Friday, 23 March 2012

'Come lasses and lads ...' R. Caldecott, a Chester-born artist

Randolph Caldecott is remembered for his delightful drawings of rosy cheeked damsels, rural scenes and animals in children’s books. He co-wrote and illustrated these stories at a time when publishing attractive, inexpensive books for children was in its infancy.

Born in Chester on 22nd March 1846, his family lived at 150 Bridge Street (now number 16) on the Rows. As a child Randolph spent much of his time outdoors enjoying the countryside around Chester, drawing and modelling animals. Leaving King’s School at age 15 he went to work as a bank employee. Banking was not for him, however, and he continued to draw and paint scenes of life in Victorian society, many of them humorous. In 1861 he had his first drawing published: a sketch of the disastrous fire at the Queen Railway Hotel in Chester which appeared in the Illustrated London News together with his account of the blaze.

After moving to London in 1872 at the age of 26 he developed a good reputation drawing cartoons of London society people but it wasn’t until he began illustrating children’s stories in 1877 that he became internationally famous. By 1884 he had sold over 800,000 copies of illustrated nursery rhymes and exhibited sculptures and paintings at the Royal Academy. Randolph died whilst on holiday in Florida in February 1886, just over a month before his 40th birthday. He is commemorated in Chester with a blue plaque outside his old home in Bridge Street and a memorial inscription lies in the north transept of Chester Cathedral.

Cheshire Archives and Local Studies hold a collection of his personal papers (collection reference number D7651). Among the collection are sketches, letters, newspaper cuttings and tiny notebooks of drawings. Chester Library is also home to a superb collection of his books ranging from children’s picture books to biographies and travelogues.

Visit our 'Caldecott of Chester' exhibition - now online!

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Charles Dickens: the Cheshire connection!

To celebrate Charles Dickens' bicentenary year CALS staff delved into the Local Studies collections to search for Cheshire connections.

His paternal grandparents William and Elizabeth were employed by the Crewe family as steward and housekeeper at Crewe Hall in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. According to Annabella Crewe (daughter of the second Baron Crewe) Elizabeth Dickens was a wonderful storyteller, and on his visits Charles would sit in the housekeeper’s room listening to tales full of imagination and humour. Elizabeth left a great impression on the author and may have been immortalised in the characters Mrs Rouncewell in Bleak House and Mrs Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby.

As an established author, Charles returned to Cheshire to give a public reading of his works. Visiting Chester on 22nd January 1867 during bitterly cold weather he remarked in a letter to his daughter Mary 'I have seldom seen a place look more hopelessly frozen up than this place does. The hall [the Music Hall] is like a Methodist Chapel in low spirits, and with a cold in its head. A few blue people shiver at the corners of the streets'. However, he did enjoy an enthusiastic reception and later wrote that it was a 'tremendous night'. A review of his performance in the Chester Courant newspaper of January 30th 1867 cites his 'sparkling eye and fine voice' and his 'talent for dramatic representation'. The reporter for the Chester Chronicle, initially unconvinced of his acting talents, went on to say that Dickens 'fairly convulsed the audience with laughter' and the reading concluded 'amid loud applause' (January 26th 1867).

Other connections include a professional relationship with Knutsford’s Elizabeth Gaskell, river trips to Birkenhead and New Brighton on the Wirral, and visits to Cheadle Hall and Stanthorpe Lodge near Middlewich. There is speculation regarding a Cheshire experience being the inspiration for Miss Havisham’s untouched wedding breakfast in Great Expectations, and that characters from the story ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’ were based on a Northwich family, although this remains unproven …