CALDECOTT. New look at a picture-book pioneer

`Hey Diddle Diddle, the cat and the fiddle/The cow jumped over the moon. . . .' The cow jumped over the moon? Wait. Envision a high-spirited heifer bucking its heels toward the sky, while beyond her a smiling quarter moon is rising on the horizon -- right `under' her belly, sure enough. This is the genius of 19th-century British illustrator Randolph Caldecott: the knack for turning nonsensical verse into something sensible to children. It is part of what has made him the father of the modern-day children's picture book. Caldecott was the first to bring an interpretive touch to the art of illustration.

He took a bold step out of the world of pretty pictures, instead creating thoughtful illustrations that made their own statements -- an editorializing, of sorts.

His work ``was a total change from the staticness of all his contemporaries,'' says Michael Hutchins, author of ``Pictorially Yours: The Illustrated Letters of Randolph Caldecott.''

``The dogs jumped, the men ran, and horses galloped,'' Mr. Hutchins explains.

That animated technique is taken for granted today; so much for granted, in fact, that the illustrator's work has almost lapsed into obscurity. His name is still in circulation -- it's the appellation for the most prestigious children's book illustration award in the United States -- but his books are not. Most are out of print.

This month's centennial anniversary of his death has been accompanied by little fanfare, but the artist may yet get his due. There is growing interest in the life and work of the man who not only set the course for modern illustration, but also gave us a vivid, sometimes wry portrayal of English country life in the 1870s.

The Randolph Caldecott Society in Northwich, England, was established to keep the illustrator from being forgotten, according to founder Kenn Oultram. The three-year-old society is also trying to keep Caldecott's books in print. Mr. Oultram has persuaded Viking/Kestrel of London to reprint six of Caldecott's books this spring, but the 10 others are still out of print.

The Randolph Caldecott Society in St. Augustine, Fla. (the site of Caldecott's grave), is active in public schools in the area, according to its president, Gwen Reichert. She hopes to persuade a local library to name its new children's room ``The Randolph Caldecott Room.''

Although Caldecott's work is a smorgasbord of rolling countrysides and laughing dogs and cats, his books are not sentimental. Maurice Sendak, a prominent modern illustrator, attributes Caldecott's greatness to the ``truthfulness of his personal vision of life. . . . [A vision] expressed with such conviction and robust energy that children instinctively recognize and appreciate it as true to their own lives.''

``Baby Bunting,'' which was published in the same volume as ``Hey Diddle Diddle,'' is an example of Caldecott's use of irony to touch upon the harsher side of life. The baby, snuggly wrapped in a rabbit skin that his father had to buy because his hunting trip was unsuccessful, is staring, slightly perplexed, at a group of rabbits playing on the hillside. It is powerfully simple.

The English countryside provided plenty of landscape for Caldecott's pastoral sketches. As a youngster Caldecott spent many hours outdoors, sketching and painting birds, animals, and the countryside surrounding Chester, England.

Caldecott's father, however, discouraged his son's artistic interest and pushed him to pursue a banking career. Later, as a bank clerk in Whitchurch, Caldecott did business with farmers in the surrounding area, and he spent his free time sketching the houses and farms he visited.

Many of the local churches, cottages, and country lanes Caldecott recorded later appeared in his books. The buttressed tower of St. Oswald's Parish Church appears in ``Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross'' and ``Baby Bunting.'' The clock tower of the Whitchurch Parish Church is depicted in the glowing pastel hues of ``The Great Panjandrum Himself.''

One of Caldecott's most touching illustrations is that of the stone porch and church entrance in ``The Fox Jumps Over the Parson's Gate.'' The model for the illustration was the church of St. Martin-of-Tours, in Chelsfield, Kent, where Caldecott and his wife, Marian, were married in 1880.

Caldecott received his first formal art training at age 21, when the bank transferred him to Manchester, a wealthy city with a flourishing artistic community and art school. Many of the connections Caldecott made in Manchester later helped him to break away from the banking world, move to London, and become a free-lance artist.

Caldecott's work for such prominent magazines as Punch and London Society, as well as his illustrations for Washington Irving's book ``Old Christmas,'' caught the eye of Edmund Evans, the best wood engraver and printer in London.

Mr. Evans, the printer for two popular children's illustrators, Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway, approached Caldecott about illustrating one-shilling picture books.

Evans made a tremendous contribution to the development of children's picture books. ``He was an innovative, imaginative businessman who knew what would sell,'' says Elizabeth Billington, author of ``The Randolph Caldecott Treasury.'' ``Without Edmund Evans, I doubt there would have been a Walter Crane, or a Kate Greenaway, or a Caldecott.''

Young Caldecott agreed to illustrate two picture books, and he and Evans developed a unique working relationship. ``The success -- artistic, financial, and technical -- that Caldecott and Evans achieved was doubtless due to their independence within their partnership,'' says Hutchins.

The freedom Evans allowed Caldecott is seen, for instance, in ``Sing a Song for Sixpence.'' By changing one word in the nursery rhyme -- the rhyme is popularly known as ``Sing a Song of Sixpence'' -- Caldecott took a puzzling verse and made it into a delightful story (below).

As Caldecott explains it pictorially, a little girl is paid for singing a song for her relatives and she gives her money to a man chopping wood. The man spends the money to buy rye and runs home to show it to his wife, and to his two children, who had been snaring blackbirds. They are overjoyed, and a grand pie is to be baked. But when the pie is opened up, the birds are singing, and the man insists that the pie be taken to the King.

By changing one word, Caldecott spins a new, coherent story though his illustrations.

The books sold so fast that Evans had trouble keeping up with the demand. There are two reasons Caldecott's books met with such success, says Selma Richardson, associate professor of library science at the University of Illinois at Urbana. One was the considerable technical advances in printing; the other, the excellence of Caldecott's work.

His books ``have a tremendous vitality,'' a ``humor and joy of life that comes across to children,'' says Ellin Greene, a New Jersey-based consultant in library services for children.

The simplicity of Caldecott's style is intentional and effective. He worked to eliminate unnecessary lines from his illustrations. His artistic tenet was: ``The art of leaving out is a science. The fewer the lines, the less error committed.''

Caldecott ``used simple line art and simple color,'' explains Anita Silvey, editor of The Horn Book Magazine, a children's book review publication. This ``simplicity of style and the storytelling content of the art'' have become a trademark of the traditional picture book, she adds.

Caldecott's last two picture books were published in the fall of 1885, shortly after he and his wife left on a sketching tour of America, where Caldecott died. Mrs. Caldecott, who survived her husband by 46 years, was as private and retiring as her husband had been. Among the papers she left to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is a sketch entitled ``Negroes loading cotton bales in Charleston [S.C].'' On the back is written, ``Last drawing ever made by Randolph Caldecott.''

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