The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 3, No 3 (1999)

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Margo Beggs, column editor


"L was a Lady": Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon and An Illustrated Comic Alphabet

Margo Beggs


The following text was prepared to accompany a workshop presentation I gave this June at the Canadian Library Association (CLA) conference in Toronto, Ontario. The theme of the workshop was "The Art of Children's Book Illustration: A Critical Approach." I chose to speak about the life and work of Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon, who is acknowledged as creating the first Canadian children's picture book. The prestigious CLA award for children's book illustration is named in her honour. This year the Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator's Award was presented to Kady MacDonald Denton for her book A Child's Treasury of Nursery Rhymes (Kids Can Press, 1998), which also won the Governor General's Literary Awards for Children's Literature - Illustration Award. For a more detailed account of the life of Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon, please see the Introduction by Judith St. John in An Illustrated Comic Alphabet (Oxford University Press, 1966).

In 1859, a young female British immigrant by the name of Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon was living in Sarnia, a town on the St. Clair River in what was then Canada West.

She earned her living as a drawing mistress. She was later described by one of her former pupils as "a highly educated lady," and there is little doubt that Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon was quite the lady indeed, for the Sarnia drawing mistress was also the granddaughter of Charles Howard, the eleventh Duke of Norfolk. Alas, the complicated romantic life of Charles Howard ensured that his granddaughter would never find herself a true member of the nobility. Amelia Frances's father, Edward, was illegitimate and thus unable to inherit the title of Duke of Norfolk.

Though Amelia Frances was not the daughter of a Duke, it is quite possible that during her childhood she was the next best thing. As a young girl, she must have lived a privileged life, for her father was for a time the Duke of Norfolk's official secretary. He then became the Mayor of Arundel. This town in Sussex, England, is famous for Arundel Castle, the Howard family seat. Perhaps Amelia Frances and her family lived in one of the apartments in the castle. At the very least, she probably would have been a visitor there.

As such, Amelia Frances would have received an education suitable for a young lady, with drawing instruction as part of the curriculum. This training she put to work to earn an income in Sarnia. Also during the Sarnia years, she designed and illustrated her picture book manuscript, An Illustrated Comic Alphabet, which is dated 1859. The original manuscript today resides in the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books, and is acknowledged as the first Canadian picture book. In 1966, facsimile and trade editions of the manuscript were published by the Osborne Collection and Oxford University Press.

What brought Amelia Frances from Arundel to the pioneer town of Sarnia? The answer still eludes us, but certainly she was one of a wave of British immigrants to move to Canada West between the 1820s and the 1850s. Many working artists, men and women alike, were among the arrivals. At that time, there was no artistic centre in Canada West to attract them, so they ventured into rural communities and small towns, where they found work painting portraits and landscapes, and teaching.

Although they now lived in Canada, these artists did not, by and large, seek to represent their new home in their work. For the most part, they used their art to revive memories of home. In this, Amelia Frances was no exception. The pen-and-ink drawings for An Illustrated Comic Alphabet are grounded in British traditions: they are based on an ancient English verse, and are done in a style that emulates British children's book illustration. Furthermore, the images seem to be inspired by the artist's recollections of Arundel Castle, the town, and the surrounding countryside.

By the early 1870s, an artistic community had sprung up in Toronto, so it is not surprising to learn that Amelia Frances relocated there, once again teaching drawing. (She is said to have counted the young Ernest Thompson Seton among her pupils). She also taught in New York, before returning to England in 1873, after nearly two decades abroad. She went home to claim an inheritance from her father's brother, and presumably to reclaim the life she had longed for. Sadly, she had that opportunity for only a short time, as she died in 1874 at the age of 48. She is buried in Arundel, next to her father.

As An Illustrated Comic Alphabet was not published in Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon's day, it cannot be said to have exerted any influence on subsequent children's book illustration. However, her work, though not highly sophisticated, merits serious attention. Her drawings seem fresh and spontaneous, and indicate an original mind at work.

Her round-faced children dressed as miniature adults may remind us of the work of Kate Greenaway, yet Amelia Frances created her book 20 years before the work of that artist was published. In fact, with her charming and eclectic mix of neo-classical and Gothic Revival details, Amelia Frances seems to be anticipating the "Queen Anne" style popularized in the 1870s by Kate Greenaway and her contemporaries Walter Crane and Randolph Caldecott.

Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon, the "highly educated lady" was also a talented and innovative illustrator. We are fortunate that An Illustrated Comic Alphabet has survived - the original manuscript is 140 years old this year - and we can be very proud in claiming it as Canada's first children's picture book.

 

Bibliographic Information:

Cruikshank, George. A Comic Alphabet. London: Charles Tilt, 1836.

Howard-Gibbon, Amelia Francis. An Illustrated Comic Alphabet. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Mahoney, Bertha E. et al. Illustrators of Children's Books, 1744-1945. Boston: The Horn Book, 1947.

Moodie, Susanna. Roughing it in the Bush. London: Richard Bentley, 1852.

Opie, Iona and Peter. Eds. Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Preston, Joseph H. Arundel: A History of the Town and Castle. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1993.

Reid, Dennis. A Concise History of Canadian Painting. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Robinson, John Martin. The Dukes of Norfolk. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Tippett, Maria. By a Lady: Celebrating Three Centuries of Art by Canadian Women. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1992.

St. John, Judith. Personal interview. 1 June 1999.

---. About Miss Howard-Gibbon and her Illustrated Comic Alphabet." In An Illustrated Comic Alphabet by Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1966.

---. The Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books 1566-1910: A Catalogue, Vol. 1. Toronto: Toronto Public Library, 1975.

---. The Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books 1566-1910: A Catalogue, Vol. II. Toronto: Toronto Public Library, 1975.

Tom Thumb's Play-book. Newcastle: Printed for T. Bell by G. Argus, 1824.



Margo Beggs is a writer and researcher living in Toronto with a special interest in children's book illustration.


Volume 3, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, 1999

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""L was a Lady": Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon and An Illustrated Comic Alphabet" ©Margo Beggs, 1999.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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