Songs for the Nursery (1805), one of the first four English nursery rhyme anthologies, was something of a classic by 1817. The anonymous author of the Juvenile Review was rather displeased that such a “foolish” book should be so popular when it filled children’s minds with false ideas like dishes running away with spoons and old women flying as high as the moon. Tabart the publisher paid no attention to her and when he closed the business in 1820, the Darton firm in Holborn Hill, then its successors Darton & Clark kept Songs in print until the mid-1860s.
Who was responsible for it? A comment in Charles Lamb’s letter to Dorothy Wordsworth of June 2 1804 offers evidence that Songs was compiled by Eliza Fenwick, a aspiring novelist in the 1790s, who was struggling to support her family in the 1880s by writing children’s books and taking on literary piece work. Fenwick’s biographer Lissa Paul believes that she solicited examples from her literary friends and Dorothy Wordsworth obliged by sending “Arthur O’Brower” and some other “scraps.” It’s also very likely that the work’s subtitle “Collected from the Works of the most Renowned Poets” was a tongue-in-cheek elevation of the old nurses who sang them, a joke that the editors of the Songs’ predecessors Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-book (1744) and Mother Goose’s Melodies (1772) had indulged in.
The abandonment of a mock-serious attitude towards nursery rhymes may have been one reason for the anthology’s success. Another reason may have been the care Tabart took with the illustrations, which indicates that the traditional verse of the nursery was being taken more seriously than ever before. He gave the customer the option of purchasing the 64-page pamphlet with no pictures for a shilling or with twenty-four full-page engraved illustrations for two. Songs was quite sumptuous pamphlet compared to Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-book (ca 1744) with Bickham junior’s teeny engravings printed in red and black or Mother Goose’s Melody (London: T. Carnan, 1772) decorated with the young Thomas Bewick’s small wood- engraved headpieces.
The illustrator of Songs was not identified on the title page, as was usually the case during this period. Marjorie Moon, the collector/bibliographer of Tabart’s children’s books, did not venture a guess as to the creator of the excellent designs. It turns out to have been a well-known, versatile, well-connected artist, William Marshall Craig (d.1827). The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that Craig was considered one of the most distinguished designers of woodblocks from 1800 until his death. “Charming but not individual” was the verdict of Houfe’s Dictionary of 19th Century Illustrators of Craig as an illustrator.” No other reference sources mention that Craig produced children’s book illustrations, perhaps because it seemed an unlikely way for the drawing master for Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince of Wales, miniature painter to the Duke and Duchess of York, and painter in watercolors to Queen Charlotte to supplement his income.
Nevertheless, that is exactly what Craig did for a time. Some of his work 1800-1806 features a highly recognizable type of child. This detail from Craig’s frontispiece design (signed in the lower left) from The Juvenile Preceptor (Ludlow: George Nicholson, 1800) has the earliest example I have found. The boy in the fashionable skeleton suit reading to his mother is sturdy and chubby lad with a round face and a cap of wavy hair.
This drawing book by Craig, which I had the pleasure of seeing in the fabulous collection of Rosie and David Temperley is filled with pictures of boys who bear a family resemblance to the one in The Juvenile Preceptor. .
We know that Tabart employed Craig because Marjorie Moon discovered advertisements for Tabart’s six-penny series, “Tales for the Nursery,” that credited the artist with the designs for the illustrations. Some of the plates in the early editions as well as the ones recycled in Tabart’s Collection of Popular Stories for the Nursery, were signed with Craig’s name as the “inventor.” In the detail of the frontispiece for the Dick Whittington to the right, the hero holding the stripy tomcat may be wearing a cloak and tights instead of a skeleton suit, but he has the tell-tale bowl hair cut.
Some years ago Mr. Cotsen acquired an original pen and ink drawing for the plate of “Little Boy Blue” in Songs. The dealer attributed by the dealer to William Marshall Craig, I was never sure if it were wishful thinking because there wasn’t a citation to a reference book or scholarly monograph on Craig. After lining up all these other little boys in other works whose attributions to Craig are secure, there can’t be much doubt that he did Songs for the Nursery as well. The plate for Little Jack Horner follows, for those who aren’t entirely convinced.. On the strength of this evidence, I feel pretty confident that a handful of other Tabart classics also were illustrated by Craig: Fenwick’s Life of Carlo (1804); Mince Pies for Christmas (1805); The Book of Games (1805), and M. Pelham’s Jingles; or Original Rhymes for Children (1806), which is pictured below. In a review of The Book of Games, Mrs. Trimmer, herself the daughter of an engraver, noted that while the quality of the engraving was not always good, it did not obscure the excellence of the designs. Last but not least, an extra dollop of frosting on the cake. While working on this post, I discovered that my colleague Julie Mellby, the curator of Graphic Arts, has a second drawing from Songs pasted into an album of Marshall Craig drawings she described in a 2010 post. It’s the fifth illustration she reproduced and it is for “Cushy cow bonny.” Could one or two more of the drawings for Songs be among the unidentfied Craig drawings in the Victoria & Albert archive?