Life in funny pic­tures

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View -

LATE last year, I was brows­ing in a sec­ond- hand book­shop in Bal­main, in in­ner west­ern Syd­ney and, among the hun­dreds of man­u­als on the art of bas­ket- weav­ing, came across a large­for­mat chil­dren’s book with a familiar rain­bow mo­tif on its cover. Sud­denly it was 1959, not 2007, and I was a kid back in Wil­liamstown, in those days a rather down- at- heel, iso­lated sub­urb on Port Phillip Bay.

The book in ques­tion was a copy of that pe­cu­liar Aus­tralian, and more par­tic­u­larly Mel­bur­nian, in­sti­tu­tion, Cole’s Funny Pic­ture Book , the hugely suc­cess­ful brain­child of the book­seller and re­main­der mer­chant, E. W. Cole ( 1832- 1918). For Mar­cel Proust, it was the taste of a par­tic­u­lar kind of sponge cake that aroused in­vol­un­tary mem­o­ries of child­hood; for me, it’s al­ways been the look, smell and feel of the pages of a Cole’s Funny Pic­ture Book .

The Bal­main copy, which I even­tu­ally bought for $ 25, was a No 3. First pub­lished in 1951 by Cole’s grand­son, Cole Turnley, No 3 was largely a com­pen­dium of Cole’s orig­i­nal No 1 and No 2, with mod­ern ma­te­rial added. No 2, which went into a 58th edi­tion in 1929, sold 630,000 copies. The Pic­ture Book s are widely re­garded as the most pop­u­lar chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture pro­duced in Vic­to­rian and early 20th cen­tury Aus­tralia. First edi­tions of No 1, which ap­peared in 1879, were sell­ing for as much as $ 10,000 in the 1970s.

I could hardly take my No 3 home and ad­mit I’d bought it for my­self, so I pre­sented it to my 10- year- old son. He was soon as en­grossed in it as I was, or imag­ine I was, as a child in the late 1950s and early ’ 60s.

It’s hard to think of any­thing in the read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of mod­ern chil­dren that par­al­lels the Pic­ture Book s, which ap­peal to the child’s love of a pot­pourri or grab bag. My son par­tic­u­larly liked the pic­ture puz­zles, but there are also nurs­ery rhymes, sto­ries, bizarre photo- spreads ( such as ba­bies of the world, or faces rep­re­sent­ing 72 na­tion­al­i­ties) and, of course, funny pic­tures.

Last month, I found my­self in Melbourne with a few hours to spare and called up some orig­i­nal Pic­ture Book s from the stacks in the State Li­brary, along with an il­lus­trated bi­og­ra­phy of Cole by Turnley, who con­tin­ued the Pic­ture Book fran­chise un­til he died, two years ago, aged 86.

Cole was one of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary char­ac­ters of Mar­vel­lous Melbourne. Born in Kent, he ar­rived on the Vic­to­rian gold dig­gings in 1852. In the 1860s he ran a pie stall in Melbourne while work­ing on the first of many books in which he would try to demon­strate that all the reli­gions of the world are one. It was the drive to pub­li­cise his own books and pam­phlets, along with a pow­er­ful en­tre­pre­neur­ial im­pulse, that led to his even­tual pub­lish­ing ef­forts and the open­ing of his fa­mous book ar­cade in Burke St, in 1873.

Cole’s gift for pub­lic­ity was amaz­ing: he was like a 19th cen­tury ver­sion of Dick Smith. He wrote col­umns in the Melbourne Her­ald that were re­ally ad­ver­to­ri­als for his ar­cade. He was happy to hoax his read­ers in or­der to cap­ture their at­ten­tion — sev­eral col­umns de­tailed the dis­cov­ery of a race of hu­man be­ings with tails — and was per­fectly pre­pared to live out his private life in pub­lic, if it as­sisted busi­ness.

