Curator’s Choice: Songs for the Nursery, Collected from the Works of the Most Renowned Poets

The third plate illustrating one of the less familiar rhymes in Songs for the Nursery (1808).

Peter and Iona Opie considered the Songs for the Nursery (London: Benjamin Tabart, 1805) the fourth of the foundational nursery rhyme anthologies published between 1744 and 1805.  By 1817, Songs was something of a classic.  The anonymous compiler of the Juvenile Review was quite disappointed that such a “foolish” book  should be so popular  when the combined power of rhyme and rhythm had been subverted to fill “the infant mind with false ideas” and encouraged credulity when obviously dishes could not run away with spoons or old women fly as high as the moon.  Her disapproval did not move the publisher to drop it however.  After Tabart closed down in 1820, Songs was kept in print by the Darton firm in Holborn Hill, then its successors Darton & Clark until the mid-1860s.  Its longevity surely recommended it as a source to James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps when he was working on Nursery Rhymes of England (1839), the first scholarly study of the traditional oral verse of childhood.

A comment in Charles Lamb’s June 2 1804 letter to Dorothy Wordsworth offers evidence that Songs was compiled by Eliza Fenwick, a aspiring novelist in the 1790s, who by the 1800s was struggling to support her family by writing children’s books and taking on  literary piece work.  Lissa Paul has suggested that Fenwick solicited examples from her literary friends and Dorothy Wordsworth obliged by sending “Arthur O’Browe” and some other “scraps.”  (There are  a handful of rhymes in Songs that did not make it into the Opies’ Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes,  but that’s a question for another time.)  It’s also very likely that the work’s subtitle “Collected from the Works of the most Renowned Poets” was a specious elevation of the old nurses who sang them, a joke that the editors of the Songs’ predecessors Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-book (1744) and Mother Goose’s Melodies (1772) had indulged in.

Bewick’s cut for “Bah, bah, black sheep.”

Abandoning a mock-serious attitude towards the verses, which denigrated rather than validating them, may have been one reason for the Songs’ success.   The care Tabart took with the illustrations was another indication that the verse was being taken more seriously than ever before. He gave the customer the option of purchasing the 64-page pamphlet with no pictures for a shilling or with twenty-four full-page engraved illustrations for two. It was quite sumptuous pamphlet compared to Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-book (London: George Bickham, junior, 1744) with Bickham junior’s teeny engravings printed in red and black or Mother Goose’s Melody (London: T. Carnan, 1772) adorned with the young Thomas Bewick’s small wood- engraved headpieces.

As was usual during this period, the illustrator was not identified on the title page.   Marjorie Moon, the collector/bibliographer of Tabart, did not venture to guess who might have created the charming designs.   It turns out to have been a well-known, versatile, and well-connected artist, William Marshall Craig (d.1827). The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that Craig was considered one of the most distinguished designers of woodblocks from 1800 until his death.  Of his style as a book illustrator, Houfe’s Dictionary of 19th Century Illustrators judged it “charming but not individual.”  Luckily, this was not always the case, as we will see.  No other reference sources mention that Craig produced children’s book illustrations, perhaps because it seemed  an unlikely way for the drawing master for Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince of Wales, miniature painter to the Duke and Duchess of York, and painter in watercolors to Queen Charlotte to supplement his income.

Detail from the engraved frontispiece of The Juvenile Preceptor (1800). Cotsen 5011,

Nevertheless, that is exactly what Craig did for a time.  Some of his work 1800-1806 features a highly recognizable type of child.  This detail from Craig’s  frontispiece design (signed in the lower left)  from The Juvenile Preceptor (Ludlow: George Nicholson, 1800) has an earliest example I have found. The boy in the fashionable skeleton suit reading to his mother is sturdy and chubby lad with a round face and a cap of wavy hair.

This drawing book by Craig, which I had the pleasure of seeing in the fabulous collection of Rosie and David Temperley is filled with pictures of boys who bear a family resemblance to the one in The Juvenile Preceptor.   .

