The new (free) Bodleian exhibition, Dickens and his world, curated by Clive Hurst, is opening tomorrow. It runs from June 2 to October 28. There are lots of ephemera, mostly from the John Johnson Collection. The accompanying book: The curious world of Dickensby Clive Hurst and Violet Moller is full of ephemera too.
As well as items directly related to the novels (playbills of dramatisations, miniature theatre sheets etc), there are many ephemera showing the world Dickens lived in and wrote about, linked by quotations from his works.
Charles Dickens, in his article Cupid’s Manufactory (All the Year Round, February 20 1864), writes of a visit to the firm of “Cupid and Company” (actually Joseph Mansell) and minutely describes the process of making an elaborate valentine. He reveals that ‘the common kinds and the comic kinds are drawn out of doors [i.e. off-site] …. The subjects of some of the comic valentines are copied from drawings in Punch and his humorous contemporaries, but the great majority of them are original, and deal mainly with the passing follies and fashions of the day – crinoline, the Dundreary whiskers, the jacket coat, the spoon bonnet, and so forth.’
‘Comic’ valentines are the dark and lesser-known side of the tradition of sending valentines. Far from the lace paper, tinsel, scraps and feathers of the traditional elaborate valentine, they are simply and crudely printed on single or folded sheets, and coloured by stencil. While this is also true of cheaper valentines, it is the content which surprises. Both illustration and text were intended to insult the recipient who (before pre-paid postage was introduced in 1840) had to pay to receive them.
The London Review of Books in 1865 described them as ‘scandalous productions, vilely drawn, wretchedly engraved, and hastily dabbed over with staring colours …. an outlet for every kind of spiteful innuendo, for every malicious sneer, for every envious scoff.’
John Johnson collected 20 boxes of valentines (of which 4 are comic) and several albums. The valentines collected by Walter Harding are also kept with the John Johnson Collection, and these include 14 boxes of later American comic valentines, published by McLoughlin Bros. of New York. While in England the valentine itself diminished in popularity and quality at the beginning of the 20th century and the vogue for ‘comic’ valentines with it, some of the McLoughlin comic valentines were published as late as 1963.
This evening is the official opening of the Bodleian’s superb new exhibition The Romance of the Middle Ages. As the exhibition curator explores his theme across the centuries, I am delighted that he displays a programme for King Arthur at the Lyceum with Henry Irving and Ellen Terry in the cast, music by Arthur Sullivan and costumes by Edward Burne Jones.
The John Johnson Collection is often used in exhibitions and smaller displays and there have also been three major Bodleian exhibitions showcasing the Collection. The first was in 1971 and was curated by Michael Turner, who brought the Collection from the Oxford University Press in 1968. The catalogue: The Johnson Collection, catalogue of an exhibition is the standard work on the history and formation of the Collection and the text is online as a pdf. We hope to add images of the exhibits in due course.