Thursday, January 7, 2010

"Under the Window" and Under My Nose

Ah the Livingstons' historic library: it is always a source for new curiousities. The last time I poked my nose in there, I found Beatrix Potter books. This time, I found...
Illustrated children's books as we know them today were in their infancy when Alice Livingston was growing up in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Although stories written for children had been around for some time, books full of unified text and illustrations had to wait until the triumverate of early English children's illustrators--Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott (illustration pictured at right), and Kate Greenaway--came onto the scene in the the 1870s. The wild popularity of these new books would have been part of Alice's childhood, and perhaps she even owned a few of them.
Of these three illustrators, Kate Greenaway (1846-1801) has probably retained the most popularity in modern America. She published her first book, Under the Window, in 1877, and more books followed until her death in 1901 (the year before Beatrix Potter published her first book). Two of these books can be found in Clermont's collections today: Under the Window and Little Anne.

Like the rest of Greenaway's work, these books are heavy with nostalgia, featuring care-free images of "yesteryear." Greenaway grew up during the era of Dickens, in an England thick with the smoke of industrialization. Her books vividly called up cultural memories of the early 1800s, complete with stylized Regency-era costumes, gentle blue skies, and delicate English country gardens.
They feature poetry for children, written by Greenaway herself. Sweet, moralistic, and with a simple rhyme structure, they make especially good reading for young children by the standards of the day.

Her books were influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement and John Ruskin, with whom she also became friends. The influence can be seen aesthetically in her choice of natural settings and extensive use of soft naturalistic colors--especially green. The Arts and Crafts movement's eye for simplicity and Japanese-influenced themes (her cherry trees are particularly remeniscent of this) also can be seen in Greenaway's work.

The connection to the Arts and Crafts movement makes it interesting to see these books in Alice Livingston's collection of books. Though Under the Window was published in the 1870s, and it was around when Alice was a child. Alice appears to have re-purchased the book as an adult, in 1903--before her own children were born in 1909 and 1910--indicating that it was of some imoprtance to her.

The inscription in the front of Under the Window reads "March 1903/We had our original copy on 42nd Street in 1881." The handwriting appears to be Alice's, perhaps indicating that she purchased a new copy of the book as an adult.

Alice was interested in many kinds of art from early in her life. Of her two-year honeymoon through Europe and northern Africa, Alice once said that Egypt had been her favorite part of the whole trip because of its art. Within Alice's writings that survive today, one of the most touching describes her emotional devotion to art and "line." It suggests that she drew a sense of comfort from art during the tumult of her adolescent emotions.

Later in life, Alice also demonstrated some interest in Japanese art and the Arts and Crafts movement. A Morris chair, a definitively Arts and Crafts piece of furniture, stands in her bedroom, and she was very interested in Japanese floral arrangements.
The illustrations in Greenaway's books also mirror Alice's own art. Both feature neoclassical costumes and figures, and both prominently feature women, children, and pets.
Finding these influencial children's books in Alice's belongings during a time in which she had no children herself and was out of their target age range is suggestive of the way that Alice perceived of them. Were they escapism for her? A memory of a book that had been precious to her in childhood and reminder her of that security as an adult? It is not impossible that she simultaniously saw them for their artistic value.
However she saw them, the two books remain in Alice book collection over a century later, probably after having become part of Janet and Honoria's childhood as well. Kate Greenaway's books continued to be part of other children's lives as well, being republished in their entirety as recently as the late 1970s, and her artwork still be published in numerous collections from a variety of book sellers.

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