces a shabby product with the tell-tale signs of recycled cast-off type and blocks from other prints.

Given Catnach’s reputation for slipshod design, these delightfully exuberant covers on the nursery favorites in the Large Books come as a quite a surprise, with not a broken font to be found.

nursery favorites

The style of the typefaces and wood-engraved blocks suggest the Large Books must have been issued relatively late in Catnach’s long career.

A Visit to the Zoological Gardens

Dame Trot and Her Comical Cat

But once a rogue, always a rogue.  The rear cover of another Large Book in the Cotsen volume is illustrated with a block John Bewick made for the frontispiece of  Richard Johnson’s False Alarms (London: E. Newbery, ca. 1787).   And where did old Jemmy come by the block?  Was it purchased from John Harris, Elizabeth Newbery’s successor, or his son, John junior?

frontispieceA fine puzzle for someone interested in learning more about the largely neglected children’s books published early in Victoria’s reign…