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.

Curator’s Choice: Maud and Miska Petersham’s Toy Story Hary Janos and Get-Away

Recently a friend reminded me that when we were little, one of our favorite things to do was  noisily acting out stories from Margery Clark’s The Poppy Seed  Cakes.  Neither of our dress-up chests would have had anything as splendid as the “Old Country” clothes drawn by the Petershams, a husband and wife team of author-illustrators. Nor were our beds were painted with colorful decorations inspired by Hungarian folkloric designs. But the Petershams’ picture book world grounded my early notions of the exotic.

Years later after Mr. Cotsen hired me, I became reacquainted with the Petershams in the most delightful way.  Among the first treasures I saw in the cache at Neutrogena was the archive for their The Ark of Father Noah and Mother Noah (1930), which was my first look up close at a picture book from the rough pencil sketches to the finished artwork.  Eventually fortune  (or truthfully Helen Younger of Aleph-Bet Books) threw a second, even more splendid Petersham maquette Cotsen’s: Get-a-Way and Hary Janos (1933).  The title characters are a worn-out stuffed horse and his friend, a wooden soldier doll “faded and one armed…but still proud and boastful” as befits a Hungarian hussar down on his luck. The inspiration for the soldier is the comic epic poem Az obsitos by Garay Janos.  The Petershams’ picture book is not a string of tall tales the old veteran spins about his service in the Austrian army; its dream-like narrative set in “a far-off land where old toys become new and gay” owes a little something to the more famous Velveteen Rabbit.

Pairing the art in the maquette with the illustration in the published book is a delightful exercise in observing the artists at work.   Here are our heroes, making their weary way to the entrance to the promised land for toys who have outlived their owners’ love somewhat worse for the wear.  If you look closely at the drawing, you can see that the pencil design for the decorative capital S is supposed to fit in the box to the left of “eady boy!”  Notice how much more saturated the blues are in the illustration–tribute to the skill of the William Edwin Rudge firm that printed it.

The art and the printed version for this image shows how the Petershams fleshed out their idea for the gate to the promised land.  The architectural elements seem to be fully formed at this stage, but many of the little figures filling out the composition have yet to be worked out.

Here are Get-a-Way and Hary Janos telling their sad stories to the sympathetic governor.   The drawing is shown here with the printed version tweaked for the cover design.  At the bottom of the drawing, you can make out the note “same as the cover except blue.”  That’s not strictly true because the sun in the upper left hand corner had to go to make room for the hand lettered title.  And expression on Hary’s face is less perplexed.

Fundamental changes were made in certain pictures.  Here is the drawing of Hary Janos, chest puffed out, stepping out with a lady on either arm.  The adoring matryoshka doll in the drawing was changed out for a rather sly-looking woman wearing a pink apron with a zigzagged border over purple dress.  Notice how much the posture of Get-a-way in the upper left hand corner has been altered.  And he’s crying as well. 

A number of full-color illustrations, like this one of Hary Janos taking the lovely brunette in yellow for a spin, had to be sacrificed on the altar of the budget.  “Now only black & white” reads the note at the bottom.   The silhouette of the car became more streamlined in the printed version as well.

And last but not least, here is a series of drawings showing how the initial idea changed as the Petershams worked through the preliminary pencil sketch to a full-color drawing to the final version in the book.  It’s Hary Janos telling tales again…  I love the way the  clothes,  the postures, and expressions of the three figures change.

This post is lovingly dedicated to the memory of Helen B Younger, co-proprietor with her husband Marc, of Aleph-Bet Books.  Thanks to Helen, this glorious maquette and many, many other wonderful things are part of the collection of the Cotsen Children’s Library.   She succumbed last week to FSH, which she valiantly battled all her life and yet refused to let define or slow her down.  One of  her generation’s great dealers in children’s books, Aleph-Bet always had one of the grand double booths at the entrance to the New York Antiquarian Bookfair.  It will be sad indeed to pass through the doors into the bustle and not stop to see Helen and Marc first…