Friday, July 22, 2011

The Colourful 1890s

I was going to call this post 'Dr Barnardo's Bubbles', but then I remembered all of those annoying, possessive book titles that seemed to be a craze in the publishing world after 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin', so I decided against it.

Yesterday I found a children's annual from the 1890s, edited by Dr Barnardo. Like many annuals of this period, it contains a selection of mawkish, sentimental short stories and rather dull, worthy articles. This copy was given as a present to a boy called Herbert:

It's a brief message, but in true Victorian fashion, Mrs Thwaite Metcalfe manages to squeeze in a quick reference to her son's eventual demise.

I wonder what Herbert thought when he unwrapped his present from Mama on Christmas Day? Perhaps his heart sank when he saw that the package was book-shaped, rather than toy steam engine-shapped. However, he might have changed his mind once he opened the pages, as this is no ordinary annual.

Unlike most books of this period, 'Bubbles' is packed with attractive, full page colour illustrations covering a variety of themes: fairy tales, Bible stories, scenes from the Empire and portraits of the deprivation and poverty that Barnardo fought to alleviate. In the 1890s, it must have seemed miraculous.

It has been observed that if you want to really want to get the flavour of a particular period, you should eschew great art in favour of the second rate, the ephemeral and the commercial. I'm not completely convinced by this argument, but the following illustrations probably tell us a lot more about late-Victorian society than any Van Gogh painting:

























And finally, here is the back cover:

I'm sure that young Herbert loved these bright, colourful illustrations. But I bet he never read the short stories.

7 comments:

MikeP said...

Surely young Herbert would have wanted to know what the dragged-up interloper was up to peering at the pigeon-feeding women on the roof in Tunis? I know I do!

Martin H. said...

Great pictures, Steerforth. It's the Fry's Cocoa for me. That's what I was always packed off to bed with, after thumbing through my own annuals...some 60 years later, I might add.

Gardener in the Distance said...

Words, Steerforth...it is often better to skip them. There is nothing like worthy edification for making you stay in bed longer than you ought to, or running out into the street.

Little Nell said...

Those illustations are amazing; so full of detail. The picture on the front is my favourite and would have made me turn the pages. I have to disagree with you about young Herbert though. I bet he did read the stories as the pictures would have enticed him in. As adults it’s easy for us to forget what it was like to be an inquisitive child in an age when there was no internet or TV. The picture was the hook and a well-written story would draw them in to a world of make-believe and tales of derring-do. It still happens these days too; as an educator I’ve often argued the case for picture books as tools to support a child’s learning. A parent would see a book like ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ by Sendak, as ‘easy’ because it has lots of pictures, when it was full of wonderful descriptive words.

LUCEWOMAN said...

I'm left feeling incredibly sad after looking at these illustrations. Having said that,I have consumed several litres of wines and spirits this evening. Images usually had a far greater impact on me than words as a child, and possibly still do. I remember though, having a book and cassette set when I was 7; one of the stories was 'The Matchstick Girl'. I listened to it with my mum one evening and saw tears in her eyes. Mum never cried so this was quite a powerful experience. I've since learnt that she had several present-less, dinner-less Christmases as a child. Seeing such poverty and helplessness in these exquisite pictures really reminded me of how recent some peoples' experiences of hardship and related childhood illness are. These are not fantastical illustrations, simply well-executed pictorial representations of a bygone era. Thanks for sharing them - time for (cosy)bed ...

David said...

Great pictures.

I'm intrigued by the picture of the Homeless Waif dreaming of "Father Christmas and Santa Clause" - that "and" cast an interesting light on the evolution of those figures.

christinelaennec said...

These are fascinating images. I can't work out what the story behind Jean Finding the Paper is meant to be! I agree with Little Nell that Herbert probably did read the stories. I'm old enough to remember a time (1960s) when I read everything I could get my hands on, as reading was my main form of entertainment when there wasn't anyone around to play with.