Curator’s Choice: Songs for the Nursery Illustrated by William Marshall Craig

The third plate illustrating one of the less familiar rhymes in Songs for the Nursery (1808).

Peter and Iona Opie considered the Songs for the Nursery (London: Benjamin Tabart, 1805) the fourth of the foundational nursery rhyme anthologies published between 1744 and 1805.  By 1817, Songs was something of a classic.  The anonymous compiler of the Juvenile Review was quite disappointed that such a “foolish” book  should be so popular  when the combined power of rhyme and rhythm had been subverted to fill “the infant mind with false ideas” and encouraged credulity when obviously dishes could not run away with spoons or old women fly as high as the moon.  Her disapproval did not move the publisher to drop it however.  After Tabart closed down in 1820, Songs was kept in print by the Darton firm in Holborn Hill, then its successors Darton & Clark until the mid-1860s.  Its longevity surely recommended it as a source to James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps when he was working on Nursery Rhymes of England (1839), the first scholarly study of the traditional oral verse of childhood.

A comment in Charles Lamb’s June 2 1804 letter to Dorothy Wordsworth offers evidence that Songs was compiled by Eliza Fenwick, a aspiring novelist in the 1790s, who by the 1800s was struggling to support her family by writing children’s books and taking on  literary piece work.  Lissa Paul has suggested that Fenwick solicited examples from her literary friends and Dorothy Wordsworth obliged by sending “Arthur O’Browe” and some other “scraps.”  (There are  a handful of rhymes in Songs that did not make it into the Opies’ Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes,  but that’s a question for another time.)  It’s also very likely that the work’s subtitle “Collected from the Works of the most Renowned Poets” was a specious 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.

Bewick’s cut for “Bah, bah, black sheep.”

Abandoning a mock-serious attitude towards the verses, which denigrated rather than validating them, may have been one reason for the Songs’ success.   The care Tabart took with the illustrations was another indication that the verse 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. It was quite sumptuous pamphlet compared to Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-book (London: George Bickham, junior, 1744) with Bickham junior’s teeny engravings printed in red and black or Mother Goose’s Melody (London: T. Carnan, 1772) adorned with the young Thomas Bewick’s small wood- engraved headpieces.

As was usual during this period, the illustrator was not identified on the title page.   Marjorie Moon, the collector/bibliographer of Tabart, did not venture to guess who might have created the charming designs.   It turns out to have been a well-known, versatile, and 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.  Of his style as a book illustrator, Houfe’s Dictionary of 19th Century Illustrators judged it “charming but not individual.”  Luckily, this was not always the case, as we will see.  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.

Detail from the engraved frontispiece of The Juvenile Preceptor (1800). Cotsen 5011,

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 an 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.   .

From Craig’s Complete Instructor in Drawing Figures. Collection of Rosie and David Temperley, Edinburgh.

With thanks to the Hockcliffe Collection for this image.

We know that Tabart employed Craig because Marjorie Moon discovered  advertisements for Tabart’s sixpenny 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?

 

An Enslaved Woman Learns to Read in Eliza Fenwick’s A Visit to the Juvenile Library (1805)

Frontispiece to Eliza Fenwick’s Visits to the Juvenile Library (1805). Cotsen 14522.

Visits to the Juvenile Library; or, Knowledge Proved to be the Source of Happiness (1805) is a scarce, desirable book by a stylish and important publisher of the Napoleonic era.  Benjamin Tabart was a rival of John Harris, who enjoyed the advantage of being successor to the great Newbery firm. While Tabart had the backing of the unscrupulous Sir Richard Phillips, he still had an uphill battle establishing his bookstore as a destination for families.

Visits  was less a novel than an extended exercise in product placement for his new business on New Bond Street.  It was written by Eliza Fenwick (1766-1840), the friend who nursed radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) when she lay dying.  An on-again-off-again marriage to a charming deadbeat with a bottle problem, had forced Fenwick to put on hold her ambitions as a novelist, being obliged to take what paid work the book trade there might be to support her little family.  During 1804 and 1805, she produced Visits and several other children’s books which cross-promoted Tabart’s backlist and premises.  The street-level view of the shop in the frontispiece  advertises that  he stocked books for lessons and leisure reading in English and French appropriately priced for private individuals or wholesalers.  As an additional inducement to stop by, a little boy is shown dragging his mother by the hand towards Tabart’s door, while a somewhat older boy peers in the window crowded with books. Wiling away part of the day in Mr.Tabart’s comfortably furnished shop, filled with books arranged by subject, looks like a pleasant expedition.  Through the double door, a cheery blaze in the fireplace in the back room can be seen.  There is a little animal lying underneath the chair on the left, but it is hard to tell if it is the shop cat or the customers’ dog.  Fenwick presents this shop as a temple of learning which will become the site of several conversions to literacy.

The five orphaned Mortimer children are sent away from their home in the West Indies after their parents’ death to live with the kind, intelligent guardian, Mrs. Clifford.  These circumstances  in children’s novels of this period always initiate a narrative arc of personal improvement. Child characters like Thomas Day’s Tommy Merton, who spent any amount of time on Caribbean plantations, are presumed to have received little or no education and can be expected to act out, as they have never had to control themselves.   The Mortimers are no exception.  Idle and quarrelsome among themselves, the children are sullen, haughty, or rude to Mrs. Clifford, who is concerned by their listlessness and lack of curiosity.

