Curator’s Choice: An 19th-Century French Alphabet of Puzzle Pictures

When people ask me to name my favorite book in the collection, I never have a good answer on the tip of my tongue.  “It’s like being asked to pick your favorite child” or “Whatever I’m working on right now”  are just dodges to avoid saying I like one and only one wonderful thing best out of thousands of possibilities–some of which are yet to be seen.

If a heartless desperado were holding my cat for ransom and the conditions for her release were to admit to a favorite book, it might be possible if I could stick to one genre.  Like the alphabet.

One of my favorite alphabets is L’alphabet personnife ou Les lettres rendues sensibles par les figures de 25 enfants in action et portant le nom des 25 lettres elles-memes  [The Personified Alphabet or the Letters Animated by the Figures of 25 Children in Action Bearing the Names of the Letters].  Cotsen just purchased the first edition of 1801, where it joins a copy of the 1809 third edition.

7307668tp151195tpL’Alphabet personnifie is incredibly rare in any edition, which probably accounts for  lack of comments in the scholarly literature.  The legendary Gumuchian catalogue of 1930 describing 6251 rare children’s books had a copy of the third edition, which was also listed in the bibliography of Segolene le Men’s Les abecedaires francais illustres du XIXe siecle (1984).  Penny Brown may never have seen it either because there’s no mention in the discussion of Freville in her Critical History of French Children’s Literature (2008).

Its author Anne-Francois-Joachim de Freville is a rather interesting person, even if he is not among the immortals of French children’s book writers.  Freville’s most famous works were two collections of anecdotes about extraordinary real children.  Vies des enfans celebres (1798) included the story of Irish youngster Volney Becker, who fended off a shark attack on his father, only to be bitten in half while being lifted to safety on a boat.  Vies circulated in English translation under the title The Juvenile Plutarch between 1801 and 1820. The second collection, Beaux traits du jeune age (1813), closes with an ambitious proposal for a pantheon to be built to honor the memory of notable children.   He could be more more fanciful, as this delightful group in the frontispiece to the fourth edition of his Contes jaunes (1804) makes clear.

150544frontisA teacher by profession, Freville was arrested for Jacobite sympathies but kept his head when the revolutionary tribunal acquitted him.  After Robespierre’s fall, Freville’s politics veered to the far right.  During the Directory, he continued to produce books that incorporated a range of educational games designed to turn children into active participants in the pleasure of learning.

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A.-F.-J. Freville, Jeu d’alphabet, chiffres, et symbols.

L’Alphabet personnifie is perhaps the most ingenious and charming of them all, although dog owners would probably give the edge to his collection of stories about celebrated canines.

The design of  L’Alphabet suggests that Freville was no ordinary teacher.  Like many enlightened educators who came after John Locke, Freville tried to invent ways to reduce the drudgery associated with learning to read.  Of course, he recommended using illustrated texts for that purpose, but on a different and more ambitious plan.  While it was true that children enjoyed illustrated alphabets of  animals in their primers, he observed,  they usually retained more information about the animals’ appearance and characteristics than they did of the letters of the alphabet, the real object of the exercise.

A better approach, Freville argued, was to anthropomorphize the letters, because children would take greater interest in the symbols if they resembled children the same age as themselves engaged in enjoyable activities (the different costumes and hats were also supposed to be a source of amusement).  The skillful use of alliteration increased the fun of learning, as well as an way of organizing the visual material so that it was more likely to impress associations on children’s minds.  Verbs are the heart of Freville’s method, which is somewhat unusual, as alphabets are more likely to focus on  substantives or nouns rather than actions.

Here is the letter “A,” impersonated by a boy watering [arrose].  When the children turn to the description of the plate, they will discover that it contains other objects beginning with the letter A: “Le petit Arlequin, arrose un Artichaut, fleuri dans son jardin” [Little Harlequin waters an artichoke blooming in his garden].   But if they look at the picture again, they will find even more objects whose names begin with “A” the description omits–“abeille” [bee] and “arraignee” [spider] to mention just two.  The engraver signed his name below the greenery in the lower right and I think it says “J. Le Roy.”

151195leaf1This being a French alphabet, the pleasures of the table must be shown.   Here is “B” for “boit” [drink] and “M” for “mange” [eat].

