Marks in Books 13: A Drawing of a Rose in Mrs. Sherwood’s The Re-captured Negro

It’s easier to find doodles, scribbles, and inscriptions in children’s books than polished drawings.  When I discover one, I always hope that it will provide some insight into the artist, who presumably owned the book and had some reason for decorating the page.

The other day I opened up a rather sorry-looking American book from the 1820s, which had on the back of the front free endpaper a handsome color drawing of a rose below a name in a hand that could be contemporary with the book.  The more I looked at the book, the more difficult it became to draw any conclusions about the drawing.

The name above the drawing is “William Crowell.” Lacking a date or a place, there’s no information in the book to help answer the question when his name was written in the book,  or to try and identify him,  his home or age.

Would a boy or young man be as likely to choose the subject of a flower than a girl or young woman?  Is it possible that the signature and drawing were made by a girl or woman presenting the book to him as a gift? Or does that line of thought simply demonstrate how easy it is to fall back on gender role stereotypes when there is no information to query.  While this makes it easy to construct a plausible little scenario, it shuts down thinking about alternative explanations.   William Crowell might have been an enthusiastic gardener or plant collector.

The frontispiece, showing Dazee being pursued by the slaver. The illustration is a copy of the frontispiece in the original British edition published by F. Houlston ca. 1818.

But why would anyone draw a rose in a 72-page pamphlet by Mrs. Sherwood, the famous British evangelical woman writer?  It seems irrelevant to the story of  Dazee, a West African boy taken by a slaver operating illegally after Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act in 1807.  An anti-slavery patrol of the Royal Navy liberates him before he can be sold and takes him to freedom in Sierra Leone.  A missionary takes an interest in the boy, a willing convert to Christianity who finds peace when eventually reunited with his mother, who also embraces his faith.

What if there is no connection between the signature and the drawing: they might have been done at separate times by different people.  The person who drew the rose may have had no interest in the story at all, but simply been looking for a blank piece of paper to fill.  Seeing a beautiful rose, he or she pulled the book out of a pocket and captured its appearance.

Whether or not we know how the rose came to be drawn in this tract, the bibliographic record will record the presence of the drawing, the signature, and the little vignette on the title page.  Some researcher may recognize the book as having belonging to a library that was dispersed sometime ago and be delighted to add this to the list of books it once contained.  Someone curating an exhibition may want to include it as a specimen of amateur botanizing.  What matters is that these traces left behind in The Re-captured Slave are discoverable.


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.

To look through the entire copybook, click here

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?