Wood Blocks for the Illustrations of Newbery Children’s Books Acquired

Simon Lawrence, the proprietor of the Fleece Press in Upper Denby near Wakefield (above), is the descendant of Victorian block makers. For over forty years, Mr. Lawrence has been printing handsome limited edition books by and about wood engravers with wood engraved illustrations.  Mr. Lawrence is not only master printer of illustrations from antique wood blocks, but a discriminating collector of them as well. While searching E-Bay in 2010 he came across some very intriguing descriptions and contacted the consigner to see if there were more where they came from. It turned out that the then owner, a house clearance dealer, had discovered a cache of nearly 650 printing blocks in a house in Kingsbridge,  Devon, but didn’t know anything beyond that about the blocks’ provenance. His plan was to sell them piecemeal.  Rather than have the group dispersed and destroying its research potential, Lawrence decided to purchase the entire lot from the dealer.

What must have looked like a very risky proposition at the time has proven to be well worth it because the majority of the blocks were made to illustrate eighteenth-century children’s books.  And not just any children’s books, but those of John Newbery, the most important publisher for children of the 1700s, his step-son Thomas Carnan, a notable children’s book publisher in his own right, and Carnan’s successor Philip Norbury in Brentford near London.  There are also forty copper printing plates from the Norburys. The box below contains the block illustrating the first stanza of the accumulative nursery rhyme “This is the House that Jack Built, which can be easily picked out because the image has been dusted with chalk.  No earlier set of illustrations are known and they appeared in John Newbery’s Nurse Truelove’s New-Year’s-Gift (1750). The survival of so many wood blocks made for this particular publishing house is truly miraculous, and scholars will thank Simon Lawrence for recognizing their value.

The blocks and some forty copper plates has been acquired by the Cotsen Children’s Library, as a  very welcome addition to its superb collection of juveniles published by the three generations of Newberys.  The four blocks below illustrate four lots knocked down at Charly Chatter’s Lilliputian Auction (1773): Friar Bacon’s brazen head which could see into the future, a bottle, a book, and a mirror, each with magical properties.  Of course, the forthcoming descriptive catalogue of the Newbery collection will illustrate samples of the blocks. As soon as the collection has been unpacked and rehoused, the individual blocks will be scanned so that work can begin on an on-line searchable database so that the blocks and the images they bear will be widely available to researchers.


Magic Lantern Slides of  Avant-garde Soviet Children’s Books: Marshak, Lebedev, Chukovskii, Konashevich, and More…

A hand-colored slide of an illustration by Vladimir Konashevich for Kornei Chukovskii’s Tarankanische, a poem about a cockroach who wants to rule the world manufactured by Edward van Altena.

Thanks to a generous gift from Sibylle Fraser, Cotsen now has a delightfully mysterious group of magic lantern slides of illustrations from some of the most famous Soviet picture books of the 1920s.  No book is reproduced in its entirety, but there are samples from  Samuil Marshak ‘s Vladimir Lebedev’s Tsirk [Circus} and Bagazh [Baggage] illustrated by Vladimir Lebedev, Kornei Chukovskii’s Moidodyr [Wash ‘em Clean] illustrated by Yuri Annenkov, published by Raduga, and Chukovskii’s Tarankanishche [Cockroach] illustrated by Vladimir Konashevish, to mention just a few.

The title page by Yuri Annenkov for Chukovskii’s Moidodyr.

The glass slide for the first page of Lebedev’s first set of illustrations for Samuil Marshak’s Bagazh followed by the color-printed page from the book.

The glass lantern slides were produced by photographer Edward van Altena (1873-1968) at his studio on 71-79 West 45th Street in New York City, but there is no hint on the slides for whom he made them.   The photographs might have been taken as documentation of a private or institutional  collection of 1920s Soviet children’s books, but it seems much more likely they were used for lectures by someone.  The superb reproduction of the artwork would have been perfect for educational purposes, and slides were stored in the kind of case sold to lecturers.

Copy stand photography, on the other hand, is not the kind of work usually associated with van Altena, a minor celebrity in the history of photography.  Over the course of his long career, which began at age 15, were the song slides, or hand-colored magic lantern slides for sing-along entertainment between films in vaudeville theatres, a market he and his partner John Duer Scott dominated from 59 Pearl Street between 1904 and 1919.  Whether the subjects of Scott and van Altena song slides were sentimental or surreal, their production values were superb. The Princeton Graphic Arts Collections holds some wonderful examples.

After the dissolution of Scott and van Altena, the partners went their separate ways.  When van Altena moved into the premises at 71-79 45th Street and how long he did business there I was not able to discover.   The Soviet picture books he photographed were published during the 1920s, but they could have been shot in the 1930s or even into the 1940s, when glass slide technology was on its way out.  He seems to have had plenty of work, judging by the examples held in the archives of the Garden Society of America, Wintherthur, the Yale University Divinity Library, the Eastman Museum, Theodore Roosevelt papers, Brooklyn Historical Society (to mention a few), and for sale on the Internet.   The trail goes cold in the 1940s, after which he seems to have disappeared as a professional photographer.

Many thanks to Sibylle Fraser, for this most unusual and intriguing gift to the collection.  Perhaps it will inspire a researcher to try and learn more about who was preaching the gospel of the Soviet avant-garde’s great creators of picture books for children.

Sources consulted included Terry  Bolton, “Outstanding Colorists of American Magic Lantern Slides, Magic Lantern Gazette, 26:1 (Spring 2014), 3-23, Elizabeth Carlson, “Five Cent Fantasies: Photographic Experimentation in Illustrated Song Slides,” History of Photography, 41:2 (May 2017), 188-203, and Encyclopaedia of the Magic Lantern, co-edited by David Robinson, Stephen Herbert, and Richard Crangle (London: Magic Lantern Society, 2001).