“All the Fun of the Fair as if You were There:” A Writing Sheet from the Collection of Ricky Jay

Fairs and their attractions have always been a destination for entertainers, gawkers, pickpockets, prostitutes, children, vendors of food, drink, and cheap trinkets.  The carnivalesque atmosphere has been celebrated and reprobated, often in the same breath.  Artists with a taste for satire, like William Hogarth, captured the press of people on the grounds in one of his most famous prints, “Southwark Fair.”

Eighteenth and early nineteenth-century children’s books and prints also depict young people visiting fairs, although the representations are somewhat tame in comparison with Hogarth’s seething engraving.    Cotsen has just acquired a very rare writing sheet, “The Humours of the Fair”  (London: W. & T. Darton, 1807), illustrated with an engraved headpiece and seven vignettes capturing the sights, sounds, and smells of the grounds.

While there are no agricultural displays or tractor pulls so characteristic of  American state and county fairs, some things have hardly changed from the 1800s. Competitive eating contests, it seems, were not invented in the late nineteenth century.   Here a yokel and a gentleman are seeing who can finish first his steaming basin of whitepot straight from the oven. They are allowed the use of spoons, although they could not have prevented serious burns on the lips and the insides of the cheeks.  Whitepot, originally a specialty of Devonshire, is a bread-and-butter pudding loaded with cream and topped with a sugar crust.

Then there were the shows.  On view were amazing displays of strength and dexterity, such as this rope walker balancing on his chin a pipe, upon which is resting another pipe with an clutch of pipes arranged like a bouquet of flowers in its bowl.   The wire looks to be only a few inches above the floor.  Children were always warned away from the tables where games of chance were being operated, which might explain why they are frequently shown gathered there watching or trying their luck. The conjurer looks just like the rope walker, so he seems to have more than one string to his bow as an showman–unless the engraver was working against a deadline and saving time.  Perhaps he gathered a crowd with the balancing act and then moved on to sleigh-of-hand tricks, drawing in the marks with the assistance of a clown, who pretends that his eyes are just as quick than the magician’s wand.  No trip to a fair would be complete without the purchase of souvenirs then called fairings—cheap toys, ribbons, sweets.  The children troop up to their mother to show her their treasures, probably to be broken, discarded, or forgotten the next day.

This writing sheet, which was known only from a minimal description in a British dealer’s catalog from the 1970s, is a perfect addition to Cotsen’s superb collection of these illustrated prints.  Nicholas Wallin, a student at the Bettesworth School (location in England unknown) filled the center, with sentiments about the meaning of Christmas in his best handwriting, probably for presentation to his parents when he came home for the holidays.

This writing sheet, which was known only from a minimal description in a British dealer’s catalog from the 1970s, is a wonderful addition to Cotsen’s large collection of these illustrated prints.  It was purchased at the third of a series of auctions dispersing the magnificent collection of magic, the allied arts, and their ephemera by the late, great,  light-fingered laureate of legerdemain Ricky Jay (1946-2018).Ricky was unusual for being honored in three worlds which rarely collide—conjuring, collecting, and curating.    A sorcerer of sleight of hand, he could confound people standing a foot away with cup and balls as easily as crowd  watching him on stage propel playing cards into “thick, pachydematous outer melon layer” of the “most prodigious of household fruits” at the distance of ten paces. He also did mean turns as conmen on the silver screen and as the sole star of several stage shows.    His delight in the search for materials documenting the peculiar history of his confraternity, which comprised cheats, hustlers, hoaxsters, pranksters, jokesters, impostors, pretenders, sideshow showmen, never flagged, any more than his glee in sharing them with the uninitiated in a series of books and exhibition catalog, among them Cards as  Weapons, Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, Many Mysteries Unraveled, The Magic Magic Book, Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, Dice: Deception, Fate, and Rotten Luck, and mesmerizing learned lectures at museums and rare book libraries, sometimes accompanied by demonstrations.  His lecture on Dr. Graham’s Celestial Bed, an aide to conception which famous aristocratic ladies like Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, resorted to in desperation, brought down the house at the Grolier Club.   As generous as Ricky was with his collection and knowledge, he never revealed the secrets of the techniques that astounded onlookers with the pleasure of being hoodwinked.There were three words that could never be uttered in  his presence: “children’s birthday parties.”   In spite of his well-known aversion to the infant race, he would, I think, be pleased that this engraving illustrating raffish popular entertainments has found its way to the Cotsen Children’s Library, where it will  be in the company of operators of peep shows, a Dutch blow book, magic lanterns, and Cajanus the Swedish Giant.

