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’Brower” 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.
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.
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. .
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?