Of course the Mortimers have no idea of how to pass their time beyond  tracing the roses in the drawing room carpet.  “I always grow low spirited when I am obliged to read,” declares Richard.  Says the youngest ,Caroline, “I had rather have another wax doll, for I am quite tired of mine already.”  Louisa asks, “Now, Mrs. Clifford, are you going to be cross Mrs. Clifford?  Nora said you would make us read, and write, and work until we should all be quite wretched.”

Nora is the woman of color who has been the Mortimers’ slave.  She has come with them to England with some trepidation.  Her affection for the children is genuine, but  she has encouraged them to believe that “there was no occasion for rich people to be learned.”   Being illiterate herself, she supposes that “Reading and writing were only to be acquired by excessive suffering.”   During the sea voyage, she kept repeating to the children that England would be a “dull disagreeable” place to live, where there will be no slaves to wait upon them,” only tutors to flog them.  Nora’s worst fears are confirmed when she goes into the library by mistake and sees Mrs. Clifford seated at a table covered with books, writing a letter.

Thanks to Mr. Tabart, Mrs. Clifford is not obliged to remove the Mortimers from Nora’s influence and send them away to school.  Her friend Mr. Benson tells the children all about the Juvenile Library and suggests that some of the many books there might interest them.  While  too proud to admit to the adults  that they would like to go to New Bond Street, some of the children the Mortimers meet convince them that it could be quite pleasant to stick their noses in books  full of interesting stories and pictures. Their new acquaintances Edward Soames and Frank Howard describe their favorite Tabart titles and are even generous enough to loan them out.  The  Mortimers  spend the first evening of their lives busy and happy.  Nora notices the change in her charges and wonders if her dislike of Mrs. Clifford is misplaced.

It is not until chapter five that the children finally go to Tabart’s.  Once inside the shop,  they can hardly decide what to chose–books, jigsaw puzzles, prints, or globes   Mrs. Clifford expertly helps each Mortimer to  select a small group of titles that will hold his or her attention and lay the foundation for further study.  They take home works of natural history, biography, French grammars, spellers, easy readers,and poetry anthologies.  Mr. Tabart himself waits on the party until  called away on other business. Soon after this expedition, Arthur happily describes how he has changed since discovering  the pleasures of reading: “I find myself quite a different boy to what I was when I used to life half the day upon the sopha, or was always quarreling with my brothers and sisters, for want of something better to do.”  This change is not  lost upon Nora.One evening Arthur and his brother Henry go up to their room and surprise Nora sounding out words in William Mavor’s English Spelling Book.  Obviously embarrassed, Nora explains that “Well me tell all–you, Massa Henry, was cross boy, sometimes cruel boy to poor Nora–you, Massa Arthur, use to call Nora here, send Nora there; never satisfied if Nora sat down a moment, and you sit still and scold all day.  Since you come to England, you get books, you read books, you talk together, play together, read again, play again, be happy, be merry, fetch your own play-things, put the away no call poor old Nora down stairs, up stairs, now pick up a ball, now to tie your shoes, no scold and quarrel with Nora when you go to bed; all kind and good to Nora now.  Nora think you have learn it all out of books, so Nora learn books too.”  Her outburst shames the boys into apologizing for having been “sad tyrants” to her.  Not only do they promise to continue to give her “any such cause to complain of them,” but Henry volunteers to teach her to read and Arthur to write, so that she can write letters to her sister in the West Indies.

What are we in the twenty-first century to make of this early nineteenth-century story about how the West Indian-born Mortimers and their slave Nora embrace education as the high road to happiness? The use of dialect is cringe-worthy.  Lissa Paul, author of a new biography about its author Eliza Fenwick, observes how  how unusual it was for an enslaved person to be presented in such a positive light in children’s stories then.  And Nora is represented in the plate as an attractively dressed woman–indeed her pose while seated at the table is perhaps inappropriately sexualized  Nor is Nora’s conversion is  unambiguously positive, if scrutinized a little more carefully.

She seems not to have accompanied the children to Tabart’s, which probably would have been the case, given her low rank within the hierarchy of servants as the nursery maid.  Certainly Nora displayed the curiosity, initiative, and determination to go through all the books from Tabart’s lying around the children’s rooms in order to find the one she needed to teach herself to read.  But she hasn’t gotten any farther than sounding out words of one syllable when the boys interrupt her.  And her “simplicity” is what is emphasized.  Does “simplicity” in this context refer to her direct manner of speaking, or to her intelligence (think of Edgeworth’s “Simple Susan”)?  Does it imply that Nora would not have been able to make much progress towards full literacy if Henry and Arthur hadn’t offered to be her tutors?  Surely it would have been quite difficult for her to have learned how to write without a teacher.  Nora decided to improve herself because of the improvement she noticed in her charges, but readers don’t get the chance to see how far she progressed.  Fenwick moves on to the education of the two Mortimer girls and readers hear nothing more about Nora.  It would have been a triumph if she had been shown giving Mrs. Clifford a letter to her sister to be franked, but that is probably an unrealistic expectation on our part…