Copper Plate Pictures: Prints for the Juvenile Market

Jill Shefrin spoke to the Friends of the Bodleian on 8 June 2010, describing a volume of picture prints issued by William Darton Jr. (1781-1854).  Darton was one of the family of publishers whose books for children, appearing in the late 18th and 19th centuries, have been documented most recently in Shefrin’s own monograph, The Dartons : publishers of educational aids, pastimes & juvenile ephemera, 1787-1876 : a bibliographical checklist.  (2009)

The volume of prints [shelfmark Bodleian Vet. A6 c.118], acquired by the Bodleian Libary in 2008, dates from about the 1820s and contains over 50 prints from the numbered series Children’s Copper Plate Pictures, including such edifying scenes as ‘The stag at bay’ (no. 1) and ‘A farm house on fire’ (no. 8), as well as sheets with sets of smaller pictures.

The volume contains more of the harlequinades originally published by Benjamin Tabart (1767 or 8-1833) , probably acquired by William Darton Jr. at a time when Tabart was facing bankruptcy. Apparently Darton then issued these himself from his firm at Holborn Hill, London, as they remained popular.

Thirty-two of the prints are sheets of book illustrations. Eight to a sheet, these provided the plates (usually 16 for each volume) for entertaining and educational books for children, with such titles as ‘Inhabitants of the world’ and ‘The book of dogs’.

Shefrin described how a careful examination of this volume of prints supported her research into the workings of the market in children’s books. Having the sheets together in one volume confirmed that Darton had consolidated a stock of picture publications for children from works originally by Tabart, himself, and his father William Darton Sr. (1755-1819). The selection of items shows that earlier prints were re-used, and that old and new pictures were combined into series to be sold together.

It may have been intended as a sample album, to show potential customers examples of Darton’s work.

The volume is described in OLIS, the Bodleian’s online catalogue, (catalogued under the title ‘Darton Sample Album’, shelfmark Vet. A6 c.118).

See this earlier post for descriptions of other Benjamin Tabart harlequinades in the Bodleian’s collections.

Benjamin Tabart Harlequinades


The Library has recently acquired an album of 89 coloured prints dating from the early 1820s. It may have been issued by William Darton Jr. (1781-1854) and his firm at Holborn Hill during the mid-1820s as a sample album to show potential customers examples of his work. It contains a small number of sheets originally issued in 1800 by William Darton Sr. (1755-1819);  11 harlequinades in unfolded sheets with the imprint of B. Tabart & Co., and some sheets bearing Darton Jr’s imprint with dates ranging from 1821 to 1824. This mix of imprints suggests that Darton Jr. inherited some of his father’s old stock upon his death, including some of Benjamin Tabart’s publications which William Sr. possibly acquired in 1811 when financial difficulties may have forced Tabart to sell off some of his stock.

The harlequinades are especially interesting as very few examples survive generally, and four of the eleven Tabart examples in this album are currently untraced elsewhere. There are certainly difficulties locating harlequinades in library and museum catalogues around the world as they can be treated equally as toys, books, ephemera or prints, but as some titles were not located by Marjory Moon in her bibliography of Tabart’s Juvenile Library it seems likely that some of the Bodleian copies may be unique survivals. It is also possible that these eleven titles represent Tabart’s entire output of harlequinades, but that is pure speculation.

Blue Beard. Sold by B. Tabart & Co., June 1st. 1809.
Robinson Crusoe. Sold by B. Tabart & Co. June 1. 1809.
Veroni or the novice of St. Marks. Published by B. Tabart & Co, June 1. 1809.
Mother Goose. Published by B. Tabart & Co., July 1st 1809.
Hop o’ my thumb. Published by B. Tabart & Co., Jany. 1st. 1810..
Black Beard the pirate. Published, by B. Tabart & Co., July 1st. 1809.
Parnell’s hermit. Published, by Tabart & Co., Jany. 31st. 1810.
Exile, as performed at the royal theatres. Published by B. Tabart & Co., June 1st. 1809.
Robin Hood. Published by B. Tabart & Co., June 1st. 1809.
Polish tyrant. Published, by B. Tabart & Co., Aug. 1st. 1809.
A tale of mystery. Published by B. Tabart & Co., Jany. 25th, 1810.
Shelfmark: Vet. A6 c.118

The entire album will be available online in Summer 2009 as part of the John Johnson Collection’s Electronic Ephemera Project. Full records for the harlequinades are available now via OLIS.


The Library has recently accepted a deposited collection of early children’s books from the Lewis Family Trust, which includes five harlequinades. A harlequinade (known also as a metamorphosis, flap-book or turn-up book) is composed of two single engraved sheets. The first sheet is folded perpendicularly into four sections. A second sheet is cut in half and hinged at the top and bottom edges of the first so that each flap could be lifted separately. The sheets are folded into four, like an accordion, and then roughly stitched with a paper cover. A verse on each section of the flap tells a simple story usually concluding with instructions to turn a flap to continue. When the flap is turned either up or down the viewer sees that half of the new picture fits onto the half of the un-raised flap, so the act of lifting one flap after another creates a surprise unfolding of the story. Click to see a harlequinade in action harlequinade-movie.

They were devised by the publisher Robert Sayer and were popular from about 1765 until the beginning of the 19th Century, although manuscript copies telling biblical stories survive from the late 17th Century. The printed copies often have Harlequin as the central character, hence harlequinade, and were sometimes published to accompany a current performance on the London stage.