Little Dragons Go Back to School

Edward Burne-Jones, “Seminary for More Advanced Dragon Babies” (detail). From Margaret: Aug:mdccclxxxv. [manuscript]. London: 1891-1892. (Manuscripts 91749).

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” John Dewey

Long before Hiccup befriended and subdued the dragon, Toothless, in Cressida Cowell’s book How to Train Your Dragon (2003), the nineteenth-century English artist, Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), imagined a world where baby dragons went to school to learn everything dragons need to know to become fearsome creatures.

Burne-Jones was a Pre-Raphaelite artist known for his illustrations for William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, and decorative designs and paintings depicting Medieval subject matter. After the 1860s, his work and artistic ideology was associated with the Aesthetic Movement. Art, according to Aestheticists like Burne-Jones, should not be used for didactic or moralizing purposes; rather, it should be considered an object of beauty whose sole purpose was to elicit a sensual and emotional response from the viewer (Landow).

Burne-Jones filled personal correspondence to family and friends with sketches and caricatures. He was especially fond of writing to the children of the household and entertained them with delightful and humorous pictures (MacCarthy, 328). His desire to connect with children and entertain them through art-making can be further seen in a sketchbook in the Cotsen’s collection, Margaret: AUG:MDCCCLXXXV (Manuscripts 91749).

Inscription from Edward Burne-Jones, Margaret: Aug:mdccclxxxv. [manuscript]. London: 1891-1892. (Manuscripts 91749).

A handwritten inscription states that Burne-Jones gave his daughter, Margaret, a plain sketchbook before she married and moved to 27 Young Street. It goes on to state that the book was given to his granddaughter, Angela, when she was eighteen months old and that, “E. B-J began making drawings in it for her when he came to see her” (Burne-Jones).

Edward Burne-Jones, “Seminary for More Advanced Dragon Babies.” From Margaret: Aug:mdccclxxxv. [manuscript]. London: 1891-1892. (Manuscripts 91749).

The sketchbook contains a number of drawings, ranging in subject matter and level of finish. Some depict landscapes, animals, and everyday life, while others, like the “Seminary for More Advanced Dragon Babies” depict mythological and fantastical creatures.

The “Seminary for More Advanced Dragon Babies” (December 5, 1892) is a finished drawing done in Burne-Jone’s linear style. It shows a group of nine, adorable, cat-like baby dragons in a courtyard. At the rear of the courtyard, sits a podium with an open book and ink well, above which hangs a sign that bears the title of the piece. To the left is a doorway leading into “Hisstry School” (history) and to the right is a doorway leading to “Jogruffy School” (geography).

The baby dragons are shown wrestling with each other, peeking out from the doorways, rolling on their backs, or, rubbing away tears. The creatures are not the typical, scaly dragons that we’re used to seeing. Instead, they each have spots and random tufts of hair down their backs and tiny tails. Their round little bellies and diminutive stature show that they are indeed juveniles who are presumably attending their first day of school, just like many of our own children.

To the students who are attending their first day of school, we wish you good luck! You may not learn how to fly or breathe fire, but you will be in good company as you learn about history and geography, and maybe even about dragons in mythology!

Burne Jones, Edward Coley. Margaret: Aug:mdccclxxxv. [manuscript]. London: 1891-1892. (Manuscripts 91749).

Landow, George P. “Aesthetes, Decadents, and the Idea of Art for Art’s Sake.” VictorianWeb, 5 December 2012.

MacCarthy, Fiona. The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Welcome to the Shire!

Howard Pyle, “The Young Knight of Lea Overcomes the Knight of Lancaster.” In The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, of Great Renown, in Nottinghamshire by Howard Pyle. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883, p. 157.

American illustrator Howard Pyle (1857-1911) was fascinated with Medieval and Renaissance history and costuming. He wrote and illustrated a number of original works set in Medieval Europe and England, and adapted classic ballads to narratives for young readers. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, of Great Renown, in Nottinghamshire is an example of the latter. Throughout this work, Pyle strove to maintain an historic aesthetic in both, visual depictions and the language used to weave the tale.

Howard Pyle, “The Mighty Fight betwixt Little John and the Cook.” In The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, of Great Renown, in Nottinghamshire by Howard Pyle. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883, p. 72.

His insistence on depicting historic dress as authentically as possible in his illustrations led him to collect period costumes, costume books, and historic manuscripts for reference (“Howard Pyle”). His models and students would pose in the costumes, especially when depicting intense action such as the fight scene between Little John and the Cook.

Howard Pyle, “Robin and the Tinker at the Blue Boar Inn.” In The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, of Great Renown, in Nottinghamshire by Howard Pyle. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883, p. 12.

Pyle’s illustrations and decorative designs for this tale are done in a linear style reminiscent of traditional woodblock prints. He uses lines of varying thickness to differentiate between objects and he indicates mass through the artistic techniques of cross-hatching and placing lines parallel to each other, as seen on the curved lines that circle Robin Hood’s leg in the illustration “Robin and the Tinker at the Blue Boar Inn.”

Howard Pyle, “Merry Robin Stops a Sorrowful Knight.” In The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, of Great Renown, in Nottinghamshire by Howard Pyle. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883, p. 156.

This Medieval and Renaissance aesthetic can also be seen in the hand-lettered titles for each of the full-page illustrations. The text is meant to mimic the impression of 16th century typeface, going so far as to include the medial S — the letter that looks like an F without its crossbar.

Most strikingly, Pyle endeavors to recreate the feel of Medieval or Renaissance England in the language he uses for the characters’ speech. “Thou,” “dost,” and “thee” among other expressions are liberally used throughout the book. For example, in the story “Robin Hood Aideth a Sorrowful Knight,” Robin says to Little John:

Here is a fair day, Little John, and one that we can ill waste in idleness. Choose such men as thou dost need, and go thou east while I will wend to the west, and see that each of us bringeth back some goodly guest to dine this day beneath the greenwood tree.

To which Little John replies, “Marry … thy bidding fitteth my liking like haft to blade. I’ll bring thee back a guest this day, or come not back mine own self.”

Pyle’s modern reconstruction of Old English attempts to give authenticity to his retelling of Robin Hood through yet another level of aesthetic historicism.

His artistic interpretation of “Merrie Old England” is akin to the modern day Renaissance Festival, where you will surely find a lady dressed as an Elizabethan duchess linking arms with a Knights Templar, Robin Hood chatting with Shakespeare, and a young maiden pulling her little fairy child in a Radio Flyer wagon decorated with a silk flower garland. Like the costuming and setting of your local Renaissance Festival, the visuals and language used by Pyle simultaneously feel authentic because of their dependence on historical references and are fantastic interpretations of Medieval and Renaissance history. Both are meant to transport the reader-participate into a realm where historical accuracy is not as important as the story, itself.

As you plan for your next trip to your local Shire, let Howard Pyle be your guide through a world where Robin Hood and Little John once again escape the Sheriff’s grasp under the watchful eye Queen Elizabeth. Welcome to the Shire, one and all!

“Howard Pyle,” Illustration History, Accessed 7/31/19.