151195leaf2151195leaf13And the noblest of the fruits also makes an appearance in “V” for “vendange” [grape harvest].  More French fruits can be seen in a previous post on a new acquisition.

151195leaf22Plenty of ways to work off the food and drink are also illustrated, such as “H” for “hache” [chop] and “N” for “nage” [swim].

151195leaf8151195leaf14The boy is also shown practicing his handwriting in “E” for “ecrit” and playing in “J” for “joue.”151195leaf5151195leaf10Did Cotsen really need both editions?   A careful comparison showed that there are quite a few differences in the accompanying reading exercises, which are too complicated to describe here.  The comparison also reveals that in the 1801 edition, “Z” pursued the zebra through the woods completely naked, whereas in the 3rd edition, he is draped for the hunt in a diaphanous robe, still with no shoes.









Perhaps the revised plate is poking a little fun at the merveilleuses, the fashion victims of their times, who appeared in dresses so sheer as to leave very little to the imagination….


An English satirist like Isaac Cruikshank was probably not the most objective observer of French fashion…


Only Copy of “Nancy Cock’s Song-Book” (1744) Acquired

Copies of the four foundational collections of English nursery rhymes are as scarce as  proverbial hen’s teeth.  There’s less chance of finding in your grandmother’s attic a copy of the two-volume Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book (1744), Mother Goose’s Melody (1780), or Gammer Gurton’s Garland (1784), than a 42-line Gutenberg Bible.  There are forty-eight copies of Gutenberg, versus no copies of the first volume  and two copies of  the second volume of Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book, one copy of  the 1784 edition of Mother Goose’s Melody, and one copy of Gammer Gurton’s Garland.

Until now, the black swan of nursery rhyme anthologies was the first edition of Nancy Cock’s Song-book, which was assumed to have vanished without a trace.  The English Short Title Catalog of eighteenth-century English imprints lists an edition printed around 1786 in Newry, North Ireland, and the Elisabeth Ball copy of a John Marshall edition from the early 1790s, now at the Lilly Library, Indiana University at Bloomington.  The nursery rhyme scholars Iona and Peter Opie considered Miss Ball’s copy of Nancy Cock one of the most important books in her collection because it was almost certainly a late edition of an anthology published earlier in the century. The rhymes it contained were recorded in the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951).

When and where this mysterious Nancy Cock was published remained a mystery until Brian Alderson and I found an advertisement for it in the May 15 issue of the Daily Post, which identified the publisher as one T. Read of Dogwell-Court while researching the history of the rival Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-book.  Read is not known to have been a competitor of Thomas Boreman, Mary Cooper, and John Newbery during the 1740s.nancy-cock-adJames Burgh’s Youth’s friendly Monitor; or, The affectionate School-master. Containing his last pathetic farewell Lecture to his young Pupils, on their Entrance into a busy World (1752) was a Thomas Read book, but childrens’ books do not seem to have been part of his stock in trade–unless Joe Miller’s Jests or a ripping yarn like The English Rogue: or, The Life of Jeremy Sharp, commonly called, Meriton Latroon (1741) count.   More down Read’s alley were things like  A Collection of the most remarkable Trials of Persons for High-treason, Murder, Rapes, Heresy, Bigamy, Burglary; and other Crimes and Misdemeanors (1734), Warm Beer, a Treatise. Proving, from Reason, Authority and Experience, that Beer so qualify’d, is far more wholesome than that which is drank cold (1741), or Celibacy: or, Good Advice to young Fellows to keep single. In which are painted, in very lively Colours, the Pictures of many terrible Wives, both at Court and in the City (1739).

Read’s motives for publishing a novelty like a nursery rhyme anthology are not clear, but he produced a winner.  Advertisements for different editions of Nancy Cock in London and American papers between 1747 and 1770 indicate that it was frequently reprinted.  No copies by any publisher survive, however.   Only one copy of any edition of Nancy Cock has come into the rooms in the last twenty years.   Cotsen was the underbidder for the Marjorie Moon-David R. MacDonald copy of a 1795 provincial edition with the imprint “For the booksellers” sold December 2 2014 at Sotheby’s New York.  Even though it was likely that this would be my last chance to add a Nancy Cock to the Cotsen, I was philosophical about the loss.

nancy cock robin

Illustration of “Little Robin Red-Breast” from the “for the booksellers” edition of Nancy Cock previously owned by the collectors Marjorie Moon and David MacDonald.

