April 6, 2020

I is for Itsy

        (My theme for this year’s April A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.  Yes, I’m way ahead with a modified schedule, but if you’re sticking with the proper schedule you can find the Letter E here!)

The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the water spout.
Down came the rain and washed the spider out.
Out came the sun and dried up all the rain,
And the itsy bitsy spider climbed up the spout again.

        Her friends called her stubborn, but she liked to think of it as persistence.
        When you consider it, this is really an epic tale ranking right up there with Frodo’s march to Mount Doom, Captain Ahab’s hunting of the White Whale, or the forces of nature in The Perfect Storm.  The movie will include plenty of action, pathos, and ultimately the triumph of the human spirit… I mean the arachnid spirit.
        This was one of the last nursery rhyme illustrations I did, and unfortunately it was too late to be included in my book.  It is also apparently one of the most recent nursery rhymes I’ll be featuring this month, possibly no more than 110 years old.  That means that it isn’t illustrated in any of those old wood-block-printed books, so I have found only one block printed illustration beside my own.  You’d need to know the rhyme already, I think, in order to make out the order of the words in this piece, but it’s all there.
        I have always loved the little hand play that goes with the rhyme.  (If you’re unfortunate enough not to be familiar with it, see this video.)  Most people give directions for making the climbing motion with thumbs and index fingers, but I assure you that it is far more satisfying to use thumbs and middle fingers.  Give it a try and you’ll see.  Also, there are those who will try to tell you that the spider is “eensy weensy” or even “incy wincy” (including my fellow artist today), but they’re just plain tragically wrong!
        Do you - or your children - have a favorite hand play?
        A final note for impressionable children: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

[Pictures: The Itsy Bitsy Spider, rubber block print by AEGN, 2006;
Incy Wincy Spider, 3 colour linocut by Caroline Nuttall-Smith (Image from Etsy shop cnuttalsmith).]

April 3, 2020

H is for Humpty and Horses

        (My theme for this year’s A-Z Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

        But really, what did you expect when you asked horses to mend something so delicate?
        This is one of a class of nursery rhymes that began as riddles, which is why I don’t like any of the illustrations that make Humpty Dumpty look more-or-less like a real person.  Everybody knows he’s not supposed to be a human!  If I were to do an illustration of this one, I think I would make a bunch of horses and courtiers sitting around together scratching their heads and frowning in concentration as they try to assemble a big eggshell jigsaw puzzle.  Most illustrations depict Humpty before the fall, although there are a few gruesome ones of the carnage.  Even as a riddle one has to wonder whether there is anything that all the king’s horses could be expected to put together without even opposable thumbs, but as a story it becomes even sillier.  Humpty’s foolishness in sitting on the wall, the king’s foolishness in sending his horses to repair the damage…  It would be a tragic tale if it weren’t so funny.
        Of course Humpty Dumpty’s most famous appearance is in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871), where he is a ridiculously smug and irritating fellow whom Alice tries hard not to offend, even though she can’t figure out whether the cloth around his middle is a belt or a cravat.  He also claims “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.”  This is an attitude encountered all too often among insufficiently precise speakers and writers, but once a word has had its meaning scrambled frequently enough, not all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can put it back together.
        My final illustration is even more meta: a picture of a boy looking at a picture of Humpty Dumpty.  Humpty Dumpty is possibly the single most widely recognized nursery rhyme character.  At any rate, he’s got to be right up there at the top of the list, so it’s easy to see that this boy is reading a book of nursery rhymes.
        How do you like your eggs?  Over easy or over hard, hard-boiled, or scrambled, or devilled?  (Or made of tofu or chocolate?)
        A final note for impressionable children: Don’t balance fragile things in precarious places.

[Pictures: Wood block print by Joan Hassall, c 1955 (Image from Opie, The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book);
Illustration by John Tenniel from Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, 1871 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Color woodcut by David Frampton from My Son John by Jim Aylesworth, 1994.]

April 1, 2020

G is for Gotham

        (My theme for this year’s A-Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

Three wise men of Gotham went to sea in a bowl.
If the bowl had been stronger, my song would be longer.

