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Purchase reveals colourful history

Gay Guthrie, Special to The Packet & Times

The Land of the Little People was illustrated by Jane Mary Dealy. (Stefanie Moy-Shuster, Submitted photo)

The Land of the Little People was illustrated by Jane Mary Dealy. (Stefanie Moy-Shuster, Submitted photo)

If you were a prosperous lawyer in late Victorian England, what would you do in your spare time? Collect stamps? Do a little fly fishing? Travel the continent? All perfectly gentlemanly and just what was expected. But, with the chance purchase of a charming children’s book in an antique store — The Land of Little People — I’ve come across a most unusual lawyer indeed.

Frederick Weatherly practised law actively from 1887 until his death in 1929. In his spare time, he wrote the lyrics to nearly 2,000 popular songs (the best known today are Danny Boy and Rose of Picardy), translated opera from the Italian for Covent Garden, wrote several books on quite serious topics like logic, co-authored a legal textbook on music and copyright, published several collections of poetry and wrote nearly a dozen children’s books in verse. Just to make sure his time was fully occupied, he was also in demand as a lecturer, after-dinner speaker and, in the last years of his life, a radio broadcaster.

Weatherly was born in Somerset in 1848. He took a degree at Oxford in classics in 1871 and married that same year. He spent some years in Oxford working as a schoolmaster and private tutor before qualifying as a barrister in 1887. After starting out in London, he moved back to Somerset, where his practice blossomed. He died in Bath at the age of 81.

While at university, Weatherly submitted works several times for the prestigious Newdigate Prize for poetry. Although he didn’t win, the poems were the beginning of his astonishing parallel career.

The last decades of the 19th century were a turning point for children’s literature and particularly for the illustrated children’s book. Gradually, the 18th-century preference for instructional, moralizing stories for children with few, if any, illustrations began to give way to books that were simply entertaining and amusing with an ever-increasing number of colour plates to help the story along. The reasons for the change were many, but the rise of the middle class in the 19th century, with its more “modern” attitude that children were an important part of family life and not just to be “seen and not heard,” contributed, as did the huge popularity of Charles Dickens's stories, which were read aloud at countless family gatherings, and proved that a rip-roaring good tale was far more engaging to most children than a treatise on good behaviour.

Advances in printing, particularly of colour plates, also contributed, and as the process became more mechanized, it became less expensive to include a large number of colour illustrations in publications. Guaranteed to appeal to children. Enterprising firms like Hildesheimer & Faulkner, which began as greeting-card publishers, soon saw the potential of the market. The firm styled itself as art publishers and around 1880 produced the first of many beautifully bound and illustrated children’s books.

Frederick Weatherly started writing books for them in the early 1880s, while still in training for the law. As was typical, artists submitted sample work to Hildesheimer & Faulkner in hopes they would be chosen to illustrate one of their publications.

In 1881, the firm held a competition exhibition in London with a total of £5,000 in prizes offered for good designs. Some years later, in 1890, Beatrix Potter’s brother encouraged her to send them some of her drawings of rabbits. Some were used for greeting cards, but others were chosen to illustrate Weatherly’s book of verse, A Happy Pair.

One of the most fruitful collaborations arranged by the firm, however, was that between Weatherly and the artist Jane M. Dealy. It’s not known whether she submitted designs to the 1881 competition, but over about a decade, between 1880 and 1890, she illustrated seven books of Weatherly’s verses for children with such engaging titles as Little Pickle, Goosey Gander, Sixes and Sevens and, of course, The Land of Little People.

Surprisingly, for an artist of her calibre, little is known about Jane Mary Dealy. She was born in Liverpool in 1856 and studied in London at the Slade School and the Royal Academy, where she won first prize for drawing (a silver medal and £10) in 1880. She exhibited in London at the Institute for Painters in Watercolour and at the Royal Academy. She seems to have been active as a painter and illustrator from 1880 to about 1890 (there are 15 children’s books known to have been illustrated by her), but she rather drops out of sight after that. Perhaps her marriage to Sir Walter Lewis, an eminent lawyer, Supreme Court justice and later chief justice of the British Honduras, left her little time or inclination to pursue her career.

Dealy’s illustrations are simply delightful. They are what caught my eye immediately when I first saw the book. She provided 15 full-page pictures and a title page for The Land of Little People, all of which were produced in full colour, as well as innumerable small monotint vignettes in shades of brown, which are scattered throughout the text.

One contemporary reviewer commented that they were “all at once captivating; wholly delightful and winsome yet not overly sweet.” Readers may be familiar with the work of Kate Greenaway, one of the well-known illustrators of the time, with her pretty little girls dressed in high-waisted pinafores and mob caps or straw bonnets, and little boys in smocks or sailor suits. Dealy managed to move away from Greenaway's rather formulaic and stylized sentimentality. Her work is in a much looser style, with flowing lines, animated figures, more naturalistic settings and poses, and while it can get close to the sentimental, it certainly is never saccharine sweet. Some of the small vignettes inserted in the text are as fully realized as the full-page illustrations and it’s easy to see why her charming illustrations were so popular. The title page, illustrated above, shows Dealy at her most appealing. Four little girls in white summer dresses, one holding a doll, dance in a breezy field of daisies. The wind blows their hair and skirts, and even the flowers in the background seem to be moving. This illustration captures well the charm and immediacy Dealy brought to her illustrations and shows how much less stylized her work was than that of Kate Greenaway. The second picture shows a beautiful young woman resting her heavy basket on the sand dune she is leaning against. She gazes into the distance with a pensive, almost sad look while her two young children play in the sand at the edge of the sea. Again, a beautiful image, beautifully painted, although this one does verge slightly on the sentimental. It is redeemed, I think, by the quality of the work. Dealy was careful to relate her work to the text of the poems they accompanied so they made sense in the context of the book, but she seldom matched her subject exactly to that of a poem.

In his obituary, it was said of Frederick Weatherly that he was indefatigable, the most prolific poet of the Edwardian ballad and possessed, as a friend said, “of a blithe and tender soul.” Jane Dealy's illustrations for his children’s book capture perfectly these last qualities of Weatherly's, and their collaboration, as arranged by Hildesheimer & Faulkner, couldn’t have been more successful.

Weatherly loved a little moral in his poems for children and the moral here is keep your eyes open for unexpected treasures and you never know what other treasures a little research will reveal.

Gay Guthrie has an extensive background in antiques and as a museum curator. She can be reached at g.guthrie

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