Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1705/The Old-Fashioned Children's Pictures

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From The Spectator.


That little friend of Lord Granville's who, on finding that the illustrations in his present to her were poorly executed, dropped her book, with a curtsy, into the waste-paper basket, had, he thinks, obviously been aesthetically educated by the highly-finished drawings and engravings produced for the children of the present day. But none the less, we doubt very much whether the children of the present day, with all their finely-executed picture-books, are really as well off in this respect as our great and great-great grandfathers and grandmothers, with their "Marshall's Universal Battledore" and "Universal Shuttlecock," price 2d.; "Jacky Dandy's Delight," price 1d.; "The Good Child's Delight," price 4d.; and all the other "fine gilt-books," which, as it is stated in the history of "Billy Freeman and Tommy Truelove," were bought by that excellent, though somewhat shapeless gentleman, Squire Martin, "from Mr. Marshall, No, 17 Queen Street, Cheapside, and No 4 Aldermary Churchyard, Bow Lane" [was he, we wonder, the prehistoric form of Simpkin and Marshall?] to give to "such little good Girls and Boys" as he (Squire Martin) should find worthy of them. It cannot be denied, indeed, that the art, as well as the literature, of those old days (say, from the end of the seventeenth to the end of the eighteenth centuries) abounded in fictitious assumptions. When Billy Freeman gets attacked by the turkey-cocks in Farmer Kilbacon's yard, and when Squire Martin rescues him from their clamor, and asks him what is the matter, and Billy replies in much agitation, "Si-si-si-sir, I, I, wa-was going to p-p-play in the farmer's yard, and the turkies hissed me out; and that is not all, the great dog barked at me, and pulled me into the hog-trough," — the benevolent Squire Martin rejoins with this audacious fiction, "'Pho-pho, I am sure both the dog and the turkies are good-natured to all boys and girls who learn their Book, and are dutiful to their parents. But now I talk of books, let me hear how you can read;' so sitting down on a bench, he took Billy between his knees, and pulling out one of 'Marshall's Universal Battledores,' asked him the letters," — whereon, of course, it appears that Billy knew none of them, and so verified the violent hypothesis of the Jesuitical Squire as to the relation between the tyranny of turkeys and the penalties of ignorance. And "that bold fiction of the late Mr. Marshall's benevolent customer is, in fact, a very good illustration of the pious frauds, not only of the teachers, but of the artists of the day. When Billy Freeman and Tommy Truelove knock up a friendship at school, and we are told that they had "become the delight of all the ladies and gentlemen in the country," the artist who delineates them is most anxious to possess all who see his work with the fiction that the whole creation recognizes their merits. He presents them to us with their ruffled hands clasped in each other, their extensive bag-waistcoasts extending over very well-nourished bellies nearly to their knees, their legs, clad in small-clothes, standing very wide apart, so that all animate things might get a peep of the world under either triumphal arch, while the demure faces under their cocked hats express in the most legible characters for all the gentry of the neighborhood their dutiful satisfaction in that marvellous brotherly love for which they have become so renowned. The artists of the olden days were evidently as anxious as the schoolmasters to imbue youth with the fanciful superstition that no harm could happen to the good. The preternatural satisfaction, for instance, with which the good basket-maker of the story, stripped to the skin, but nevertheless with folded arms significant of profound equanimity, goes off at the king's command behind his once rich oppressor in a like state of nature but with arms in wild agitation, as showing his very slight confidence in his moral resources, "to a savage and remote island," only in order to teach the latter a lesson as to the moral advantages of industry over indolent wealth wherever human nature is reduced to its lowest terms, would alone tell the reader in the most vivid way how completely the artist was ready to enter into the pious fraud of Squire Martin, and persuade the children who gazed upon his pictures that all the world conspires together to punish indolence and reward industry. And it is the same with all the pictures in which the didactic ages delighted. We have before us, for instance, a facsimile of one of the great picture-alphabets of the Puritan Fathers, printed at Boston, Massachusetts, in 1691, in which "Z," for instance, stands for Zaccheus, of whom it is stated that

Zaccheus, he
Did climb the Tree,
Our Lord to see,

the picture representing Zaccheus as a sort of turnip with four dots of features upon it, into which a very fuzzy gorse-bush has unexpectedly blossomed, while the turnip hangs from the gorse-bush in so dangerous a position as to threaten falling on the heads of the small crowd with extended arms standing beneath. Yet even those four dots representing the features of Zaccheus manage to convey, not the humility of the man, but his self-satisfaction that the tree had been , provided for his benefit, as a sort of reserved seat at a function of importance. This picture-alphabet may well be said to represent a period much more rudimentary, in the art of engraving at all events, than was the older stone age in drawing on reindeer horns. Yet the profound satisfaction and delight of morality in itself, and the subserviency of all creation to it, is deeply engraved upon it. Thus the letter "O," in the Puritan's alphabet, is accompanied by this admirable rhyme, —

Young Obadias,
David, Josias,
All were pious,

and is illustrated by three figures with wands in their hands, so rudely drawn that it would seem hardly possible they should have any expression at all, but yet there is an expression of moral triumph over the universe, even in the scratches which shadow forth the countenances of Young Obadias and his two companions. And the same maybe said of the illustration annexed to the letter "S," and which is accompanied by the lines, —

Young Sam'l dear
The Lord did fear.

"Young Sam'l's" face is wholly undecipherable, but his right arm is raised, certainly not in supplication, but in a most Pharisaic attitude of victorious virtue. There can be no doubt in any one's mind who has concerned himself at all with the illustrated children's books of the age of our ancestors, that the art of these books abounded in the moral fictions which are repeated in the didactic literature of the same day, and delighted in representing the triumphant power of morality over all things, animate and inanimate, and was even penetrated with the notion, — very much in opposition to the orthodox theology of the day, — that the good man was satisfied from himself.

