Lady Diana Beauclerk Draws a Travelling Zoo

Before the establishment of zoological gardens in the early nineteenth century, people living outside of London with its Tower Menagerie were unlikely to have the opportunity of seeing large exotic animals unless the proprietor of a travelling menagerie rolled into town.  George Wombwell (1777-1850) was the greatest of them all.   Around 1810 he began touring the seasonal fairs, where it was easy to gather a crowd.    Eventually he had three units, each with its brightly painted wagons and brass bands, covering the circuit.

Cotsen recently acquired a late eighteenth-century drawing by Lady Diana Beauclerk that documents the visit of a travelling menagerie to an unspecified location in the English countryside.   Perhaps the animal show of Gilbert Pidcock, which was on the road in the late 1700s, is depicted here, although there is no way of being sure because the wagon has no identifying marks.   The showman gestures with his staff towards the enormous lion, whose head seems to be lowered, possibly exhausted after a long bumpy ride on bad roads.  Wonder and awe, not fear, animate the faces in the little crowd standing a safe distance from the creature’s cage on wheels.  At least two little ones are being held up so they won’t miss seeing the noble beast.

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Lady Diana Beauclerk, ” A travelling menagerie.” ca. 1790? Provenance: Theodore Besterman-Paula Peyraud.

The drawing is signed “D.B.” in the lower left hand corner and “D:B:” below the border in the middle.  Those initials belong to the one the most celebrated amateur woman artists of the period: Lady Diana Beauclerk (1734-1808), daughter of the Honorable Elizabeth Trevor and Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough.  She also has the distinction of being the first of the celebrated Di Spencers.

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Sir Joshua Reynolds’ 1768 portrait of Lady Diana.

A number of her drawings survive and perhaps this one of the travelling menagerie  is related to others she did on popular entertainments: one of a showman with dancing bears, and another of street musicians.  While there is no reason to think Lady Di drew any of them for the delight of her children or grandchildren (nor is there any evidence they were intended as illustrations for a book, much less a children’s book),  the drawings open a window on the experiences of children in the late Georgian period.

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Lady Diana Beauclerk, “A performing bear” ca. 1790. The showman is jabbing the bear to make it dance. There is a second bear with a monkey on its back to the left. A trumpeter, who probably played to gather an audience, stands with his back to the wall. Lydiard House, Swindon, Wiltshire.

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Lady Diana Beauclerk, “Street musicians” ca. 1790. The young woman is playing a hurdy-gurdy to the accompaniment of a tambourine. In the background a man is operating a peep show for two young customers.

Who was the artist of these charming drawings?   Lady Diana would have been notorious even if she had not been part of the fast set of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.   Beauclerk has probably been the inspiration for many characters in Regency romances…  Dr. Johnson dismissed Lady Di as a “whore”  but Edmund Burke was more forgiving on account of her two dreadful marriages, the first to the dissolute womanizer Frederick St. John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke, who succeeded in divorcing her for adultery on the third try in 1768.   Diana may not have felt the need for absolute discretion when her husband was rarely home at night.

Two days after the divorce was final, she married her long-time lover Topham Beauclerk.  He should have been an improvement over Bolingbroke, as  the great-grandson of Charles II, a friend of Horace Walpole and Dr. Johnson, a wit, and notable book collector.  But his personal hygiene was as appalling as his temper and Lady Di was frequently the victim of his rages.  Even his friends said Topham was so filthy that it was possible to catch lice from his wig.

After Topham’s death in 1780s, Lady Di’s life must have improved dramatically, now that she was the mistress of a pleasant small house, a regular income, and peace to devote to a range of artistic pursuits.   Probably her best known works are the designs she executed for Josiah Wedgewood, which were used on plaques, jugs, and other ceramic pieces.

Plaque,_modeled_by_Lady_Diana_Beauclerk_(1734-1808)_-_Wedgwood,_undated_-_Brooklyn_Museum_-_DSC09014She also created a series of nine drawings which were inset in the door of an elaborate ebony cabinet that Horace Walpole commissioned from Edward Edwards.

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The Beauclerk cabinet, originally in the Great North Bedchamber, Strawberry Hill. Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

Curator’s Choice: A French Puzzle-picture Alphabet by A. J. F. Freville

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 Jacobin 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.

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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….

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