The HMS Victory Goes Down: A Famous Naval Disaster Illustrated in The Pretty Book of Pictures (1765)

The Pretty Book of Pictures for Little Masters and Misses is the best known natural history book John Newbery issued–not because its illustrations were so fine, but because the majority were copied from out-of-date seventeenth-century sources like Edward Topsell’s History of Four-footed Beasts (1659) and Francis Willughby’s Ornithology (1674). Sometimes owners colored them with more artistic verve than accuracy…

The handful of illustrations at the end are almost never mentioned because they have nothing to do with natural history.   Master Tommy and Miss Polly are shown “taking the air” in their coach in one and dancing a minuet in another.   Mother Bunch standing outside her cottage under the hill, where she sells cheesecakes. A natural philosopher observes the night sky through a telescope, while a student reads as he walks through the countryside.

The first one in the group, that of the sinking man-of-war Victory, had never caught my eye until last week. It suddenly occurred to me that there are illustrations of shipwrecks everywhere in eighteenth-century children’s books–ships leaving ports, ships in full sail, ships in distress, ships breaking up on the rocks.   Whoever decided to include the illustration of the Victory took it for granted that little readers were interested in shipwrecks. If they didn’t understand the reference, they would ask someone older who explain it to them.   Not having brothers who went to sea like Jane Austen, I would have to figure it out for myself.

Could it refer to the most famous ship of the line bearing that name, the HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson’s flagship during the Battle of Trafalgar, where the hero met his death in 1805.  The information I found suggested it had to be another ship.  Nelson’s Victory was not launched until 1765 and The Pretty Book of Pictures was first published in 1752.  It’s not impossible that this block was added in later editions, but I wasn’t able to confirm that hypothesis.   The Rothschild catalog doesn’t describe the illustrations in the 1752 edition and and the National Library of Scotland has not digitized its second edition of 1754.  Before Nelson, the Victory was  Keppel’s flagship in the Battle of Ushant in 1778 and Jervis’s in the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1797.    This ship, which saw so much action was never sunk: since 1923 she has been drydocked in Portsmouth, the oldest naval ship still in commission, with 245 years’ of service.

Admiral Sir John Balchen’s memorial in Westminster Abbey showing the Victory sinking

Nelson’s Victory, I discovered, was the sixth of her name in the Royal Navy and there is a story that the sailors, being a superstitious lot, thought it would be unlucky to give her that name.  The Victory depicted in the Pretty Book of Pictures, had to be the fifth.   A 100-gun first-rate ship of the line launched in 1737, she was the flagship of the navy squadron charged with protecting the Channel waters in the 1740s.   In the War of the Austrian Succession, she was Admiral Sir John Balchen’s flagship during the blockade of Tagus in Spain.  When Balchen’s fleet reached the Channel in early October, a storm scattered the ships before they reached port. The Victory was separated from the rest and was believed to have gone down at Black Rock in the Casquets in the Channel Islands on October 4, 1744.  The design with sides rather high for the draft of her hull were said to have made her unstable in heavy or rough weather.   All 1100 men on board were lost, making it the worst disaster in British naval history. 

Naval histories quickly incorporated accounts of the tragedy. George Berkeley and Sir John Hill’s The naval history of Britain, from the earliest periods of which
there are accounts in history, to the conclusion of the year M.DCC.LVI (1756)  solemnly reported “Parts of the wreck were found by the people of Alderney, who also gave the account that they heard the discharges of near 100 guns in the Night, Signals of Distress.”  It was a natural subject for a dramatic marine painting like the one by Peter Monamy to the left.  Allusions to the disaster turn up in contemporary literature.  A correspondent with The Wise Woman in Eliza Haywood’s The Female Spectator (1746) inadvertently reveals what a self-absorbed creature she is by complaining that the sensible young man courting her reflected upon the tragedy of the Victory.  If he must bring up the subject of the sea, she says peevishly, he ought to compare  her to Venus rising out of it!

Many attempts over the next two hundred and sixty years were made to find the HMS Victory and in May 2008 Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration succeeded in finding the wreck in over 300 feet of water a good 80 kilometers past the Casquets.   Two of her brass cannons were salvaged and are on display in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.  Because of the complexity of maritime law regarding salvage, it is unclear if and when the wreck will be raised from the seabed.