Nursery Crime! Sparrow Tells All about Cock Robin Murder!

Cock Robin, the tale of a murder without a motive  is one of the most famous English nursery rhymes and its text has been a showcase for many gifted artists.  Some very fine watercolors for the illustrations to a John Harris Cock Robin were up for grabs at the Sotheby’s New York December on-line auction of artwork for children’s books.  Harris, the successor to the Newbery firm, was a pioneering picture book publisher and the Cock Robin in the celebrated Cabinet of Amusement and Instruction series of the 1820s, is one of the most famous. The drawings in the Sotheby’s sale were not for this edition, but even so I was concerned they would catch more eyes than mine.  With a trove of nearly three hundred drawings for Harris children’s books in Cotsen, I was very keen to add them to the collection.  Cotsen turned out to be the only bidder, so the six drawings are safe in Firestone, thanks to the generous support of the Friends of the Princeton University Library.

After unpacking them, I went to the vault to reconfirm the attribution and discovered instead that the drawings were “not as described,” which is code in the  antiquarian book trade for “wrongly cataloged.”   The drawings were too lovely to return (to the right is the one of the pipe-puffing owl tolling the bell), so the only alternative was to cross my fingers and go in search of the book they did illustrate.  The mystery was unraveled quickly, thanks to three gems from the collection of Marjorie Moon, author of the Harris bibliography.

The drawings are for an 1808 Harris pamphlet that survives in just four copies:  The Tragi-comic History of the Burial of Cock Robin; with the Lamentation of Jenny Wren; the Sparrow’s Apprehension; and the Cuckoo’s Punishment.  The title page spread  is on the right below and the drawing for the frontispiece on the left.  Look closely and you’ll see that the engraver of the frontispiece edited out the blood pooling underneath the robin in the watercolor.





When I started matching up drawings with the passages they represent, it became clear that the Tragi-comic History was faithful in its fashion to both of the traditional nursery rhymes about the robin’s death and its marriage to the wren.  Take a second look at the title page spread.   The frontispiece depicts the grieving widow Jenny Wren, which is a departure from the death and burial of Cock Rbin where the wrens are the pall bearers and the dove chief mourner as the robin’s “love.”  On the other hand, Jenny’s role in the Tragi-comic History is consistent with the title page declaration that the pamphlet is a sequel to the Harris’s 1806 gay two-part retelling of the rhyme about the union of the robin and wren, The Happy Courtship, Merry Marriage and Pic-nic Dinner of Cock Robin and Jenny Wren.

The Tragi-comic History  departs from the prequel by the third stanza, when the birds “lug in” the sparrow to be punished for “his sin.”  Notice how the owl secures the cord around the sparrow’s neck with a stout staff.  (What bird has concealed itself in the hollow tree trunk to the right?)  Stanza four reveals that the author of TheTragi-comic History conflated the traditional rhyme of Cock Robin’s death and burial with the Harris retelling of the marriage and, more importantly, devised a water-tight alibi for the sparrow’s crime that exonerates him of accidental manslaughter.

The sparrow pleads for mercy, saying he has been unable to eat since “shooting in defence / Of Jenny Wren, Bob’s wife, / He’d sav’d her innocence, / But robb’d his friend of life.”  In order to understand exactly what happened, we have to backtrack to The Happy Courtship, Merry Marriage and Pic-nic Dinner.  Here is  Robin, sporting a very jaunty plumed hat, walking his blushing bride to church.

The happy couple exchange vows with Parson Rook presiding.

Friends of all species bring dainties to the feast and dog Tray’s offering is a bone with plenty of good meat for the picking.

The cuckoo, that “wicked elf,” disrupts the festivities by trying to tumble the bride.

Still inflamed by “her charms” in The Tragi-Comic History, the cuckoo had the audacity to visit Jenny in the nest and try to “seize a kiss” when he knew her husband was away.  Seeing the wren in distress, the sparrow, “aimed at Wantonness,/ But hit Fidelity,”   being a bad shot. Now that the birds know the whole story,  “on the culprit they fell,/ With talons, wings, and beaks,/ and drubb’d him very well,/ With scratches, slaps, and pecks.”  The climax of the poem (and prelude to the robin’s funeral) is the invention of The Tragi-comic History’s author.

