[Thackeray created the illuminated initial B for Vanity FairGeorge P. Landow.]

Thackeray's decorated initial B

ennett wrote and illustrated many of his books, but he also designed the arrangement of the pages and the cloth covers in which they were bound. His activities in these fields contributed to his works’ quirky individuality, extending the grotesque humour contained within the text onto the opening leaves and the bindings enclosing them. No documentation survives from the period with any details, and some of the attributions must be made on stylistic grounds.

Bennett’s page design is unlike that of comic books of the period in that his illustrations are neither vignettes nor framed within a conventional enclosing line. Rather, he experiments with irregular shapes. This approach features especially in Wills’s Poets’ Wit and Humour. In The Belle of the Ball (p.240) the portrait is bound by lines of smoke emanating from a lamp; in Salad the animistic contents of the meal are framed by the bowl (p.234); in The Red Fisherman (p.225) the fishing line swirls out onto the page; and in Ben Block the ribbon attached to the mariner’s hair is a twisting frame (p.188). Most inventive of all are A Hunting we will go (the shape of the hunting horn, p.106), and The Merry Soap-boiler (a droll snake; p.99). This types of arabesque features elsewhere and is used to dynamic effect on his title-pages, such as the opener of The Nine Lives of a Cat.

The ventilating of the illustration animates the pages of all of his books and can be read, as in the content of his images, as an interest in illusion and the complications of perception. The process of interpreting his books as visual artefacts is always problematized by his exploration of visual puns, shadows and substitutions, and his dissolving of the pages’ spatial stability is perhaps another aspect of this concern. Also important is colour. Most of his juveniles are composed of hand-coloured wood-engravings, and the use of what are sometimes lurid tones adds another complicating dimension to the process of visual punning, taking the impossible out of the abstracted world of black and white and suggesting it might be real. How much of this was intended is of course impossible to know, and we can only speculate on the artist’s control over the technical aspects of his books’ production.

More is known of his books’ bindings. Three were bound in covers designed by outstanding practitioners in the field: Poets’ Wit and Humour is the work of Robert Dudley and The Pilgrim’s Progress and Quarles’ Emblems by Harry Rogers, who also drew some of the emblematic illustrations for Quarles; their shared authorship is celebrated in their intertwined monograms, ‘CB’ and ‘HR’, on the back-strip. Bennett also designed eight of the covers for his books (King, pp.4–6), so attaining in at least some of his publications an absolute control of the writing, the illustration, the page-design and the boards enclosing them.

Left: Mr Wind and Madam Rain. Right: The Sad History of Greedy Jem and All his Little Brothers. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

His bindings take the form of gilt devices on coloured cloth which represent a comic scene from the text, although some of them are bound in a paper wrapper with illustrations printed on the boards. Speaking of cloth, Douglas Ball has noted that the gilt image repeats a motif in one of the engravings (p.95), but closer inspection reveals that most of them are original compositions which act, in the usual manner of the time, to project the books’ humour and ambience into the reader/viewer’s space. To some extent, they are part of a sales pitch, inviting the potential buyer to judge the book by its cover. It is noticeable that they contain none of the sarcasm of the illustrations, but are unambiguously funny and eye-catching; Noodle Doo and The Book of Blockheads are good examples, the first with the figure of a jester and the second with a group made up of a cat, an owl and two crows. The effect, as in the engravings contained within, is quaintly appealing, presenting the viewer with a visual synopsis of Bennett’s intricate and eccentric world.

Related Material

Works Cited

Baker, Anne Pimlott. ‘Bennett, Charles Henry’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online version.

Ball, Douglas. Victorian Publishers’ Bindings. London: Library Association, 1985.

Cooke, Thomas. A Practical and Familiar View of the Science of Physiognomy. London: for Mrs Cooke, 1819.

Corrigan, Grahaeme. ‘Amusing Aesop’. Children’s Literature Archive. www.http//:ryerson.ca/childrenslit/group37.html

King, Edmund. Victorian Decorated Trade Bindings, 1830 –1880. London: The British Library, 2003.

Vizetelly, Henry. Glances Back Through Seventy Years. London: Kegan Paul. Trench, Trübner & Co., 1893.

Last modified 29 March 2014