Yet we suspect that Lord Granville's little protegée might, if she had been given one of the old illustrated works of our great-grandmothers, instead of the best work of the modern kind, have found much more delight in it than she could ever find in the most finished pictures of the new children's books. For one thing, in the old didactic illustrations, you never could mistake the artist's purpose, — and that, at all events with children, is no small matter. It may be very true, that the artist's purpose was to some extent jesuitical, — to make bad boys look more miserable than they are, and good boys more prosperous; to make prim girls appear the idol of all their friends, and lively ones their embarrassment and horror, which is not according to life; but anyhow, the satisfaction of a picture, especially for the young, depends in great measure on the easy mastery of its motive. When Billy Freeman and Tommy Truelove stand hand-in-hand, with their lace ruffles gracefully mingled, and their two pairs of legs bowed by the sympathy of friendship, so as to enclose precisely symmetrical arcs, no child has a moment's doubt that the moral dignity attained by these schoolboy paragons of friendship is the real subject of the picture. All the Freemans and the Trueloves and all their connections evidently had such a picture, or something like it, continually before their mind's eye, and the artist was but reducing to visible form the vision of an enthusiastic countryside. So in the Puritans' Almanack of 1691, where Mr. Rogers, the Marian martyr, is seen enveloped in a mass of apparently wavy calico, which is really meant for Smithfield flames, and Mrs. Rogers (with her nine small children) stands by in triumph, looking with delight at as much of her husband as is not hidden by the rolls of calico, the motive of the picture, — the complete triumph of piety over pain in both Mr. Rogers and his worthy spouse, — is as conspicuous as is the scoffing disposition of the soldiers who are on guard at the stake. But the modern pictures have this defect that they are so very like fragments of real life (to which there is frequently no motive), that the child cannot catch any drift in the pictures at all, and is very apt, therefore, to get a much fainter impression out of them than out of the letter-press itself.

Again, whatever may be said of the execution of the old-fashioned illustrations, no one can deny their grotesqueness, nor the efficiency of that grotesqueness in impressing on children's minds the ideas associated with it. And though it is true that its tendency is to associate those ideas rather with the sense of the ludicrous than with any feeling of sympathy, yet we are not at all sure that that materially injures the effectiveness of the artist's purpose, so far as it was a wholesome purpose at all. For if you feel inclined to laugh at the ostentatious and pompous self-sufficiency of the virtue so grotesquely delineated, you feel no less inclined to laugh at the ostentatious idiocy and weakness of the folly or the vice, so that both sides of the controversy being alike inlaid with quaint exaggerations, the whole tendency of the result remains unaltered, though it is associated with a certain background of ludicrous effects. And the pleasure which the illustrations give is probably greater than any pleasure which undistorted art and accurate realism could carry into the undeveloped mind of a child. For undistorted art and truth must be full of the most complex shades and colors, which in their subtlety and completeness go far beyond a child's apprehension. All special emphasis involves a kind of disproportion; and all grotesqueness a certain amount of abstraction from real life, and an excessive stress on some quality out of which the sense of oddity arises. Why, for instance, is the picture of the ill-behaved Miss Gresham, who jumps up on chairs, and goes down on all fours in the strawberry-bed to pick herself strawberries, so impressive in its contrast with the little prigs in mob-caps, — Miss Offley and the Miss Townsends, who look like lugubrious charity children engaged in singing psalms? Because the almost idiotic diablerie of the one child and the intolerable propriety of the others sets you off in fits of laughing, before you are aware of the details of Miss Gresham's bad behavior, which is thus described. At tea she "eagerly turned over the toast to search for the largest pieces, and helped herself so often that Mrs. Offley at last said, 'My dear Miss Gresham, I would have you eat as much as is proper for you, I am sure, but I think your mamma would not be pleased with your manner of helping yourself, nor with your taking so large a quantity. You must excuse me if I say I think you have had enough.' She then asked Miss Townsend and her sister, who had eaten much less, if they did not choose another cake or a piece more toast; to which Miss Townsend answered, 'Indeed, madam, we do not choose to eat any more, but if you will give me leave, I will put this small cake in my pocket for my brother Edward.' 'I do not give you leave to take that, miss,' said Mrs. Offley; 'I beg you will eat it, and I will give you another for Master Townsend.' 'That may be your present, then, madam,' says Miss Townsend, 'but if you please, this shall be saved for him, as I saved it from what I took for myself.'" Now if, in the illustrations of these exemplary children, and the foil who sets them off, as a black background sets off a highly-colored foreground, the bad girl had not been made to look like pure greed and dishevelled impudence, and the good ones all primness and starch, there would have been nothing to illustrate. It is this which makes the point of the story, and if these excessive traits had been merged in a multitude of subdued realistic lines, the whole meaning for children would be gone. The old-fashioned illustrator used the features of rebellious or of dutiful children as the algebraist uses symbols apart from concrete numbers, — in order to fix attention on the only qualities with which it concerned him to deal. Now, in whatever direction that practice may have failed, it at least succeeded in the one object of associating moral lessons with some of the funniest figures, and some of the blandest assumptions of triumphant infantine virtue, which were ever drawn upon paper. That surely is a great deal better than so delineating any moral incident as to make nothing clear except that it is doubtful whether there were any lesson in it to be made clear. The old artists may have given us little but the skeleton of their lesson, and that in no very elegant disguise, but the modern artists give us too often no lesson at all, — only that hard concrete of fact out of which it is almost impossible for children to extract a significance, or with which they can associate any definite meaning. For children, at least, the old grotesque exaggerated art was both the more amusing and the more impressive.