It is an unwritten law of bibliography that if you publish speculations about a rarity no one has ever seen, a copy will rise up to bite you sooner or later.  In the 2013 Cotsen Occasional Press edition of Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-book, Brian Alderson and I reconstructed the contents of the lost volume 1 and ever since then we have been waiting for our come-uppance.  Instead, we have been rewarded for going out on a limb because the 1744 Nancy Cock turned up this fall.  And it’s a very special copy, having been passed down by three generations of English women as a family treasure.

The 13 January issue of the Times Literary Supplement features our account of its discovery and importance in the “Commentary” section.  But the essay is not illustrated with pictures from the book, and this post is!  Here is the title page spread, with the frontispiece of a cross schoolmaster punishing one of his pupils.   Notice that Nancy Cock is credited to the fictitious Nurse Lovechild, who is also supposed to have compiled Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-book.


The first section of the book consists of twenty-three pages, each with two captioned etchings, many showing children at play.   Pages five and six  includes one of children playing a card game.  It looks as if the boy is about to take the trick and the pot.  The other not-so-innocent amusement shown is bird’s nesting, or climbing up into a tree to steal the chicks from its mother.  Even though this favorite boys’ pastime was considered rather cruel, it is illustrated fairly often in children’s books of the period.  This is one in Nancy Cock may be among the earliest ones.spread6-7

This opening, with the swan in full sail on the left, and boys trying out different ways of breaking their playmates’ backs on the right, is another of my favorites.spread12-13If some of you think you’ve seen the illustrations of the child musicians in the next opening somewhere else, you’re right.  It has been copied from this little set of prints by Hubert Gravelot.  But it was also adapted in the frontispiece for the second volume of Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-book.  The lifting of this particular image strongly suggests that the engraver George Bickham, junior may have been involved in the production of Read’s Nancy Cock, along with several other of the “little books” Brian and I discussed in “Nurse Lovechild’s Legacy.”


The Gravelot original of the two child musicians.


The copy of Gravelot in Nancy Cock.


tommy thumb tp

The same two musicians and friend face the title page of Tommy Thumb.

Nancy Cock’s second section consists of twenty-seven nursery rhymes and “Hey my kitten,” a poem imitating nurse’s prattle attributed to Alan Ramsay, chopped up as if it were several rhymes.  Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-book and Nancy Cock print a handful of the same rhymes, but the illustrations are not the same.  “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary” is a good example.  In Tommy Thumb, the picture has nothing to do with the text.   In Nancy Cock, the illustration brings out the bawdy undertones of the final line, the refrain of a famous song set to a famous tune in John Playford’s 1651 The Dancing Master.  The three men waiting on Mary are wearing horns, the cuckold’s signature headgear.

tommy thumb page18

Nowhere in the text is a monkey mentioned…


Mistress Mary and her row of cuckolds.

One of the jolliest English nursery rhymes must be “Boys and girls come out to play.”  It is also among the earliest recorded, cropping up first in William King’s Useful Transactions in Philosophy, a 1709 satire on the Royal Society, then alluded to in Henry Carey’s “Namby-Pamby” (1725).  It also appears on page 32 of Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book accompanied with a etching of two children looking up at the full moon, and in Nancy Cock with a picture of three boys, one with a cricket bat, hallooing a boy standing in the doorway.  There’s a crescent moon shining in the upper right hand corner.

tommy thumb page32


Nancy Cock makes two appearances on facing pages in her song book, as the newly minted heroine of “Ride a cock horse” and of “Up hill and down dale,” a now unfamiliar rhyme long associated her.  The picture of Nancy as a demure milkmaid was adapted from the same set of Gravelot designs, perhaps hoping to distance her from the associations with the name “Nancy Cock,” which in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries signified a girl who no better than she should be. Thomas Rowlandson seems to be playing on those connotations in his drawing of a luscious young laundry maid with a come-hither expression.nancycockspread52-53

nancy cock thomas-rowlandson-ca-1815

Thomas Rowlandson, “Nancy Cock clear starcher.” National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

I am extremely grateful to the Friends of the Princeton University Library, whose generous contribution helped make poassible the purchase of  this wonderful children’s book.  And with the addition of Nancy Cock’s Song-book, Cotsen needs just the R. Stockton Gammer Gurton’s Garland to complete the quartet of foundational English nursery rhymes…  Who knows?