“All the Fun of the Fair as if You were There:” A Writing Sheet from the Collection of Ricky Jay

Fairs and their attractions have always been a destination for entertainers, gawkers, pickpockets, prostitutes, children, vendors of food, drink, and cheap trinkets.  The carnivalesque atmosphere has been celebrated and reprobated, often in the same breath.  Artists with a taste for satire, like William Hogarth, captured the press of people on the grounds in one of his most famous prints, “Southwark Fair.”

Eighteenth and early nineteenth-century children’s books and prints also depict young people visiting fairs, although the representations are somewhat tame in comparison with Hogarth’s seething engraving.    Cotsen has just acquired a very rare writing sheet, “The Humours of the Fair”  (London: W. & T. Darton, 1807), illustrated with an engraved headpiece and seven vignettes capturing the sights, sounds, and smells of the grounds.

While there are no agricultural displays or tractor pulls so characteristic of  American state and county fairs, some things have hardly changed from the 1800s. Competitive eating contests, it seems, were not invented in the late nineteenth century.   Here a yokel and a gentleman are seeing who can finish first his steaming basin of whitepot straight from the oven. They are allowed the use of spoons, although they could not have prevented serious burns on the lips and the insides of the cheeks.  Whitepot, originally a specialty of Devonshire, is a bread-and-butter pudding loaded with cream and topped with a sugar crust.

Then there were the shows.  On view were amazing displays of strength and dexterity, such as this rope walker balancing on his chin a pipe, upon which is resting another pipe with an clutch of pipes arranged like a bouquet of flowers in its bowl.   The wire looks to be only a few inches above the floor.  Children were always warned away from the tables where games of chance were being operated, which might explain why they are frequently shown gathered there watching or trying their luck. The conjurer looks just like the rope walker, so he seems to have more than one string to his bow as an showman–unless the engraver was working against a deadline and saving time.  Perhaps he gathered a crowd with the balancing act and then moved on to sleigh-of-hand tricks, drawing in the marks with the assistance of a clown, who pretends that his eyes are just as quick than the magician’s wand.  No trip to a fair would be complete without the purchase of souvenirs then called fairings—cheap toys, ribbons, sweets.  The children troop up to their mother to show her their treasures, probably to be broken, discarded, or forgotten the next day.

This writing sheet, which was known only from a minimal description in a British dealer’s catalog from the 1970s, is a perfect addition to Cotsen’s superb collection of these illustrated prints.  Nicholas Wallin, a student at the Bettesworth School (location in England unknown) filled the center, with sentiments about the meaning of Christmas in his best handwriting, probably for presentation to his parents when he came home for the holidays.

This writing sheet, which was known only from a minimal description in a British dealer’s catalog from the 1970s, is a wonderful addition to Cotsen’s large collection of these illustrated prints.  It was purchased at the third of a series of auctions dispersing the magnificent collection of magic, the allied arts, and their ephemera by the late, great,  light-fingered laureate of legerdemain Ricky Jay (1946-2018).Ricky was unusual for being honored in three worlds which rarely collide—conjuring, collecting, and curating.    A sorcerer of sleight of hand, he could confound people standing a foot away with cup and balls as easily as crowd  watching him on stage propel playing cards into “thick, pachydematous outer melon layer” of the “most prodigious of household fruits” at the distance of ten paces. He also did mean turns as conmen on the silver screen and as the sole star of several stage shows.    His delight in the search for materials documenting the peculiar history of his confraternity, which comprised cheats, hustlers, hoaxsters, pranksters, jokesters, impostors, pretenders, sideshow showmen, never flagged, any more than his glee in sharing them with the uninitiated in a series of books and exhibition catalog, among them Cards as  Weapons, Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, Many Mysteries Unraveled, The Magic Magic Book, Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, Dice: Deception, Fate, and Rotten Luck, and mesmerizing learned lectures at museums and rare book libraries, sometimes accompanied by demonstrations.  His lecture on Dr. Graham’s Celestial Bed, an aide to conception which famous aristocratic ladies like Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, resorted to in desperation, brought down the house at the Grolier Club.   As generous as Ricky was with his collection and knowledge, he never revealed the secrets of the techniques that astounded onlookers with the pleasure of being hoodwinked.There were three words that could never be uttered in  his presence: “children’s birthday parties.”   In spite of his well-known aversion to the infant race, he would, I think, be pleased that this engraving illustrating raffish popular entertainments has found its way to the Cotsen Children’s Library, where it will  be in the company of operators of peep shows, a Dutch blow book, magic lanterns, and Cajanus the Swedish Giant.

An Elegant French Family Enjoying the Outdoors on a Hand Fan Print

Cotsen 5363140

I came across the above item while rummaging through a box of unprocessed prints. I was immediately struck by the unusual semi-circle shape of the paper. Then, I was taken in by the details of the image and what they could tell us about who this item was for and when it was created. Upon even closer inspection, I was delighted to observe that the image was printed with color, using a rare and time consuming technique.

