Life in funny pictures
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.