In 1875, he ad­ver­tised in the Melbourne Her­ald for a wife: ‘‘ I re­quire a wo­man chaste, sober, hon­est, truth­ful, in­tel­li­gent, in­dus­tri­ous, fru­gal, cleanly, neat, not dressy, good- tem­pered, mod­er­ately ed­u­cated and a lover of home.’’ A young Tas­ma­nian wo­man, El­iza Frances, stepped for­ward to aver she pos­sessed th­ese qual­i­ties, and the two lived and worked hap­pily to­gether, pro­duc­ing six chil­dren, un­til El­iza’s death in 1911.

As well as be­ing like Dick Smith, Cole was like William Blake. ( That was a sen­tence I never ex­pected to read, let alone write.) Like Blake, he was op­ti­mistic, pro­lific and im­pa­tient. As I sat in the domed read­ing room of the State Li­brary, where Cole him­self prob­a­bly sat many times, and leafed through a No 1, it struck me how much of the fun in the Funny Pic­ture Book s is un­der­pinned by Cole’s will to drive home the be­lief, which he shared with Blake, in the fam­ily of man and the unity of reli­gions.

Like Blake, he is a pas­sion­ate anatomist: a cat­a­loguer and schema­tiser of knowl­edge and ideas. The chil­dren’s books are di­vided into cat­e­gories such as Good Boy Land, Bad Boy Land ( and the same for girls), Dolly Land, Tem­per Land and so on. And those photo and pic­ture­spreads — hats of the world, pipes of the world, va­ri­eties of good girls (‘‘ good girl eat­ing her crust’’, ‘‘ good girl know­ing her lessons’’) — are mini- anatomies of cul­ture and more or less whim­si­cal at­tempts to drive home the ‘‘ fam­ily of man’’ no­tion.

Cole was no re­specter of copy­right as he put to­gether th­ese anatomies: Turnley re­veals that most of the draw­ings and pho­tos were re­cap­tioned car­toons and il­lus­tra­tions, cut- and- pasted from con­tem­po­rary mag­a­zines such as Punch . Cole would have loved the in­ter­net.

Much in the books is pure ( and good) fun, in­clud­ing the fa­mous draw­ing of Cole’s Pa­tent Whip­ping Ma­chine for Flog­ging Naughty Boys in School. But then, inside the back cover of No 1, he will drop a para­graph like this:

‘‘ It al­ways ap­peared to me that there must be in this vast, il­lim­itable, and beau­ti­ful uni­verse, myr­i­ads of be­ings, su­pe­rior to our weak mor­tal selves, and at the head of all and over all, an im­mor­tal Be­ing of in­fi­nite per­fec­tion, which think­ing men in all coun­tries and ages have called GOD . . . The Supreme Be­ing was be­lieved in, praised and wor­shipped by all the an­cient peo­ples.’’

De­spite the fact the Funny Pic­ture Book s are full of racial stereo­types — one of the ac­tiv­i­ties sug­gested is ‘‘ how to draw a funny ne­gro’’ — Cole was an early cam­paigner against White Aus­tralia, which he re­garded as an af­front to his ver­sion of Chris­tian­ity. One of his pam­phlets is called The Bet­ter Side of the Chi­nese Char­ac­ter.

In Cole, hu­man im­prove­ment, in­tel­lect, hu­mour, and the drive to make a buck formed a pro­duc­tive al­liance. He gave out medal­lions to his cus­tomers as draw­cards — th­ese, too, are now col­lec­tors’ items — and en­graved them with en­light­ened say­ings and ad­vice.

Gripped by Dar­win­ism and hear­ing of a new the­ory that pri­mates shared a kind of speech, he promptly im­ported a dozen chimps. They never re­vealed their thoughts, but Cole re­alised that there was a con­ve­nient sec­ond role for the mon­keys and in­stalled them in cages in the book ar­cade. Along­side the jug­glers and buskers, the au­toma­tons and brass band, they be­came a pop­u­lar at­trac­tion.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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