Old Aunt Elspa and her alphabet, made for “book-loving chubbies.” Think you could get away with calling your audience chubby today? Even if they’re five…? Doubt it. No, Old Aunt Elspa dates back to 1884. The antiquated S that looks like an F, the cover that proudly proclaims the availability of a color edition, and even the words used– birch-rod, hautboy, and higgle –all bely it’s age. The woodcuts are in a style popular from the 17th through the earlier part of the 19th century. And, ringing in at the tail-end of that popularity, Joseph Crawhall perfected them, made them anew. It is to him that stylists such as William Nicholson are indebted. Here’s a whole slew of some of Crawhall’s other cuts, uncolored. In almost all of them, the thick lines allow for a sort of grotesque fun in his images.
Who was Joseph Crawhall? I found little on him, but what I do know is that he was a well to-do man, the son of a pretty impressive entrepreneur, Joseph Crawhall I. At a first glance, the second Joseph seems to have been that quintessential son of a rich man, dabbling loosely in many things and embracing the arts. If you are very interested in him, this book–Joseph Crawhall : The Newcastle Wood Engraver 1821 – 1896 by Charles S. Felver– has been recommended to me, though I cannot yet speak for it. Also, check out this website (http://www.josephcrawhall.org/).
Now just because he was a dandy of sorts does not dismis Crawhall II from our attentions. After all, anything that’s been reprinted at all in our modern times (my print is from 1978) must have seemed worthy of the reprint. True, that reprint may simply be the modern era reveling in antiquity and speak not all to the quality of the book itself. Nothing wrong with being excited about that. Truly, in Crawhall we imagine a perfect example of an antiquated style whose words and pictures both embody his era for our modern readers. But I leave you with a painting made in 1887, 3 years after the books publication, that shows a child learning to read Old Aunt Elspa with his grandfather. It’s the very picture of innocent, earnest learning and Old Aunt Elspa holds center stage in a childhood rite of passage.
So, yes, Crawhall seems to us a symbol for the turn of the 19th century, a glance at times of yore. But Old Aunt Elspa obviously embodied that era in its own time as well. At least enough to ring out and touch other mediums as a symbol in it’s own right, a symbol of childhood.