        They were wise enough to learn from their mistake: the second time, they all wore life jackets.
        This is the first nursery rhyme illustration I did, and at the time I had no thought of illustrating a book, or even of doing other nursery rhymes.  I was not trying to please children or make nursery decor.  I did it for myself, because I thought it would be fun.  I’m not sure why I gave the men their long toes and caps, but when I later started to illustrate other nursery rhymes, I decided to stick with the theme.  I gave each man a different sort of tassel or pompom on the tip of his cap, and I kept that up, as well, throughout the entire series.
        Most illustrations of this nursery rhyme show the bowl floating along merrily before it sinks.  Some give it a sail.  Some show the three wise men fishing or otherwise looking like everything is going along smoothly.  To me, that’s sort of missing the important point!
        This rhyme belongs to a whole class of folk tales and songs about “wise” people who are ridiculously silly or stupid.  I think they’re primarily just for amusement, but they do also often lampoon “experts” and other learned people.  For that reason our wise men are often shown as academics or scholarly types, and they are often presented as old men with long beards.  In this post’s second illustration the man in the middle is wearing a clerical collar and robe.
        As for Gotham, it is a village in Nottinghamshire, England, and as early as the fifteenth century there were tales of the foolishness of Gotham’s wise men.  The legend, however, is that there was method in their madness: they were all feigning idiocy so that King John (reign 1199-1216) would decide that he didn’t want to build a hunting lodge in their village after all.  It was Washington Irving who called New York City “Gotham” in 1807 based on that combination of ingenuity and foolishness, giving rise, in turn, to the name of Batman’s city.
        The one nursery rhyme book from about 1760 includes the following moral with this rhyme, “It [the nursery rhyme] is long enough.  Never lament the loss of what is not worth having.”  Harsh!  I happen to be very fond of this rhyme, although I guess it’s true that if it were longer it would spoil the punch line.
        What do you think the three wise men should christen their vessel?
        A final note for impressionable children: Wear a life vest… and learn how to swim.

        Don’t forget that you can find the Master List of A-Z Challenge participants HERE.

[Pictures: Three Wise Men of Gotham, rubber block print by AEGN, 1998 (Image from my book);
Wood block print from Mother Goose’s Quarto of Nursery Rhymes published by McLoughlin Bros., nineteenth century (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);
Wood engraving from Mother Goose’s Melodies, published by C.S. Francis and Company, 1833 (Image from Internet Archive).]

March 30, 2020

F is for Fiddlers

        (My theme for this year’s April A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

Old King Cole was a merry old soul,
And a merry old soul was he.
He called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl,
And he called for his fiddlers three.

        His Majesty was especially fond of square dancing and Vivaldi.
        I take the pipe and bowl to be tobacco and alcohol, neither of which I particularly want to encourage.  I didn’t know what else to do with the pipe in my illustration, though, so I left it.  Later I saw an illustration (I don’t know the artist) which I wish I’d thought of: the pipe was a bubble pipe, and the bowl was soapy water!
        Other than that, most of the variation in illustrations for this nursery rhyme is in the depiction of the fiddlers.  Some artists go for maximum uniformity, but others like to go for variety, often exaggerated for comic effect.  In the second piece, each of the “fiddlers” comes from a different musical era: ancient, classical, and Romantic (which would have been modern at the time.)  Meanwhile, King Cole himself looks renaissance, and the servant floating in the background with the bowl looks like an angel or genie!  The one thing all illustrations have in common (at least the older “classic” illustrations that I’m looking at) is that the fiddlers are always men, and I’m afraid I followed suit on that.
        The last illustration is a color wood block print by F.D. Bedford, and has the fiddlers looking quite young and the serving boys even younger.  There’s a jug of whiskey at Cole’s side, as well as a cask of something else, so there’s no glossing over the alcohol in this illustration!  Note that one of the boys is bringing “Kings Mixture,” which I assume to be the tobacco, but which I prefer to imagine might be mixed nuts.
        As the final post for the month, it’s also time for Words of the Month.  The fiddle was covered in a previous Words of the Month post here, so today let’s look a little more closely at that bowl that was called for.  This is one of our Old English words, and it’s had its current meaning forever.  However, the definition used to be a fair bit broader, encompassing pots and cups as well.  It also used to include in its scope a large drinking cup as used in revelry,
and that’s presumably what Old King Cole was calling for in this rhyme.  But there are other possibilities.  Bowl also encompassed what we now mostly call basins, so perhaps Old King Cole wanted to wash up after his feast.  We still use that meaning in finger-bowl.  Then there’s the meaning “ball,” as in bowling, the lawn sport bowls, or in some dialects billiard balls or marbles can be called bowls.  That definition derives from a related word, but came to English by way of Old French.  Or what about the bowl of the pipe, which he’s already calling for?  That’s a later usage, but still before this nursery rhyme is first attested in 1708.  However, the pipe in question may well not have been a smoking pipe anyway.  Although we don’t know of earlier origins to the rhyme, that first 1708 version doesn’t include the pipe at all, and smoking was not widespread in Europe until the late sixteenth century.  So the pipe could originally have been a musical instrument (I wish I’d thought of that at the time of my illustration, too!) or could simply have been a later addition.
        So, we don’t really know for sure what the bowl is, we don’t really know for sure what the pipe is, and we don’t know at all who Old King Cole himself was!  There are many theories, from Finn mac Cumhaill’s father Cumhall, to legendary Welsh king Coel Hen, to 12th century merchant Thomas Cole-brook, to Richard Cole of Bucks who died in 1614.  None of these theories has the slightest corroborating evidence.  So the question is, why do people want so badly for there to be a real Old King Cole hiding somewhere in history?  Do you think it’s more fun or less if the ditty is merely a silly, made-up story as opposed to a coded relic of history?
        A final note for impressionable children: Just Say No to tobacco, drugs, and alcohol - but by all means enjoy the music.  Old King Cole and I recommend Vivaldi.
[Pictures: Old King Cole, rubber block print by AEGN, 2001 (Image from my book);
Illustration from The Nursery Rhymes of England collected by James Orchard Halliwell, 1844 (Image from Hathi Trust);
Illustration from The Book of Nursery Rhymes, Tales, and Fables edited by Lawrence Lovechild, 1847 (Image from Hathi Trust);
Color wood block print by Francis D. Bedford, from A Book of Nursery Rhymes, c 1885-97 (Image from Internet Archive).]