A word about the artist is in order.  The drawings are attributed to Irish-born Victorian painter William Mulready(1786-1863).  In the nineteen teens, he was studying at the Royal Academy and partly support his young family of three children by designing illustrations for the children’s publishers Harris and William Godwin.  The drawings for The Tragi-comic History are in the same style as Mulready’s better-known ones for another fanciful poem about partying animals, William Roscoe’s The Butterfly’s Ball and Grasshopper’s Feast (1806).

Back to our story… After the sparrow is pardoned, the swallow delivers to every bird an invitation to the “obsequies of their dear worthy friend.”  Unfortunately, only one of the three illustrations for the burial are here: the one of the owl ringing the bell (shown above).  The invitation scene and the one of the robin’s body being borne to the grave with the jay, magpie, dove, and pigeon flying over it with the pall are missing.

The grieving widow returns to her “uncheering home” only to find herself subject to the unwelcome attentions of yet another suitor, this time the “vain and smart” Goldfinch all in scarlet and gold  (he had been attentive during the wedding).  Jenny Wren being no Lydia Bennett, neither his bold uniform nor his “sweet love-tales…could not gain her heart.”  

Thank heavens in the little republic of children’s literature, it is possible with some close reading to establish the facts and nothing but the facts about this famous nursery crime…



The Queen Caroline Affair: Royal Sex Scandal in Sir Harry Herald’s Graphical Representation of the Dignitaries of England

This is a copy of Sir Harry Herald’s Graphical Representation of the Dignitaries of England…with the Regalia used at the Coronation (1820)and it shows George IV and his estranged Queen Caroline of Brunswick

What’s the difference between these two pictures?

First edition of 1820

First edition of 1820

Third edition of 1821

Third edition of 1821

So why was the pretty young Queen removed from the picture?

The Prince Regent (the future George IV) had been waiting in the wings since 1811, when his father George III descended into madness.  The prospect after a new monarch after all this time was probably reason enough for the children’s book publisher John Harris to bring out Sir Harry Herald  in the new Cabinet of Amusement and Instruction series.  (It has been suggested that  Sir Harry Herald was inspired by Charles Lamb’s Book of the Ranks and Dignities of British Society (1805), but close comparison of the two works  does not bear this out.)

The ceremony promised to be spectacular, as the new monarch, having been ruinously extravagant his entire life, was intimately involved in the arrangements and planned to spare no expense.  Nearly six months would pass from the king’s death on January 29, 1820 until the coronation on July 19, so there was ample time for the design and construction of fabulous robes and new crown for George, among other things.

Presumably this delay was also to Harris’s advantage in making ready by mid-July the text and handsome wood-engravings of Sir Harry Herald.  But Harris could not have foreseen the next act in the royal marriage’s roiling drama.

In 1794, George had agreed to marry his first cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, who was a Protestant of royal blood, which meant Parliament would increase his allowance, allowing the settlement of huge debts.  The wedding was a disaster, as the two were obviously mismatched and  each found the other repulsive.  Since 1814, Caroline had been living abroad in exchange for a generous allowance.  But now that she was nominally the Queen of England–albeit estranged from her husband, who had initiated divorce proceedings against her–she returned to England on June 5, where she was put on trial for adultery.

Championed by the opposition movement and beloved by the masses, she was found innocent at the end of June. Although she was advised not to take her place as Queen during the coronation, she turned up at Westminster Abbey, was denied entrance, and made a spectacle of herself.

The surprising number of changes large and small to the different editions Sir Harry Herald suggest that Harris was trying to respond the rapid and surprising succession of events.

Queen's Regalia, 1820 (1st) ed.

Queen’s Regalia, 1820 (1st) ed.

Could the color depiction of a harmonious royal couple in Westminster abbey that appeared in the first two editions have been hastily made in early July, to reflect Caroline’s apparent triumph?  Was the “replacement” image of George being crowned without his consort in attendance quickly contrived a few months later for the 1821 third edition in order to reflect reality?  (Having been barred from

Westminster Abbey, Caroline died three weeks later, leaving England without a Queen.)  The picture of the Queen’s coronation regalia, which Caroline never wore, was also excised from this edition.

Opening leaves of the 1824 (4th) ed., with ills. of both the king and queen excised.

Opening leaves of the 1824 (4th) ed., with ills. of both the king and queen excised.

And does the disappearance of the king’s portrait–oddly, the only depiction of the king in this “Coronation” book–from the fourth edition of 1824 indicate the publisher’s (and perhaps the nation’s) deep disenchantment with its monarch, whose popularity had plummeted shortly after coming to power?