From Craig’s Complete Instructor in Drawing Figures. Collection of Rosie and David Temperley, Edinburgh.

With thanks to the Hockcliffe Collection for this image.

We know that Tabart employed Craig because Marjorie Moon discovered  advertisements for Tabart’s sixpenny series, “Tales for the Nursery”,  that credited the artist with the designs for the illustrations.  Some of the plates in the early editions as well as the ones recycled in  Tabart’s Collection of Popular Stories for the Nursery, were signed with Craig’s name as the “inventor.”  In the detail of the frontispiece for the Dick Whittington  to the right, the hero holding the stripy tomcat may be wearing  a cloak and tights instead of a skeleton suit, but he has the  tell-tale bowl hair cut.

Some years ago Mr. Cotsen acquired an original pen and ink drawing for the plate of “Little Boy Blue” in Songs.    The dealer attributed by the dealer to William Marshall Craig, I was never sure if it were wishful thinking because there wasn’t a citation to a reference book or scholarly monograph on Craig.  After lining up all these other little boys in other works whose attributions to Craig are secure, there can’t be much doubt that he did Songs for the Nursery as well.  The plate for Little Jack Horner follows, for those who aren’t entirely convinced.. On the strength of this evidence, I feel pretty confident that a handful of other Tabart classics also were illustrated by Craig: Fenwick’s Life of Carlo (1804); Mince Pies for Christmas (1805); The Book of Games (1805), and  M. Pelham’s Jingles; or Original Rhymes for Children (1806), which is pictured below.  In a review of The Book of Games, Mrs. Trimmer, herself the daughter of an engraver, noted that while the quality of the engraving was not always good, it did not obscure the excellence of the designs.   Last but not least, an extra dollop of frosting on the cake.  While working on this post, I discovered that my colleague Julie Mellby, the curator of Graphic Arts, has a second drawing from Songs pasted into an album of Marshall Craig drawings she described in a 2010 post.   It’s the fifth illustration she reproduced and it is for “Cushy cow bonny.”   Could one or two more of the drawings for Songs be among the unidentfied Craig drawings in the Victoria & Albert archive?

 

Mother Hubbard and Her Dog Go Abroad in Translation

It’s no coincidence that the very first two nursery rhyme anthologies, the song-books of Nancy Cock and Tommy Thumb, were collected and published in 1744 by some merry wags in London.   And it’s no exaggeration to say that English language nonsense is rooted in its vibrant and salty tradition of nursery rhymes.  Nonsense isn’t supposed to travel well because the humor depends so much on the resources of the language in which it was created.  If that were true, then why has Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland has been translated into so many languages?  A better explanation might be that when there is a will, there is a way to recast the wordplay so people in another culture can delight in its absurdities.

Old Mother Hubbard and the antics of her dog is another classic of English nonsense that has made people in Europe laugh too, a fact that you won’t learn from the indispensable Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes.  The Opies recorded the continuation and a sequel “by another hand” issued shortly after the John Harris first edition of 1805, imitations like Old Mother Lantry and her Goat (1819), the first pantomime version of 1833, and a translation into German ca. 1830.

The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog. Illustrated by Robert Branston? London: J. Harris, 1820 (Cotsen 3688).

What the Opies didn’t make clear is that it was the 1820 edition in Harris’s “Cabinet of Amusement and Instruction” with the hand-colored wood engravings attributed to Robert Branson that captured imaginations overseas, not the original edition illustrated with etchings.  See the beautiful high-relief carvings of the amazing dog’s head in the corners of the elaborate gilt frame of the good old lady’s portrait?

Her steeple-crowned hat on top of a mob-cap, the gown with a laced stomacher and ruffled sleeves over a quilted petticoat, became iconic internationally, as did her dog’s ensemble of an opera hat, powdered wig, waistcoat, breeches, stockings with clocks and buckled shoes.  They are both unmistakable in the New Adventures of Mother Hubbard, when they visit the sights of London ca. 1840, the year Victoria married her cousin Albert.

Cotsen 3688.