March 27, 2020

E is for Eenie

        (My theme for this year’s A-Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

Eenie meenie miny moe,
Catch a tiger by the toe.
If he hollers, let him go.
Eeenie meenie miny moe.

        Kindness to animals is always a virtue, even if the tiger needn’t have hollered quite so loudly over such a very small injury.
        I’d like to talk about how I imagine the story: of catching a tiger - by the toe, no less!, feeling sorry for its distress, and letting it go again.  But unfortunately I think this is the place, instead, to acknowledge the problematic content of some nursery rhymes.
        This was the counting-out rhyme of choice for my fellow children and me when I was growing up.  We used it all the time, occasionally with the addition of My mother says to pick the very best one and you are IT, if we wanted to draw it out.  And yes, it was a tiger, with never the slightest suggestion of anything else, and no racist overtones, undertones, or tones of any sort.  I did not even realize that other versions existed until I was an adult, when I discovered that in fact there are seemingly infinite variations in all the parts: the nonsense words, the thing that’s caught, and the response to it.  So no, there’s really nothing problematic about this precise nursery rhyme, but there is a particular other version that is more than merely problematic.  (To be explicit, for those who do not know, some people know the second line as “Catch a nigger by the toe.”  This is a word I would never want to use, but as a linguist it is important to be honest and accurate about the words people do use, not the words I think they should use.)
        Given the age of variants of the rhyme (one theory is that it originates in Old Saxon divination) and geographical distribution, it seems likely that the racist version is not original, but developed in the US south.  Unfortunately, that racist version was popularized by Rudyard Kipling, among others, so it gained far too much of the market share in the early twentieth century.  That’s left a bad taste in some people’s mouths, and I can absolutely sympathize that those who grew up with the offensive version should get an instant negative gut reaction at hearing the opening words.  However, I don’t believe that the non-racist versions should be condemned because of guilt by association…  Also, if we’re opening the can of worms that is offensive content in nursery rhymes, we should be at least as concerned about sexism; abuse of spouses, children, and animals; and prejudice against various peoples throughout the British Isles and Europe, as well.
        I haven’t included in my A-Z challenge any of the rhymes that I consider dreadful, but of course different people are offended by different things to different degrees.  One could fairly ask why we keep these rhymes at all, if they’re so problematic.  So, what do you think?  Do you see any value in passing on culture from the past, and what do you think should be done with the parts of cultural history we wish we didn’t inherit?  Where do you draw the line, and
how do you think we should handle these problems?  And what’s your favorite counting-out rhyme?
        A final note for impressionable children:  Do your best to be kind to everyone.  Sometimes even a tiny pinch on the toe can be painful.

[Picture: Eenie Meenie Miny Moe, rubber block print by AEGN, 2004 (Image from my book).]

March 25, 2020

D is for Diddle, Dish, and Dog

        (This year’s April A to Z Blog Challenge theme is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.  You can find the master list of all participating blogs here.)

