Nursery Crime! Sparrow Tells all about the Cock Robin Murder!

The nursery rhyme about Cock Robin may have inaugurated the genre of true crime fiction for children.  This little biblio-mystery, which was first run in 2017, shows why curators should always, but always, do their own independent research before and after purchase!.

Cock Robin, the tale of a murder without a motive is one of the most famous English nursery rhymes and its text has been a showcase for many gifted artists. Some very fine watercolors for the illustrations to a John Harris Cock Robin were up for grabs at the Sotheby’s New York December on-line auction of artwork for children’s books. Harris, the successor to the Newbery firm, was a pioneering picture book publisher and the Cock Robin in the celebrated Cabinet of Amusement and Instruction series of the 1820s, is one of the most famous. The drawings in the Sotheby’s sale were not for this edition, but even so I was concerned they would catch more eyes than mine. With a trove of nearly three hundred drawings for Harris children’s books in Cotsen, I was very keen to add them to the collection. Cotsen turned out to be the only bidder, so the six drawings are safe in Firestone, thanks to the generous support of the Friends of the Princeton University Library.

After unpacking them, I went to the vault to reconfirm the attribution and discovered instead that the drawings were “not as described,” which is code in the antiquarian book trade for “wrongly cataloged.” The drawings were too lovely to return (to the right is the one of the pipe-puffing owl tolling the bell), so the only alternative was to cross my fingers and go in search of the book they did illustrate. The mystery was unraveled quickly, thanks to three gems from the collection of Marjorie Moon, author of the Harris bibliography.

The drawings are for an 1808 Harris pamphlet that survives in just four copies: The Tragi-comic History of the Burial of Cock Robin; with the Lamentation of Jenny Wren; the Sparrow’s Apprehension; and the Cuckoo’s Punishment. The title page spread is on the right below and the drawing for the frontispiece on the left. Look closely and you’ll see that the engraver of the frontispiece edited out the blood pooling underneath the robin in the watercolor.

 

 

 

 

When I started matching up drawings with the passages they represent, it became clear that the Tragi-comic History was faithful in its fashion to both of the traditional nursery rhymes about the robin’s death and its marriage to the wren. Take a second look at the title page spread. The frontispiece depicts the grieving widow Jenny Wren, which is a departure from the death and burial of Cock Rbin where the wrens are the pall bearers and the dove chief mourner as the robin’s “love.” On the other hand, Jenny’s role in the Tragi-comic History is consistent with the title page declaration that the pamphlet is a sequel to the Harris’s 1806 gay two-part retelling of the rhyme about the union of the robin and wren, The Happy Courtship, Merry Marriage and Pic-nic Dinner of Cock Robin and Jenny Wren.

The Tragi-comic History departs from the prequel by the third stanza, when the birds “lug in” the sparrow to be punished for “his sin.” Notice how the owl secures the cord around the sparrow’s neck with a stout staff. (What bird has concealed itself in the hollow tree trunk to the right?) Stanza four reveals that the author of TheTragi-comic History conflated the traditional rhyme of Cock Robin’s death and burial with the Harris retelling of the marriage and, more importantly, devised a water-tight alibi for the sparrow’s crime that exonerates him of accidental manslaughter.

The sparrow pleads for mercy, saying he has been unable to eat since “shooting in defence / Of Jenny Wren, Bob’s wife, / He’d sav’d her innocence, / But robb’d his friend of life.” In order to understand exactly what happened, we have to backtrack to The Happy Courtship, Merry Marriage and Pic-nic Dinner. Here is Robin, sporting a very jaunty plumed hat, walking his blushing bride to church.

The happy couple exchange vows with Parson Rook presiding.

Friends of all species bring dainties to the feast and dog Tray’s offering is a bone with plenty of good meat for the picking.

The cuckoo, that “wicked elf,” disrupts the festivities by trying to tumble the bride.

Still inflamed by “her charms” in The Tragi-Comic History, the cuckoo had the audacity to visit Jenny in the nest and try to “seize a kiss” when he knew her husband was away. Seeing the wren in distress, the sparrow, “aimed at Wantonness,/ But hit Fidelity,” being a bad shot. Now that the birds know the whole story, “on the culprit they fell,/ With talons, wings, and beaks,/ and drubb’d him very well,/ With scratches, slaps, and pecks.” The climax of the poem (and prelude to the robin’s funeral) is the invention of The Tragi-comic History’s author.

A word about the artist is in order. The drawings are attributed to Irish-born Victorian painter William Mulready(1786-1863). In the nineteen teens, he was studying at the Royal Academy and partly support his young family of three children by designing illustrations for the children’s publishers Harris and William Godwin. The drawings for The Tragi-comic History are in the same style as Mulready’s better-known ones for another fanciful poem about partying animals, William Roscoe’s The Butterfly’s Ball and Grasshopper’s Feast (1806).

Back to our story… After the sparrow is pardoned, the swallow delivers to every bird an invitation to the “obsequies of their dear worthy friend.” Unfortunately, only one of the three illustrations for the burial are here: the one of the owl ringing the bell (shown above). The invitation scene and the one of the robin’s body being borne to the grave with the jay, magpie, dove, and pigeon flying over it with the pall are missing.

The grieving widow returns to her “uncheering home” only to find herself subject to the unwelcome attentions of yet another suitor, this time the “vain and smart” Goldfinch all in scarlet and gold (he had been attentive during the wedding). Jenny Wren being no Lydia Bennett, neither his bold uniform nor his “sweet love-tales…could not gain her heart.”

Thank heavens in the little republic of children’s literature, it is possible with some close reading to establish the facts and nothing but the facts about this famous nursery crime…

Curator’s Choice: Songs for the Nursery Illustrated by William Marshall Craig

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?