The dealer who sold it to us believed (and I think correctly) that the unusual shape indicates that the print was intended for use as a hand fan. The outside curve of the print does seem to suggest this. But the shape of the print is missing some key features that we usually see in a fan leaf: namely a second, lower curve cut out of the bottom center (for mounting to a collapsible handle) as well as acute angles at the bottom edges. See for example this contemporaneous unmounted fan from the British Museum:

Fanology or Speaking Fan (London: William Cock, 1797). The British Museum, Museum number
1891,0713.508, Asset number 361519001.

The position of the image on the sheet may explain why our fan shape is inconsistent with other fan sheets. If a semi-circle was cut out of the bottom, it would have cut out a piece of the image! The image was printed, perhaps by mistake, too low on the sheet. This might explain why our fan leaf did not receive additional cuts to form a fan shape and why it was never ultimately mounted as a fan.

Though this print may have made a bad fan, it’s still a fascinating image which seems to illustrate a typical upper-middle class (haute bourgeoisie) family in post-revolutionary France.

The period dress suggests a date range around 1800 to 1830. The man wears breeches and a tailcoat, while his son wears a similar jacket but with ankle-length trousers suggesting a date around the turn of the nineteenth century when long pants began to supplant the popularity of breeches. The seated woman wears an “empire gown” with a high bodice just below the bust, so called by later English commentators because this style of dress became popular in France during the First French Empire (1804-1814). This style of dress began to become unfashionable in middle class and high society in the 1830s, when, In England at least, it was supplanted by hour glass Victorian dresses. Since this style of dress was popular throughout Europe, we’ll have to rely on another detail which suggests the country of origin.

This small book, which the mother is handing to her son, is inscribed “Télémaque”. This is a truncation of Les Aventures de Télémaque (The Adventures of Telemachus) first published in 1699 by François Fénelon. It was written earlier as a didactic novel meant to instruct Louis, Duke of Burgundy (grandson of Louis XIV and second in line to the French throne) who Fenelon was tutoring. The novel follows Telemachus (son of Odysseus in Homer’s poems) as he journeys around Greece and receives moral tutelage from the goddess Minerva (disguised as his tutor, Mentor). As a thinly veiled rebuke of autocratic rule and by extoling peace and equality, the novel proved hugely popular into the the turn of the nineteenth century, especially in revolutionary France.

Other details of the print include recreations for well-off children typical of the period. The daughter clutches a dolly. A drum and a diabolo (a juggling toy) sit in the foreground on the right. A large Punch doll hangs from the tree in the background on the right. The implication here is that the family depicted is wealthy enough to afford leisure, having both the time and money to enjoy it, even for the children.

A harlequin doll resembling the character Punch, famous in British Punch and Judy puppet plays. In the early nineteenth century Punch and Judy plays were also extremely popular in Paris.

All of these details taken together suggest that our print was intended for an upper-middle class French woman around the turn of the nineteenth century. After all, hand fans at this time would have typically been used only by adult women in this class. If we examine the material production of the print itself, we discover further evidence of its high cost of production; suggesting that it would have been a costly item and a signal of wealth.

From the detail above (and the other images already shared) you can see that this print is special for its use of color printing. Intaglio prints of this period were usually printed in black ink only, and when colored, they would have been colored by hand with stencils. Hand-coloring is featured in this print, you can see it in places of continuous tone with flat color such as the shoes in the detail above. But from the detail, you can also see that that color printing has been used extensively. At this time (and continuing today), color printing was applied to intaglio prints using a technique later called à la poupée. Meaning “with the doll” in French, the “doll” refers to a wad of cloth shaped like a ball used to apply color to different areas for printing. This was a time consuming process requiring additional labor costs and material costs for more expensive color inks.

A la poupée inking by Bridget Farmer for her print “Pleasant Pheasant”. https://bridgetfarmerprintmaker.com/

Further, the print makes use of no less than three different intaglio printing techniques: etching, stipple engraving, and line engraving. Etching, the predominant technique, can be seen in the ample curving and wavy lines. Stipple engraving is the technique which applied all the tiny dots to the print, detailing the blue of the sky and other subtle details. Line engraving can be made out as well, characterized by straight lines with pointed termini, used to touch up and improve on the shadows and tonal qualities of the etching (a typical embellishment to etchings). Each of these techniques requires different tools and skills, indicating that a talented printmaker (their initials “D. Mo N.” are inscribed at the bottom of the print) applied considerable time, skill, and cost to create this wonderful print.

Clearly then, this print is a wonderful example of rare and skillful printmaking; but not without its technical mistakes! Our particular print was perhaps destined to never become a fan due to poor placement on the sheet. That it went unmounted, however, may have been serendipitous since lack of use probably preserved this piece of ephemera and spared it being discarded after wear and tear. Cleverly printed and luckily preserved, this print is a rare glimpse into upper-middle class French life at the turn of the nineteenth century.