Hey, diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle!
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

        The dish and spoon sent a nice postcard from their honeymoon.
        What’s not to like about this tale?  It’s got something for everyone: music, sports, comedy, animals, and romance, all in four short lines.  Although clearly not everyone does approve; the 1760 nursery rhyme book with the morals says, “It must be a little Dog that laugh’d, for a great Dog would be ashamed to laugh at such nonsense.”  Some dogs have absolutely no sense of humor!  As for me, I must be a little dog, because I had a lot of fun with my illustration.  Many illustrations actually dress the
animals in clothes, and stick arms and legs on the place setting, but I didn’t like making everything so anthropomorphic.  I wanted to give the inanimate place setting a little liveliness while keeping the items in their proper forms.  And if an actual cat were to play an actual fiddle, how might it manage it?  
        As one of the most popular nursery rhymes, there were many illustrations to choose from and of course I had to leave out several that I liked a lot.  This second one has a dog that looks more like a pig and honestly, it’s not my favorite, but I’ve included it because it has a couple of unusual touches.  The touches I think are ridiculous are that the spoon and cow are wearing dresses.  The touch I rather like is that the cow is playing leapfrog with the moon.  It’s also worth noting that this illustrates a variant in which “the dish ran after the spoon,” as opposed to having them run away together.  So no romance there.
        W.W. Denslow’s illustration, up next, is probably a lithograph, not a block print, but oh well.  It’s interesting that he’s left out the cat, which C is also for, but I like his cow.
        And we end with an older wood block print, a little rough, but it pleases me.  I can’t complain that this dish and spoon are too anthropomorphic: they’re just lying there!
        This is our first rhyme of the challenge that has much in the way of fantasy, but it has plenty.  Sentient animatronic place settings?  A cow going into orbit?  Possibly it’s actually more sci fi than fantasy.  We’ve heard of dogs and monkeys in space, but apparently a cow was actually the first astronaut.  What do you think prompted this feat of extraterrestrial jumping prowess, and what did she see up there?
        A final note for impressionable children: Do not try this without proper equipment.

[Pictures: Hey, Diddle Diddle!, rubber block print by AEGN, 2001 (Image from my book);
Illustration from Mother Goose’s Complete Melodies, published by M.A. Donohue, c 1886 (Image from Hathi Trust);
Illustration by W.W. Denslow from Denslow’s Mother Goose A.B.C. Book, 1904 (Image from University of Florida);
Wood block print from Nursery Rhymes, published by W.S. Johnson, c 1830 (Image from Opie, The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book).]

March 23, 2020

C is for Crooked

        (My theme for this year’s April A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence by a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

        It’s good to have friends who understand you.
        I’ve always found this one especially charming.  As a child I was cheered to see the three of them making their own happy family.  Here’s the first of my own nursery rhyme illustrations for the A-Z challenge, which appears in my book Hey, Diddle Diddle! and Other Rhymes.  I especially enjoyed designing the crooked house, but I tried to make everything crooked, from the fence to the very blades of grass.
        We get the impression in the second illustration that the crooked man really enjoys his walks.  Here he is perhaps on the way home to the crooked house after another crooked mile or two, with the mouse scampering on ahead and the cat, looking quite Halloweeny, hitching a ride.  This is from the era of printing in which wood engravers reproduced illustrations for printing, so although it is technically a block print, it really has the look of a pen drawing.
        This third illustration is the opposite: not technically a block print, but with the spirit of one, with its solid areas of black and white (although really too much white).  This artist shows the crooked man holding his crooked sixpence, which he really shouldn’t still have if he’s already got the cat and the mouse.  Ah-ha, caught you there, illustrator J.F. Goodridge!
        Fun historical note: apparently in the second half of the 17th century there was a fashion for a young man to give his beloved an altered coin as a love token.  The coin might be smoothed and engraved on one side, or pierced to make a pendant, or bent, making it “crooked.”  On the other hand, perhaps a crooked coin is counterfeit.  So what do you think was the story behind our crooked man’s sixpence?  Might it have been a love token?  And if so, was it discarded or lost?  I like the idea that even if it was discarded in rejection of one potential family, it made possible the coming together of another.
        A final note for impressionable children: Families come in many forms.
[Pictures: In a Little Crooked House, rubber block print by AEGN, 2002;
Illustration by W.J. Wiegand (wood engraving by the Brothers Dalziel) from Mother Goose, or National Nursery Rhymes, 1872 (Image from Hathi Trust);
Silhouette illustration by J.F. Goodridge from The Original Mother Goose Melodies with Silhouette Illustrations, 1878 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library).]

March 20, 2020

B is for Baa Baa Black

        (My theme for this year’s A-Z Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

Baa baa, Black Sheep, have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.
One for my master, and one for my dame,
And one for the little boy who lives down the lane.

