A New John Bewick Attribution: The Progress of a Good and a Bad Boy.

A few weeks ago I was cataloging a new addition to the Newbery collection,The History of Jacky Idle and Dicky Diligent, a  generous gift of The Friends of the Princeton University Library in 2018.   I felt sure I had seen this image of two boys enjoying the shade of a great oak, one lost in a book, the other fast asleep, with his book dropped on the ground.  Only a Bewick could have drawn and wood engraved that tree, so I checked Nigel Tattersfield’s bibliography of John Bewick, the gifted younger brother of the more famous Thomas.  Bingo, there was the frontispiece and three other illustrations from Jacky Idle and Dicky Diligent  in the appendix of unattributed illustrations.

During a brief career cut short at age thirty-five by tuberculosis, John provided sets of illustrated blocks for sixteen Newbery children’s books, including this one just attributed to him.    A dozen of those accompanied texts that were written, edited, or abridged by Richard Johnson, a professional writer who helped uphold the reputation of the Newbery firm as one of the leading firms of children’s book publishers.   He is one of the few writers in the Newbery stable who sometimes signed his children’s books with his initials “R. J.” and Jacky Idle includes as a portrait of him hard at work at his desk by John Bewick.   Johnson was paid two pounds two shillings for composing this thirty-two page pamphlet, which doesn’t sound like much until its purchasing power is converted into its equivalence in modern currency:  285 pounds. In Jacky Idle and Dicky Diligent, Johnson spun out another variant on the favorite eighteenth century tale of two children with opposite characters, one who thrives, the other who dies, derived from William Hogarth’s immensely popular progresses of a harlot, a rake, and two apprentices.  A wealthy retired merchant marries his housemaid, who is very proud of having married above her station.  Bewick shows her before and after her social elevation by dividing the circular image in two.  I don’t recall seeing him do this anywhere else. The Idles have one son, Jacky, who is bright, but lazy. Instead of forcing him to apply himself to anything he has no inclination for, his mother encourages him to do nothing with her constant reminders that he will inherit a sizeable fortune and never have to work.  His father decides that Jacky had better to go school anyway, where he makes friends with Dicky Diligent.  Dicky is not as clever as Jacky, but he makes the most of what he has by working hard and tries to be a good influence on his friend..

Of course the story goes downhill after the boys finish their education.  Jacky goes to work  as a clerk a merchant, is made a partner in the firm, and eventually takes over the business.

Jacky comes into his fortune after his father dies and he squanders it in short order.  Here he is being fleeced by card sharks.  Almost every one played cards for money in the eighteenth century, but it is quite unusual to find any illustrations of a scene like this in a children’s book.  Notice that the man standing up behind Jacky on the left is signaling to his accomplices across the table which cards Jacky has in his hand.

Homeless and penniless, Jacky retreats to St. James Park, where he is discovered brooding on a bench by his old friend.  As soon Dicky.learns that he is not only destitute but friendless, having been cast off by the mother who spoiled him rotten, he takes him in as a permanent guest.  Jacky realizes that he has wasted his life and cannot  in good conscience sponge on his friend forever.  He writes a letter addressed to Dicky advising others not to do what he has done and has the decency to expire thereafter.  Although rather formulaic, Johnson has supplied many interesting details about the characters’ boyhood I haven’t described here.

It’s not every day you discover new work by a major English children’s book illustrator!

A London Birthday Party in Stephen Jones’ The Oracles (1792)

One of the few eighteenth-century coaches to survive in original condition was this one, which belonged to the Beekman family coach around 1770.

Celebrating a child’s birthday at a social gathering was a late eighteenth-century trend that was rather controversial because it undercut the traditional Christian practice of reflecting on one’s life and choosing goals for the coming year.  Children’s books are an underutilized source for documenting the shift in attitudes towards birthdays and The Oracles, Containing some Particulars of the History of Billy and Kitty Wilson (London: E. Newbery, ca 1792) is a good example of showing a way to strike a balance between religious observance and fashionable entertainments.  It’s not a book that has received much scholarly attention, even though it was illustrated by John Bewick.  The author was probably Stephen Jones (1763-1827), who was Newbery family royalty, being the son of Giles Jones and nephew of Griffith Jones, who are believed to have collaborated with their employer and collaborator John Newbery on some of the firm’s most famous children’s books.

At the beginning of The Oracles, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson are mostly satisfied with the characters of their two children, except for their tendency to assume their judgement is as good as that of their parents.  While the Wilsons may take their responsibilities as parents very seriously, they are not so strict as all that, because on Billy’s seventh birthday, the family goes to London for a day of  sightseeing.  The high point of the day is to be a visit to the famous Speaking Figure, which could answer questions put to it in English, French, German and Italian between noon and nine o’clock in the evening, Monday through Saturday. Here are the Wilsons testing the Speaking Figure’s ability to communicate.  Billy is posing a question to the Figure by speaking into the trumpet inserted into its mouth.

For the Wilson party of four, admission was a shilling per person, which means attendance in the exhibition rooms was not nearly as expensive theater tickets–a single opera ticket would have cost 4 shillings.  But if Mr. Wilson were not sufficiently wealthy to keep his own coach, he also would have had to pay for round-trip transportation from their home in the country to the capital and after the Speaking Figure to their other destination, the Tower Zoo.  Zoo admission was six pence per person.  A meal in a tavern was probably also in order at some point during the outing as well.  Depending upon the family’s annual income,  Billy’s birthday outing may have taken a good portion of the Wilsons’ discretionary income for that month.

This fictional day trip was not the product of Jones’s imagination, but based on a London exhibition that had been on view between 1784 and 1786 and  attracted quite a bit of publicity.  The Frenchman who constructed the Speaking Figure imposed upon the public at major European cities by creating the illusion of conversations between doll and visitor with tubes concealed by the doll’s large feather headdress.  The deception was promptly exposed by Phillip Thicknesse in a pamphlet, which is illustrated with this diagram, showing how the figure operated.

So where does Stephen Jones stand on the question of birthday celebrations?  From one perspective, he tried to have his cake and eat it too.  The Wilsons did not take Billy and Kitty to gawk at the Speaking Figure, but to prepare them to participate in a  plan conceived to correct their most serious fault with minimal intervention from their parents.  Billy and Kitty’s delight in the Speaking Figure is so great that the Wilsons promise to install in the house two speaking figures, who will serve as the children’s personal advisors.

Experiences at home and at school quickly teach Billy and Kitty that their oracles always had their best interests in mind and after a few trials, they trust the oracles so much that they follow the figures’ advice to the letter.  At that point, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson step up and reveal that they have been voicing the so-called oracles from the very beginning, with the result that the children transfer their trust to their parents, where it should have been all along.

Jones was on thin ice here.   He seems to have been leaning towards the approach of French educators like Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Mme de Genlis, who justified the deception of children if the ends of a ruse justified the means.  On the other hand, Jones is also suggesting that a birthday celebration that is both entertaining and improving is appropriate.   It  seems to have been possible for the day to be associated with pleasure as well as reflection and moral growth–at least at some remove from the big day.