A 15th Anniversary Spectacle of Skeletons

Fifteen years ago today Cotsen opened its gallery doors to the public.   Perhaps we should have drawn people into the space with a seasonal spooktacular, but the previous day’s ribbon-cutting took all the wind out of our sails.  So here to celebrate the occasion are some ghoulish pictures to chill the funny bone and to jolt the brain from Cotsen’s Skelt and Webb Toy Theater Collection.

skeletons and their friendly poisonous reptilesThese pictures of skeletons and their friendly poisonous reptiles come from prints that were part of a juvenile theatre play based on Blue Beard or Female Curiosity!, (1798) a “grand dramatic romance” with script by George Colman the younger and score by Michael Kelly.   Colman and Kelly’s dramatic take on Perrault’s celebrated but grisly fairy tale was inspired by French composer Gretry’s  opera Raoul Barbe Bleue (1789), but they turned it into an over-the-top  “Oriental” fanasy inspired by A Thousand and One Nights.  But why skeletons and not djinns? 

Think of Shakespeare set during the American Civil War or the Roaring Twenties.   It’s the concept, not historical accuracy, that counts.  If Colman and Kelly could reconceive  Bluebeard  as Abomelique, the Turkish tyrant or three-tailed bashaw who was preceded by a standard of horse tails (oh yes, there were live horses on stage), then it’s not such a leap of imagination to have the wife-killing villain stabbed to death by a skeleton and escorted down to hell by a platoon of his vengeful friends.   No wonder the critics hated Colman and Kelly’s alternative to the holiday pantomime and the audiences loved it.

battling skeletons

And if this comes knocking at your door tonight, throw away the healthy treats!

imp riding a bat

Thanks to Mr. Cotsen for making this blog, and everything else Team Cotsen does possible!

Rude Britannia: Marks Naughty Children Draw in Their Books

Moseley's frontispiece of the future George III.

Moseley’s frontispiece of the future George III.

An eighteenth-century writer could try to realize some cash by dedicating a work to an important person, who might return the favor with some remuneration.  Perhaps the anonymous author of the innovative speller, The Child’s New Play-Thing (London: T. Cooper, 1742), was angling for a teaching appointment when he dedicated it to little George, the son of Frederick, Prince of Wales (1709-1751).

A portrait engraved by Charles Moseley of the future George III (1738-1820) in a jaunty tricorne faced the third edition’s title page.  Holding a rose, an emblem of the youth’s brevity, the stolid boy is the picture of solemn innocence.  At the time around four years of age, little George was still wearing skirts and would not be breeched for another  two or three years, as was usual in the days before the invention of the washing machine or of disposable diapers (the reasons don’t need to be detailed here).

George as reimagined as a bearded lady by a child-artist?

George as reimagined as a bearded lady by a child-artist?

Being in skirts hardly granted immunity from the slings and arrows of disgruntled subjects if one happened to be second in line of succession to the British throne,  as was the little prince.   Long before George was crowned, plagued by his unruly brood of sons, and finally incapacitated by porphyria, he was disrespected by the unruly pen of a peer.

In the Cotsen copy of the 3rd edition of The Child’s New Play-Thing (1745), a previous owner traced the prince’s image in reverse on the frontispiece’s recto, adding scraggly whiskers and body parts (which look suspiciously female) the bodice is supposed to cover.  The amateurish quality of the drawing suggests a child’s hand and perhaps that of a child from a family that hoped for the triumph of the Young Pretender, Prince Charles Edward Stuart in the 1745 Jacobite rebellion (the year the 3rd edition of The Child’s New Play-Thing was published) that was eventually quelled by George II’s son, William, Duke of Cumberland.

Hogarth's homage to children's  "art" on The Analysis of Beauty

Hogarth’s homage to children’s “art” on The Analysis of Beauty

But of course the defacement of the little prince’s portrait may not be a youthful expression of disloyalty against the Hanovers (as tempting as it is to jump to conclusions).  It may be nothing more profound than the tell-tale sign of the childish urge to doodle on any flat surface whether on paper or walls–an urge that William Hogarth must have known very well as a boy himself, having immortalized it in the lower right hand corner of the frontispiece to The Analysis of Beauty or in the foreground of “The First Stage of Cruelty.”