Brian Alderson is saying goodbye to his books as he donates his remarkable collection to Seven Stories. Next to be carefully packaged up is The Child’s Arabian Nights published by Grant Richards and featuring illustrations by the incomparable W Heath Robinson.
It seems as though much of my childhood reading occurred thanks to books or comics lent by friends and neighbours. Thus it is that, while ill, round about 1938, someone loaned me a copy of Heath Robinson’s celebration of the centenary of the Great Western Railway: Railway Ribaldry. No curative could have been better and I was loth to return this masterpiece and looked out from then on to WHR’s inventive aids to good living.
I did not realise then that these drawings, the foundations of his fame, had emerged alongside regular work as a book illustrator and that by the time that his unique inventions had got underway he had illustrated at least thirty books, many of classic texts, and, later, work in the ‘gift-book’ fashion before the First World War. There would also be books of his own including the long-seller Uncle Lubin (1902).
This was published by Grant Richards, a ‘new man’, who had been publishing only since 1897 (the year of WHR’s first book) and was making a name for himself with Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, with Shaw’s plays, pleasant and unpleasant, and with the series of World’s Classics which continues to this day.
He had also established a remarkable list of original children’s picture books ranging from the huge albums such as Rag, Tag and Bobtail by Edith Farmiloe to the many small ‘Dumpy Books’ whose third number was the nefarious Little Black Sambo (nefarious not only for contemporary reasons but for his having bought the copyright for five pounds.)
For a children’s book as a successor to Uncle Lubin he may well have liked the idea of turning to some familiar Arabian territory for he had been one of the five illustrators of the sprawling Nights that had been issued as a 20-part serial in 1899. (Beare has him contributing 18 full-page drawings and 189 in-text.) Now though Scheherazade’s thousand and one storytelling sessions with the Shah are drawn upon to furnish only twelve chapters, two of which tell of Aladdin and three are from the voyages of Sindbad
The tales are set in a uniform pattern however in whose planning Grant Richards may have had a hand. After WHR’s two-page Preface each of the twelve chapters consists of a colour plate with its blank verso and four pages of text, all but one of which have an amusing pencil sketch on the first and a final tailpiece.
It must be said that, while WHR’s Preface, addressed to good or bad boys and girls at their bedtime, is a delight, there is a falling-off in the vastly abbreviated stories with barely a touch of the author’s comic or slightly satiric address to the reader that is found in the Preface. The plates however are a gaudily splendid exhibition of chromo printing in startling contrast to the genteel three-colour illustrations that would soon follow from such gift-book masters as Rackham and Dulac.
Sad to relate there was to be no later edition, whether deserved or not, since its publication coincided with the first of Richards’s two bankruptcies. As with many a publisher with a taste for classy production, ambition outran capital resources and, indeed, the success of such series as the Dumpy Books and the World’s Classics led to a strain on the reprint programme. At the same time the enthusiasm of WHR and his publisher for an elaborate two- volume edition of Gargantua and Pantagruel (gravure frontispieces, a hundred full-page plates, well over a hundred drawings in text, a special edition de luxe) was well beyond prudence.
Always happy-go-lucky in his career, Richards may have taken his sorrows on a trip to his much-loved Paris while WHR and many another were left to enjoy an eventual settlement of their debts at two shillings in the pound.
Brian Alderson is a long-time and much-valued contributor to Books for Keeps, founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times. His most recent book The 100 Best Children’s Books is published by Galileo Publishing, 978-1903385982, £14.99 hbk.
W. Heath Robinson Author of Uncle Lubin. The Child’s Arabian Nights. Illustrated in Colour [Vignette of child reading] London: Grant Richards, 48 Leicester Square, W.C. 1903. Crown 4to. 240x190mm. 84pp.incl. frontis. + 11 full-page chromolithographed plates, versos blank + 12 line drawings in text and 13 chapter tailpieces. Imprint: T.N.Storer and Sons & Co., Nottingham & London, Cheapside. Cloth-backed paper over boards, full colour pictorial titling to front, rebacked with new endpapers. [Beare 30]