Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley and William Heath Robinson

The Water Babies by Reverend Charles Kingsley was first published in its entirety in 1863. This hardcover version (a gift from my coworker Doug and the serendipitous Rockport, MA transfer station) looks to be from 1915, published by the Houghton Mifflin Company.

This volume is in fairly good condition for being 99 years old. It's a little weathered around the edges and there's some water damage, some of the front pages are a little loose, but they're all present. It's too bad the front cover illustration is missing.

Here's an image I found of the front cover on Google. This illustration also appears later in the story.

 The content of the story is didactic in tone and tells of a young chimney sweep named Tom who falls into a river and drowns. He becomes a water baby and sets about having various moral adventures, which culminate in his quest to redeem his old master, Grimes. Grimes also drowns, and is given a chance at life if he can perform a final act of penance. 

Through the story Kingsley shares his concern for the English poor and questions the use of child labor. However, he also reveals several typical Victorian prejudices towards Americans, and the Irish Catholics in particular.

I confess I haven't read the story in its entirety yet. My main interest is with the illustrations by William Heath Robinson.

There are two different illustration styles represented in The Water Babies. First, a pen and ink, black and white style, like the illustration below.

I love the art nouveau, Mucha-like look of the lady and how her dress floats around her in a graceful swirl.

The second style, found in the color plates, is a dreamy watercolor style which is well suited to the numerous underwater scenes.

 William Heath Robinson lived from 1872 - 1944. He was best known for his "drawings of ridiculously complicated machines for achieving simple objectives." He also illustrated many classic fairy tales and stories including The Arabian Nights, and Tales from Shakespeare. Original drawings by Robinson are available for purchase in the UK.

I think I like his pen and ink style the best. The slightly cartoon-y quality of the pen and ink figures have a lot of personality and charm.

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