Curator’s Choice: A Deluxe Children’s Bible from 1765

Everyone has heard of John Newbery, the first publisher of the modern children’s book and namesake of the American Library Association’s annual award for the most distinguished contribution to American children’s literature.  It is more or less taken for granted that he set the gold standard for children’s books of his own times because of his success in associating his name with quality.

There was someone who made more elegant and expensive books for young readers than John Newbery,  but his career is not discussed in the standard histories of English children’s books.  Only a few collectors know the name of engraver Edward Ryland, whose shop was at No. 67 in the Old Bailey and his beautiful books are highly desirable and expensive when they come on the market.  This post will highlight his first publication for young readers: An Abridgement of Scripture History Designed for the Amusement and Improvement of Children: wherein the most Striking Actions in the Old Testament are Made Plain to the Youngest Capabilities (1765).  Cotsen is lucky enough to have two copies: a rebound one with plain engravings and another one with hand-colored engravings bound with its companion volume on the New Testament in an edition binding of gold tooled red leather.

The front board of Cotsen 1907. The volume with both titles illustrated with a total of 124 engravings was available for 5 shillings. Newbery’s little Bible abridgment had sixty-four relief metal cuts, was half as tall and cost six pence.

Each of the Ryland Bible abridgments also boasted a handsome “book plate”  for a young owner to proudly inscribe her name, as Miss Elizabeth Bentham did.

Here is the title page spread, with an allegorical frontispiece designed by the well-known artist Samuel Wale and engraved by the equally famous Charles Grignion.  The description below the picture explains that Science, the lady in the cloak, is leading the young Bishop of Osnaburg to Wisdom seated on the dias.  The toddler bishop was the second son of George III, Prince Frederick, Duke of Albany and York.  The book’s dedicatee, he was twoish when it was published.  He was intended for a career in the military…

Wale and Grignion’s engravings measure 75 x 88 mm or 3 x 3.5 inches and there is one on every page.

Plate II “The History of the Fall.” This and the following image are more or less actual size. Cotsen 1907.

Plate VII “The burning of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Cotsen 1907.

For purposes of comparison, here are two additional plates from Cotsen’s other copy, whose engraved plates are not hand-colored.

Plate IV “The History of the Flood, or General Deluge.” Cotsen 357.

Plate V “The Confusion of Tongues” (aka the tower of Babel). Cotsen 357.

Put John Newbery’s History of the Holy Bible Abridged (1764) next to Ryland’s and the differences in production values are immediately obvious.  Newbery’s volume measures just 10 x 7 centimeters as opposed to the 18  of Ryland’s.  Newbery’s History has 61 soft metal relief cuts, but they are tiny.  At just 45 x 35 mm, the quality of the cutting is workmanlike.   Reproduced larger than actual size here, their shortcomings are cruelly exposed.

The Fall of Man from The History of the Holy Bible Abridged (London: John Newbery, 1764) Cotsen 34087).

The burning of Sodom and Gomorrah. Cotsen 34087.

Then as now, consumers got what they paid for.  But far more people in the 1760s could afford six pence for a Newbery Bible abridgment that would fit in a pocket.  The Newbery was cheap enough that some families could put down the money for a copy for each of their children (subscribers’ lists often reveal several children with the same last name at the same address).   Far fewer could invest in a children’s Bible designed to flatter a little prince.  And that may go a long way to explain why Edward Ryland’s children’s books survive in so few copies that almost no one knows how splendid they were…