To mark International Children’s Book Day which is celebrated on Hans Christian Andersen’s birthday on April 2nd, we take a look at some of the children’s books in Special Collections.
Although children’s literature is not a focus of the collections at Southampton, examples of children’s books, both educational and recreational can be found amongst the Rare Books. There are schoolbooks belonging to Henry Robinson Hartley, to whom the University owes its existence, books of instruction in farm life in the Perkins Agricultural Library and in the Salisbury Collection, examples of ‘botanical dialogues’, which take the form of a series of questions and answers. In Maria Edgeworth’s Dialogues on Botany for the Use of Young Persons (London, 1819) the children, Fanny, Emma and Cecil “were so much interested in the structure and growth of vegetables that they seldom let a day pass without soliciting some instruction from their Aunt”. There are also books on history and geography, and in Letters Written from London (London, 1807) the young visitor’s description of the street traders, their wares and their cries gives an insight into daily life in the capital.
As well as the educational books, there are also examples of the picture books or ‘toy books’ printed by Edmund Evans (1826-1905), the leading woodblock colour printer in London. Although early nineteenth-century children’s books often included illustrations, these were usually black and white engravings or woodblock prints, and if coloured, the quality was generally poor. Colourful picture books, recognisable to children of today, appeared only after the mechanization of printing and advances in colour printing techniques. These changes, coinciding with a growing market for well-produced children’s books amongst the middle and upper classes meant that picture books became a profitable line for many publishers.
Evans had perfected the technique of reproducing the colours of original illustrations by using as many as sixteen woodblocks and eight to twelve colours for a single illustration. In his toy books fewer blocks and colours were used, but the results were a vast improvement on existing coloured illustrations. Having printed a series of toy books for Routledge in the mid-1860s, Evans went on to set up his own business, commissioning illustrations from Walter Crane (1845-1915), Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886) and Kate Greenaway (1846-1901), now regarded as amongst the greatest children’s illustrators of the Victorian period.
Crane’s The Baby’s Opera (1877) was something of a deluxe toy book. It included the music as well as the words of nursery songs and demonstrated Crane’s approach to book illustration as a decorative art, encompassing the book as a whole, rather than focussing individual illustrations. A member of the Arts and Crafts Movement, he was influenced by his study of Japanese colour prints, emulating their sharp outlines and flat or very deep perspective in his own work.
Randolph Caldecott had already contributed illustrations to a range of publications, including Punch and the Illustrated London News before he was engaged by Evans in 1878 to illustrate two picture books each Christmas, an arrangement which continued until his early death in 1886. The books featured nursery rhymes or fairy tales and in Sing a Song for Sixpence (1880) Caldecott’s detailed yet vigorous drawings, show the appeal of his work to children. Caldecott also illustrated a number Juliana Horatia Ewing’s books for Evans, these being published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
In 1879 Evans engraved and printed Kate Greenaway‘s collection of poetry and drawings Under the Window, after which she rarely entrusted her work to anyone else. In Little Ann and Other Poems (1883) Greenaway illustrated the poems of the early nineteenth-century poet Jane Taylor, the children being dressed in her characteristic interpretation of the fashions of the early nineteenth century. Such was her popularity that Liberty’s of London introduced a line of children’s clothes, based on her drawings.
The picture books in Special Collections have come from a variety of sources, some having been donated and others having been part of the Library of La Sainte Union College of Education. As well as the original nineteenth-century publications, there are modern facsimiles of early children’s books in a selection of titles acquired for the School of Education from the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books at Toronto Public Library. More recent publications of classic children’s books can be found in the Children’s Fiction Collection on the open shelves of the Hartley Library.