“The Book of Blockheads” by Charles Bennett: A Victorian Gem

Gem 1

Illustrator, satirist and children’s writer Charles Bennett was born near Covent Garden in 1828. His life was short (he died at only 38) and punctuated by ill health but he was a popular and gifted man, who was clearly liked by his colleagues. He was described by M. H Spielmann, in his ‘History of “Punch”’ as “one of the brightest and most talented draughtsmen Punch ever had.” His peers seem to have not only appreciated his skills but also his sense of humour, indulging in friendly banter at his expense. He was teased by them for his artistically long hair, for example a ‘Punch Council’ of October 24th 1866 resolved:

“That this meeting deeply sympathises with C H Bennett on the state of his hair.
That this meeting appreciates the feeling which detains the said Bennett from the Council until his hair shall have been cut.” (Spielmann, 77)

They go on to offer to set up a subscription to enable him to go the barbers and “have his dam [sic.] hair cut” and be able to re-join the assembly of the brethren.

Bennett made over 230 drawings for “Punch” including a series of illustrations on “The Essence of Parliament.” Spielmann thought that Bennett would be remembered for his parliamentary drawings.

Gem 2

“Essence of Parliament” for 10th February 1866 issue of “Punch” by Bennett

“The great Reform Bill stands a thing of snow.
Assistance RUSSELL, GLADSTONE GOSCHEN bring
While DERBY, DIZZY, WALPOLE, missiles fling.”

Gem 3

 “Fresh Game for Mr Punch” by Bennett for “Punch” 11th August 1866.  The peacock figure at the bottom of the image is writer and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton who was raised to the peerage in 1866.

Bennett was frequently in financial difficulty and after his death the men of “Punch” raised some money to help his family by putting on a play and other performances (July 29th 1867).  The programme included “Cox and Box; or the Long Lost Brothers” with original music by Arthur Sullivan and Tom Taylor’s popular drama “A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing” with Mark Lemon and Ellen Terry among the players.

Gem 4

The Dalziels were the engravers of much of Bennett’s work but Joyce Irene Whalley tells us that he frequently cut his own wood blocks and was one of the few artists of the period to use both etching and wood engraving. She goes on to say:

“His illustrations had a certain whimsical and facetious quality about them, in keeping with much contemporary work, and although he could make his pictures perfectly plain and attractive to a child, he nearly always added a touch of detail which would appeal more to an adult.” (79)

That appeal to adults is borne out in Bennett’s “Book of Blockheads” which was published by Samson Low of Ludgate Hill in 1863. It was essentially a child’s A-Z combined with an amusing moral tale.

It opens with “Once upon a time there stood, in the middle of next week, a little city called Block.” Their neighbours the Wiseacres are angry with them and decide to lay siege to Block and starve the Blockheads into good manners. Their attempt is foiled by the gate being locked so they sit outside and wait. As the ‘besieged’ inmates run out of food the greatest Blockheads are asked by the increasingly desperate inhabitants to ‘get their dinners’. There follows 26 (one alliterative name for each letter) endeavours which fail to fulfil the city’s hunger.

‘Charley the Captain’ offers to fight for their dinners, but first he must ‘be covered in lace’.
In a few short sentences Bennett manages to communicate to children and adults alike the character’s self-importance and stupidity.

“So in honour of the battle he was going to win, they brought all the gold lace they could find, and with a strong needle and double thread sewed it onto his coat, hat, gloves and breeches, – they would have sewn it on his boots but they could not get the needle through.”

Gem 5

The illustration shows a tangle of arms, legs, bellows and umbrella, with Charley (finally dressed for battle) astride his innocent victims in dramatic pose and with frenzied expression. The contained shape of the image intensifies the sense of frantic movement and noise in a tightly controlled space. The bellows and the windmill in the image are both references to “Don Quixote” by Cervantes. Charlie is tilting (as in jousting) at windmills i.e. his attack is misplaced and will not achieve its purpose.

Upper class characters are largely portrayed as out of touch with the city inhabitants. “Edward the Esquire” gets it wrong because generally he “holds his nose up in the air and his dinner comes to him” and Kole the King just doesn’t understand the problem and complains that “they are always wanting something to eat.”

Francis the Farmer is well meaning and ploughs the land and plants crops for their dinners but fails to appreciate that they need their dinners now and cannot wait for them to grow.

Richard the Robber tries to steal their dinners but doesn’t manage to steal anything useful.

He is depicted running away from the inhabitants of Block, his legs stretched out across the image, his sword mirroring the stretched legs and the watches he has stolen curved before him.

Gem 6

Only the Fool, the cleverest man in Block, named Zephaniah the Zany manages to get the Blockheads their dinners.

“He puzzled it up, he puzzled it down, he puzzled it in and at last, he puzzled it out”…but you will have visit to read the book to find the solution!

Watch our Pinterest boards & blog in the coming months for more illustrations from Bennett including “The Sorrowful Ending of Noodle Doo”.

Jeanie Smith
Assistant Librarian

References

Bennett, Charles H. The Book of Blockheads. London: S. Low, Son, and Co, 1863.
(Our reference H 6.6 no 10)

“Punch or the London Charivari” 1866
(Our reference ST 670)

Spielmann, M. H. The History of “Punch.” London; Paris; Melbourne: Cassell and Company, 1895.
(Our Reference 052)

Whalley, Joyce Irene et al. A History of Children’s Book Illustration. London: Murray with the Victoria & Albert Museum, 1988.
(Our reference 741:64)

 

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