        The Black Sheep was happy to share his wool, but appreciated it when people asked nicely.
        Perhaps the most interesting variation in this nursery rhyme is that there’s another version that gives none for the little boy who lives (or cries) in the lane.  At first I thought perhaps this was one of those rhymes that had been nicened up in recent times, but in fact one of the oldest versions ever printed gives a bag to the boy in question, so it seems that throughout the history of this verse some people have chosen to withhold wool from the poor lad.  I wonder why?  When you do that, the math doesn’t even add up!  (But perhaps the boy in the lane had been known to throw rocks at the sheep?)
        I have three illustrations for you.  The first cracks me up because the boy’s pose makes me sure he must be greeting the sheep with a beer-commercial-style “Whasssaaap!?!”  The block itself is carved quite nicely, with lovely details in the tree, for example.  The second illustration shows the sad contrast between the master and dame and the wool-less little boy in the lane.  The selfish young master and dame certainly look ill-natured enough, and the boy in the lane certainly appears to be an innocent victim.  And finally the black sheep with its three bags full, which seems pretty impressive to me, although my level of expertise about wool production is low.  Well done, Black Sheep!
        One of the earlier books of nursery rhymes, from about 1760, includes morals with some of them, and for this rhyme (it gives the variant with none for the boy), it says helpfully, “Bad Habits are easier to conquer Today than Tomorrow.”  Very true, no doubt, but can anyone see what possible connection this has to the story of the Black Sheep?
        A final note for impressionable children: Bad Habits are easier to conquer Today than Tomorrow… but also, Appreciate those who provide you with the things you need.

[Pictures: Wood engraving from Mother Goose’s Melodies, published by C.S. Francis and Company, 1833 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);
Color wood block print by Walter Crane from The Baby’s Opera, printed by Edmund Evans, c 1877 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);
Wood engraving from Nursery Rhymes, published by Richardson and Son, c 1840 (Image from Opie, The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book).]

March 18, 2020

A is for A

        (My theme for this year’s A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

Great A, little a, bouncing B,
The cat’s in the cupboard and can’t see me.

        I’m starting off this A-Z series with A.  You can’t get any more on-point than that, now, can you?  I’ve also chosen this rhyme to begin with, because my first illustration of it comes from the earliest known book of nursery rhymes (in English), Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book from around 1744.  It’s a tiny book, made small for children, and printed in both black and red ink (but only one color per page.)  Apparently there were two volumes, but no known copies of volume one survive, and there is only a single known copy of this second volume.  Presumably these books were well-loved and easily lost.  And that goes to show how beloved nursery rhymes have been, for centuries.  In the mid-eighteenth century there were very few children’s books for pure entertainment, and many books that include nursery rhymes straddle the line a little, claiming to be educational.  One could argue, I suppose, that this one teaches at least the first
two letters of the alphabet!  As we shall see, however, while some nursery rhymes are moralizing or educational, many are nonsensical or downright subversive.
        I do not claim that I’m offering the best illustrations during this challenge.  Many of the greatest names in children’s illustration have turned their skills to nursery rhymes, and yet I am ignoring most of them.  That’s because this is a blog about block printing, and that’s what you’re going to get.  But I hope there will still be plenty of entertainment - and even some education - along the way.
        The first illustration is actually an engraving (printed intaglio) rather than a relief print, so it sneaks in here by virtue of its special status of “First.”  Besides, it doesn’t even include the cupboard or the cat, so it isn’t doing anything to illustrate the “story”.  The second includes both As, the B, the cupboard and the cat, and proceeds to stick the poor cat’s head in a pot just to make certain that she can’t see, even with the cupboard door open.  In that regard it actually does the best job of including all the elements.  Our third illustration, however, is certainly the most attractive, with its multiple colors and decorative details.  This one is by Walter Crane, who dominated children’s illustration and book design for a generation.  We’ll be seeing plenty more from him over the course of the alphabet.  Note that the ball on the left is marked with a B so that we really can have a bouncing B!
        Do you have fond memories of nursery rhymes and the person or people who shared them with you?
        And a final note for impressionable children: It isn’t nice to shut the cat in the cupboard.
[Pictures: Engraving from Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (Vol. II), published by Mary Cooper, c 1744 (Image from the British Library);
Wood block print from The Nursery Rhymes, printed by J.L. Marks, 1835 (Image from Internet Archive);
Color wood block print by Walter Crane from Baby’s Own Alphabet, printed by Edmund Evans, c 1874 (Image from Internet Archive).]