 

Cock Robin and the New Mother Hubbard. London: James March, not before 1840 (Cotsen 26792).

Audot published a French prose translation, Aventures plaisantes de Madame Gaudichon et de son chien, in 1832.  Baumgaertner in Leipzig quickly picked it up and repackaged it as an entertaining text carefully annotated for German-speaking children to learn French.   The dog is named “Zozo” here (he isn’t called anything in the English original).

Cotsen 3708.

The German translation,  unlike the French one, is in verse and it tries to preserve  something of the rhythm in English.   The illustrations are very careful copies of Branston’s for the Harris Cabinet edition, although the colorist occasionally changed the palette.  Mother Hubbard’s cloak is still crimson and her stomacher green, but her quilted petticoat is light yellow and her hat pale green with crimson trim.  In some of the illustrations, the stomacher is Dutch blue!  Frau Hubbard offers her Liebchen a more generous portion of beer than Mother Hubbard did in a stein redrawn with gently swelling contours.  Unfortunately it conforms to one national stereotype of Germans as beer swillers…

Komische Abentheuer der Frau Hubbard und ihrein Hunde. Mainz: Joseph Scholz, ca. 1830 (Cotsen 23460).

Mother Hubbard and her spaniel turn up in an 1840 Baumgaertner picture book, Herr Kickebusch und sein Katzchen Schnurr, which seems to be inspired partly by old Dame Trot, the owner of a clever kitty, whose rhyme predated the first appearance of Mother Hubbard both in English and in German translation by a few years.   The story accompanying plate VIII describes how  Madame Kickebusch, the lady in the Mother Hubbard costume comes to visit Herr Kickebusch with her gallant little gentleman, Azor.  Here the two pets are being introduced to each other.

Cotsen 5450.

There are no less than four Russian translations of Alice in Wonderland, included one by Vladimir Nabokov, so why not two radically different ones of Mother Hubbard?   Russia’s first fine art book publisher Knebel’ was responsible for the earlier one. Josef Nikolaevich Knebel is a fascinating figure, who apparently had no scruples about issuing unauthorized reprints of famous modern Western European picture books like Elsa Beskov’s Olles skifard and Tomtebobarnen.  There are no clues in  Knebel’ translation of Mother Hubbard, Babushka Zabavushka i sobachka Bum [The Jolly Grandma and her Little Dog Boom], as to who wrote the text or drew the pictures.  The mystery author was Raisa Kudasheva (1878-1964), who also translated the Knebel rip-off of one of the Beskow picture books.  While the illustrations are in the unmistakable style of W. W. Denslow, whoever drew them was not copying the American’s  version of Mother Hubbard.  

Raisa Kudasheva. Babushka Zabavushka u sobashka Bum. Moscow: I. Knebel’, ca. 1906 (Cotsen 27721).

A purely Russian addition to the dog’s remarkable accomplishments is sledding! Cotsen 27721.

Of all the versions here, perhaps the closest to the spirit of the English nursery rhyme is the poem Pudel’ [Pudel] by the great Soviet children’s poet, Samuil Marshak.  In some people’s opinion, Marshak beats the original cold and they may have a point.  To what extent the inspired illustrations by Vladimir Lebedev play into this is impossible to say.    It begins something like this:  An old lady who loves a quiet life drinking coffee and making croutons.  Or would, if she didn’t own a rumbustious purebred poodle.   She decides to get him a bone for lunch out of the cupboard, but what does she find inside? The poodle!

Samuil Marshak. Pudel’. Illustrated by Vladimir Lebedev. Moscow, Leningrad: Raduga, 1927 (Cotsen 26976).

There is no end to his naughty tricks.  This is what happens when he gets his paws on the old lady’s ball of knitting wool…

Marshak’s spin on Mother Hubbard is still so beloved in Russia that an animated film was made by Nina Shorina in 1985.  This version on You Tube has optional subtitles so the poetry and pictures can be enjoyed together by non-Russian speakers.

A world traveler, this very English bit of nonsense!