A little girl reading

A Little Girl Reading (after William Charles Thomas Dobson, RA (1817–98)), from the collections of the Bodleian Library
A Little Girl Reading [after William Charles Thomas Dobson, RA (1817–98)], Bodleian Library collections

from Dana Josephson and Alexandra Franklin (Bodleian Libraries)
Among the treasures of the Bodleian’s Rare Books section is the Opie Collection of Children’s Literature. On a coal-scuttle from about 1860 in the possession of Mrs Iona Opie (but not part of the collection in the Bodleian) is a painted image of a little girl reading, a subject which clearly appealed to the collecting interests of Peter and Iona Opie, who recorded so many children’s rhymes, games and songs.

Little girl reading, from a coal scuttle of about 1860 in the possession of Mrs. Iona Opie
Little girl reading, from a coal scuttle of about 1860 in the possession of Mrs. Iona Opie

Seeing this image in the publicity for the Bodleian’s exhibition of the Opie collection in 1987 prompted Annie Laurie Valentine to donate a painting which evidently derives from the same source. Until the recent refurbishment of the New Library, it hung in Room 132, the Modern Papers reading room. By means of some opportunistic research, and consultation of the very useful ‘Your Paintings’ database, Bodleian staff recently learned the identity of the artist of the painting on which this portrait is based.

The Infant's Magazine, annual number for 1870
The Infant’s Magazine, annual number for 1870

A version of the image was used on the cover of The Infant’s Magazine for 1 February 1870. Clive Hurst, who retired last year as Head of Rare Books, noticed this magazine in the Lower Reading Room of the Old Library, in a pile of books awaiting return to the bookstack. The imprint on the back cover names the printer of this version as Edmund Evans (1826-1905). Evans was well known as an engraver and printer of illustrations for children’s books. Here he appears to have been using a relief printing process known as chromoxylography, in which different woodblocks were made to print each colour in the image, with careful registration of each block in relation to the others to obtain a unified picture.

Detail, cover of The Infant's Magazine, 1870
Detail, cover of The Infant’s Magazine, 1870, engraved by Edmund Evans

The Infant’s Magazine cover is captioned, ‘after a painting by W.C.T. Dobson’; following through in the Your Paintings database revealed this as William Charles Thomas Dobson, RA (1817–98). The prime version of this painting may be that called ‘Fairy Tales’, at Cusworth Hall (Doncaster Museum Service).

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The copies are faithful to the apparent original, including the fringed sleeve of the girl’s dress, except that the later versions omit the doll in Dobson’s painting, who does add another dimension either as an audience for reading aloud, or as the plaything put aside in favour of the more absorbing storybook.

A reminder to read to children from the earliest years, as outlined here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/jun/25/read-to-babies-us-paediatricians