1821 (2nd) ed. title-page, with George IV's "Coronation Medal"

1821 (2nd) ed. title-page, with George IV’s “Coronation Medal”

Ironically, a picture of the Queen’s regalia (unidentified as such) adorns the front wrapper of the 1824 edition, replacing a Coronation medallion of George, portrayed much like Augustus, which adorned the 1821 edition’s wrapper.  The hand-colored engraving of the Queen’s regalia had appeared in the 1820 first edition but it was then unceremoniously omitted from the 1821 third edition–along with the queen herself.


Front wrapper of 1824 (4th) ed. (left), recycling the 1820 ed. ill., here untitled, of the "Queen's Regalia" colored engraving. (right)

Front wrapper of 1824 (4th) ed. (left), recycling the 1820 ed. ill., here untitled, of the “Queen’s Regalia” colored engraving. (right)




Maybe it didn’t happen exactly this way.  But two other changes suggest Harris was well aware that demand for coronation memorabilia would not, unlike George’s popularity, plummet after the event.  The lovely illustration of the gentleman and lady in court dress in the 1820 first edition was excised from later editions.


Gentleman & Lady in "court dress" from the 1820 ed.

Gentleman & Lady in “court dress” from the 1820 ed.


The 1821 third edition also added an illustration of the magnificent new crown George had made for the coronation (which he seems to be wearing in the “God Save the King” portrait).

Illustration of the "New Imperial Crown" (not depicted in the 1820 ed.), with the crown formerly-known as the "Imperial Crown" (now labeled "St. Edwards Crown").

Illustration of the “New Imperial Crown” (not depicted in the 1820 ed.), with the crown formerly-known as the “Imperial Crown” (now labeled “St. Edwards Crown”).

Could it be that Harris was trying to ensure that Sir Harry Herald, one of the most visually attractive titles in the Cabinet of Amusement and  Instruction, would not become dated prematurely despite the tumult of the times?  A close comparison of the illustrations in these three editions (see below) certainly suggests that Harris was busily engaged in changing this title for some reason. The publisher even changed the title of the book slightly to emphasize the coronation and the spectacular–some of it newly redesigned–coronation regalia.

George IV being crowned in the 1821 ed. ("God save the King") with overlay of the New Imperial Crown (from leaf 15. Are they they the same?

George IV being crowned in the 1821 ed. (“God save the King”) with overlay of the New Imperial Crown (from leaf 15. Are they they the same?

Thus, Sir Harry Herald’s Graphical Representation of the Dignitaries of England, Shewing the Different Ranks…with the Regalia used at the Coronation becomes Sir Harry Herald’s Graphical Representation of the Coronation Regalia, with the Degrees and Costume of Different Ranks.   The regalia assumes pride of place over the dignitaries…and even over the monarch(s) wearing it!

Opening leaves of the 1820, 1821, and 1824 editions of Harry Herald, showing the progressively diminishing royal presence.

Opening leaves of the 1820, 1821, and 1824 editions of Harry Herald, showing the progressively diminishing royal presence.

Comparison of the leaves in Cotsen’s three editions of Sir Harry Herald

  1820 1821 1824
Leaf # (1st ed.) (3rd ed.) (4th ed.)
1   TP TP TP
2   king’s champion king’s champion king’s champion
3   king / queen king  alone (crowned) archbishop / chancellor
4   archbishop / chancellor archbishop / chancellor duke / marquis
5   duke / marquis duke / marquis earl / viscount
6   earl / viscount earl / viscount bishop / baron
7   bishop / baron bishop / baron knight / judge
8   knight / judge knight / judge dr. div. / sgt at law
9   Dr. div. / sgt at law Dr. div. / sgt at law admiral / field marshall
10   admiral / field marshall admiral / field marshall general / naval captain
11   general / naval captain general / naval captain Lord Mayor
12   gentleman / lady Lord Mayor St Edward’s chair
13   Lord Mayor St Edward’s chair St Edward’s crown / regalia
14   alderman / sheriff St Edward’s crown / regalia New Imperial Crown
15   councilman / livery New Imperial Crown ampulla / annointing spoon
16   Lord mayor ampulla / annointing spoon Great Seal
17   queen’s regalia Great Seal yeoman of guard
18   yeoman of guard yeoman of guard advertisement

–Andrea Immel (with help from Jeff Barton)