Curator’s Choice: The Cover Designs of Jemmy Catnach

The disreputable printer Jemmy Pitts was highlighted in the post for Twelfth Night 2013, but he was not the only no-good early nineteenth-century job printer in the seedy Seven Dials district near Covent Garden in London’s West End.  Seven Dials marked the convergence of Little and Great White Lyon streets (now Mercer), Little and Great Earl (now Earlham), Little and Great St. Andrews (now Monmouth), and Queen (now Shorts Garden).

Seven Dials was also home to Jemmy Catnach (1791-1841), who was vilified for catering to the reading public’s insatiable appetite for rude ballads, accounts of violent crimes, sensational divorce cases, and the like.  He was the subject of the chapter “Catnachery, Chapbooks & Children’s Books” in Percy Muir’s Victorian Illustrated Books (1971).  Muir, who knew how to turn a phrase, damned Catnach for having printed his stuff with “mean and old typefaces” and adorning them with blocks “worn to a degree of indecipherability that hid their almost complete irrelevance to the text they were supposed to illustrate.”

In Cotsen there’s a stout volume consisting of thirty-odd  pamphlets, many issued by Catnach, which make a liar out of  Muir.   Bound in are several titles in the so-called Catnach “series” of Large Books.   Here is a typical list, from the rear cover for Little Tom Tucker, [ca. 1835?].

pamphlet advertisement

The advertisement doesn’t given any clues as to what the pamphlets looked like.  If Muir is to be believed, it whould be taken for granted that a jobbing printer like Catnach will always produce a shabby product with tell-tale signs of recycling other printers’ cast-off type and blocks.

Given Catnach’s high marks for slipshod design, these delightfully exuberant covers on the nursery favorites in the Large Books come as a shock.   And not a broken font in sight.

nursery favorites

The style of the typefaces and wood-engravedblocks suggest the Large Books must have been issued relatively late in Catnach’s long career.

A Visit to the Zoological Gardens

Dame Trot and Her Comical Cat

But once a rogue, always a rogue, even one vying for respectability.   The rear cover of another Large Book in the Cotsen volume is illustrated with a block John Bewick made for the frontispiece of  Richard Johnson’s False Alarms (London: E. Newbery, ca. 1787).   And where did old Jemmy come by the block?  Was it purchased from John Harris, Elizabeth Newbery’s successor, or his son, John junior?