Little Dragons Go Back to School

Edward Burne-Jones, “Seminary for More Advanced Dragon Babies” (detail). From Margaret: Aug:mdccclxxxv. [manuscript]. London: 1891-1892. (Manuscripts 91749).

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” John Dewey

Long before Hiccup befriended and subdued the dragon, Toothless, in Cressida Cowell’s book How to Train Your Dragon (2003), the nineteenth-century English artist, Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), imagined a world where baby dragons went to school to learn everything dragons need to know to become fearsome creatures.

Burne-Jones was a Pre-Raphaelite artist known for his illustrations for William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, and decorative designs and paintings depicting Medieval subject matter. After the 1860s, his work and artistic ideology was associated with the Aesthetic Movement. Art, according to Aestheticists like Burne-Jones, should not be used for didactic or moralizing purposes; rather, it should be considered an object of beauty whose sole purpose was to elicit a sensual and emotional response from the viewer (Landow).

Burne-Jones filled personal correspondence to family and friends with sketches and caricatures. He was especially fond of writing to the children of the household and entertained them with delightful and humorous pictures (MacCarthy, 328). His desire to connect with children and entertain them through art-making can be further seen in a sketchbook in the Cotsen’s collection, Margaret: AUG:MDCCCLXXXV (Manuscripts 91749).

Inscription from Edward Burne-Jones, Margaret: Aug:mdccclxxxv. [manuscript]. London: 1891-1892. (Manuscripts 91749).

A handwritten inscription states that Burne-Jones gave his daughter, Margaret, a plain sketchbook before she married and moved to 27 Young Street. It goes on to state that the book was given to his granddaughter, Angela, when she was eighteen months old and that, “E. B-J began making drawings in it for her when he came to see her” (Burne-Jones).

Edward Burne-Jones, “Seminary for More Advanced Dragon Babies.” From Margaret: Aug:mdccclxxxv. [manuscript]. London: 1891-1892. (Manuscripts 91749).

The sketchbook contains a number of drawings, ranging in subject matter and level of finish. Some depict landscapes, animals, and everyday life, while others, like the “Seminary for More Advanced Dragon Babies” depict mythological and fantastical creatures.

The “Seminary for More Advanced Dragon Babies” (December 5, 1892) is a finished drawing done in Burne-Jone’s linear style. It shows a group of nine, adorable, cat-like baby dragons in a courtyard. At the rear of the courtyard, sits a podium with an open book and ink well, above which hangs a sign that bears the title of the piece. To the left is a doorway leading into “Hisstry School” (history) and to the right is a doorway leading to “Jogruffy School” (geography).

The baby dragons are shown wrestling with each other, peeking out from the doorways, rolling on their backs, or, rubbing away tears. The creatures are not the typical, scaly dragons that we’re used to seeing. Instead, they each have spots and random tufts of hair down their backs and tiny tails. Their round little bellies and diminutive stature show that they are indeed juveniles who are presumably attending their first day of school, just like many of our own children.

To the students who are attending their first day of school, we wish you good luck! You may not learn how to fly or breathe fire, but you will be in good company as you learn about history and geography, and maybe even about dragons in mythology!

Burne Jones, Edward Coley. Margaret: Aug:mdccclxxxv. [manuscript]. London: 1891-1892. (Manuscripts 91749).

Landow, George P. “Aesthetes, Decadents, and the Idea of Art for Art’s Sake.” VictorianWeb, 5 December 2012. http://www.victorianweb.org/decadence/artsake.html

MacCarthy, Fiona. The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Marks in Books 10: Sibling Stand-off in a Copybook?

Cotsen in process 7014153.

Cotsen in process 701453.

Don’t judge this copybook by its spotted vellum boards.  It looks anything but promising, but it is worth a careful look.    Elizabeth Harris, who may have lived in South Molton, Devonshire, filled it full of exercises for learning commercial arithmetic.  Her signature dated 1750 can barely be read on the front board (it is clearer in the photograph above than in person) and the headpiece in the second photograph above has the year 1749 written in the fish’s stomach.  Elizabeth did not sign and date the pages in her copybook like David Kingsley, so there is no telling how many months in each year she was copying out lessons.  She worked through the basic operations of arithmetic, troy and apothecaries weights, dry, liquid, and cloth measures, the rule of three, etc.  Someone must have felt it was important for Elizabeth to be well versed in arithmetic, probably so she would be capable of managing the family accounts when a married woman.

The title page, which is oriented landscape-wise, is the only one decorated with figures of pen flourishes.  The text inside the bird is not laid out perfectly and you can see that she had a little trouble squeezing in her name, the completion date, and the ownership rhyme which children frequently copied into their books, “Learning is better than House and Land, / For when House and Land are gone and spent, / Then Learning is most excellent.”

Cotsen in process 7014153.

Elizabeth didn’t fill up all the pages, leaving a short section of blanks at the end of the book.  At some point, someone–perhaps a brother–claimed possession of it.  Was she there to defend her property? Did she let him have it because she had no further use for it?  Was he much younger than she and simply helped himself?  There is no evidence that establishes when exactly this amusing page was written and who could resist imagining a scenario in which one child takes another child’s book?  The object then becomes a silent witness of  childhood experiences in the past. Assuming that the second owner was a boy is not, on the other hand, pure supposition.  Owner number two did not fill up the pages with lessons, but with transcriptions of a love song and a ballad and the latter is the same tale type about a cross-dressing heroine as the one in David Kingsley’s copybook.  The ballad copied out here stars a noble-born damsel from the Isle of Wight who traveled to France dressed as a man to find the lover her father sent away.

Cotsen 7146.

Cotsen 7146.

One child apparently appropriating a book from another (often with the same surname) is not unusual, so interpreting the scribbles as a manifestation of sibling rivalry rings true to one’s own childhood experience, with stories in children’s books, and constructs of gender.  But children may also mark up books to establish territory by calling attention to their presence in a world which doesn’t pay them enough attention. The boy who hijacked Elizabeth Harris’s copybook may have had something in common with the greatest exhibitionist in the Cotsen collection, Thomas Webb of Pulham, Norfolk, England, Europe, World (another traditional ownership formula).  He literally inserted himself in the story by putting his initials over all the pictures of its protagonist, Tommy Newton.   Subversion or self-assertion?