The French Popular Prints William H. Helfand Gave Cotsen

In 2008, Cotsen received a gift of 250 French popular prints from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from William H. Helfand, a great collector–but not of children’s books.  The story of how the prints found their way from Paris, to Sutton Place in New York City, and finally to Princeton is worth remembering this week to mark Bill’s passing at age ninety-two.

The son of a pharmacist, Bill began his career in the pharmaceutical industry in the marketing division at Merck and eventually became a senior vice president.  This was a shrewd career choice for someone who knew he wanted to collect art, but would never have the means to buy paintings.  It did give him ample opportunities to travel, which meant increased time to establish a network of dealers who could provide him with prints on medical and pharmaceutical subjects.   The field was a very congenial one for someone with as an acute sense of humor and an eye for human fraility as Bill had.  Through his collecting, he became a scholarly connoisseur of quacks–individual and corporate–and illustrated promotional materials for nostrums and patent medicines.

It was John Newbery, the father of the modern children’s book, that brought Bill to Firestone.   He wanted to see Cotsen’s packet of Dr. James’ Fever Powder, the patent medicine that was supposed to cure all kinds of fevers, the gout, scurvy, “distempers in cattle,” and practically any other complaint that afflicted the human body.

This preparation, and not the little gilt books like The History of little Goody Two-Shoes, was the real foundation of John Newbery’s fortune and by far the most valuable part of his estate.  Bill was disappointed to discover that the Newbery packet of fever powders dated from the late nineteenth century.   I was embarrassed to discover it was wrongly dated in Voyager (now corrected), but he didn’t hold it against me.  Here was a kindred spirit to whom I could reveal my secret love for advertising ephemera that pushed products to children like Scott’s Emulsion, a horrible preparation of cod’s liver oil with additives that surely did nothing to improve the taste or the Anodyne Necklace guaranteed to quiet teething babies with who knows what toxic ingredient….

A few years later, Bill inherited a huge print collection on medical subjects amassed by an old friend in Paris, whose children had no interest in keeping it.  That collection was so large and duplicated many things in Bill’s that he had to find homes for large categories of materials.  And so I received the first of several invitations to come to his New York apartment and look over the children’s prints and select as many as I liked, the only caveat being he would review them for any on medical subjects that weren’t in his collection.  The one about children playing doctor on a doll below by Theodore Steinlen is one he didn’t need. It was a crash course in the subject, of which I knew almost nothing.  But it became clear soon enough that these prints, many of them from the famous firm in Epinal, had not been studied by scholars of French popular prints and represented unknown territory for research.These French prints were contemporary with the better known German Bilderbogen and I could imagine that a Princeton faculty member interested in the history of the comic strip, the cartoon, or graphic novel, could show students their ancestors in two countries that were major producers of nineteenth-century prints for children.  And of course, a selection of the prints would and did make a wonderful exhibition to acknowledge Bill’s great generosity.  Twelve were reproduced in a portfolio as a keepsake, which is still available. Had the blog existed then, Bill’s gift would have been first announced in a heavily illustrated post.   But it’s never too late to pay another tribute to a great friend.

 

A New Gallery Brochure about Puss in Boots Coming This Fall

The pamphlet Cinderella in the Cotsen Children’s Library has been out of print for some years and there have been requests for a new one on another classic fairy tale.  But which one?  Sleeping Beauty?  Too passive.   Blue Beard?  Too violent.  Ditto Little Thumb.   Riquet with the Tuft?  Too obscure.   Donkey  Skin? Too kinky.   That left the cleverest cat of all, Puss in Boots.

The selection of pictures will not come from the ones on display in the current exhibition, “Most Masterful Cat.”  Here are a few illustrations of Puss that may be new to you.   They may or may make the final cut.

Here he is trudging down the road to the King’s palace, with the gift of a nice fat rabbit slung over his shoulder.  The illustrator is Edmond Morin, whose book about the hard life dolls lead was the subject of  another post.

One of my favorite illustrations of Puss shows a rather chubby, furry tom cat hunting for  quail, which were also to be presented to the king.  This beautifully observed picture is by the great German 19th-century artist Otto Speckter.  Wearing boots must disturb the cat’s concentration while hunting.  It is one of two quite different versions of the same scene, both of which I love.There are many wonderful pictures of Puss after his elevation for service to the crown.   This one by Harrison Weir  imagines him as an elegant but swaggering courtier.  No wonder the ladies can’t keep their eyes off of him.  Obviously being waited upon by them is much more amusing than catching mice around the palace.Until the pamphlet goes out on the shelves of the bookcase in the gallery entrance, there’s some consolation for cat lovers  here.