Colouring in the Past – a History of Colouring Books, Then & Now

As crazes go, they don’t get much bigger than the current obsession with adult colouring books. Heralded as the new absorbing, therapeutic route to de-stressing and ‘mindfulness,’ colouring in is no longer just for the kids. Johanna Basford’s colouring books of intricate natural worlds, published by Laurence King since 2013, have sold a staggering 10 million globally. Millie Marotta, Batsford’s colouring queen, is shifting in equally eye-watering quantities. Jumping on the bandwagon is the magazine industry; titles currently on the newsstand include the self-explanatory ‘Colour In’ magazine, as well as those overlapping into the self-help market with titles such as ‘Colour Calm’ and ‘Zen Colouring.’ At a recent visit to the Spring Fair in Birmingham, we witnessed colour-in T-shirts, bags, cushions and more. Type ‘colouring in’ into Amazon and you find hundreds of books with words and phrases such as ‘therapy’, ‘relaxing’ and ‘I can’t sleep.’

How did we get here? What happened? How did it suddenly become acceptable for grown-ups to spend their time colouring in? For anyone who has sat with a child and helped them colour in, it is undoubtedly a rather pleasant experience (except when the child in question takes a thick, black crayon and starts going over the lines undoing all your good work. That can actually be quite upsetting). Adult colouring books began a few years back with a smattering of tongue-in-cheek books marketed at the young and hip. Those in search of an ironic gift could give their nearest and dearest a book from Mel Elliot’s Colour Me Good range starring outline drawings of the likes of Ryan Gosling, Damian Lewis, Taylor Swift or Benedict Cumberbatch. Michael O’Mara Books were one of the first publishers to produce a more ‘mainstream’ colouring book in 2012 with the ‘The Creative Colouring Book for Grown Ups’, i.e. something you were actually meant to colour in – properly. In 2016, there are now adult colouring books on every conceivable theme from Harry Potter and Game of Thrones to a neat little pocket book featuring Liberty of London textile patterns.

And so here we are. Modern life is so stressful, we apparently need to sit down and colour in to recover from it all. But whether you view colouring in as a harmless creative activity, or a mindless (as opposed to mindful) harbinger of the fall of civilisation, the advent of colouring-in, back in the 19th century, is rooted in surprisingly similar principles.

According to Wikipedia, the concept of colouring in was first suggested as a way to democratise art and was inspired by a series of lectures by painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the works of Swiss educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and his student Friedrich Frobel. The belief was that colouring in led to spiritual edification and was a way to enhance cognitive abilities, so improving future prospects. Latching on to this idea, the first colouring book, ‘The Little Folks Painting Book’, illustrated by Kate Greenaway, was published in the United States by trailblazers McLoughlin Bros. in 1879. It’s worth mentioning that early colouring books were intended for paints and even by the 1930s, when crayons had become widely available, colouring books were produced with the aim of being suitable for either paints or crayons and continued to be called ‘painting books’ for quite some time.

We do not have ‘The Little Folks Painting Book’ at the library but we do have several other early examples, not least another Kate Greenaway illustrated book entitled simply, ‘Kate Greenaway’s Painting Book,’ published by Frederick Warne. Untouched by childish hands, this edition is in ‘mint’ condition, but rather more interesting is ‘The Merry Moments Painting Book,’ also published by Warne, where most of the outline drawings have been coloured in with crayon, the young artist carefully replicating the full printed version on the opposite page. Probably done at least half a century ago, it feels all the more charming for it. We also have a couple of beautiful colouring books by the animal artist Cecil Aldin as well as a 1930s ‘Magic Paint Book’ made by Renwick of Otley, which has clearly never come into contact with water. Tempting though it is to see if the ‘magic’ still works after all these years, we shall return it safely to the shelf without trying. Those of a certain age will also remember colouring in Christmas cards and we even have examples of these from the 1960s and 70s via the Medici Society archive.

Mary Evans Picture Library is awash with images that are begging to be coloured in though rest assured, any colouring in these days is done digitally and no crayons or coloured pencils are allowed near our collection of Victorian periodicals (some of our city panorama engravings from the Illustrated London News would keep even the most experienced colour-inner going for days). Fashion illustrations from The Tatler, domestic scenes from Girls’ Own or Good Housekeeping magazines, cartoons by Heath Robinson and H. M. Bateman not to mention hundreds of beautiful nursery illustrations by artists such as Margaret Tarrant from the Medici Society archive – all have massive colouring in potential for avid colour-inners who are looking for something with a historic or vintage flavour.

Inspired by the potential of our archive as a treasure trove of colouring in material, we felt it only fair to compile and share with you our own colouring book. It’s a little alternative, and, may we say, not for the faint-hearted, and it’s most definitely aimed at the adult market (though it’s all in the best possible taste). We should warn also warn you that, rather than calming and de-stressing, this is a colouring book to excite and stimulate the parts other colouring books don’t reach. Not for us namby-pamby vegetation, ocean worlds or furry animals, THIS is a colouring book that looks at the seriously colourful side of history. Sharpen your pencils and prepare to bring to life in full technicolour the past’s most risqué, decadent and bizarre from across the centuries. And please do share the fruits of your labour with us on our Facebook page. This is one kind of adult colouring book we think is seriously worth the effort! Click here to download your copy.

Handsome Chaps from History – A Valentines Top 10

Valentine’s Day is this Sunday and with love in the air, and romance on the breeze, how could we not dedicate our latest blog post to the enduring theme of ‘amour’? To be perfectly honest, perhaps the theme is more lust than love. Let me explain. Over the last year, TV viewers have been treated to a feast of lavish historical drama, with, for some of us, characters who remain indelibly stamped into our consciousness forever more. Damien Lewis gave us a simmering alpha male Henry VIII in ‘Wolf Hall’, fans of the epic ‘War & Peace’ may have fallen for the proud and troubled Andrei (though personally, I rather preferred the sexy swashbuckling arrogance of Dolokhov), and need we say any more about Poldark’s scythe or Philip Lombard’s towel in ‘And Then There Were None’?

Inspired by such a parade of historical and fictional romantic leads, we thought it would be fun to share with you a top ten of handsome chaps from history, illustrated, of course, with images from our archive. Here’s our rundown of who we’d like to share an intimate Valentine’s dinner with. And before we’re accused of sexism, we plan a similar list of ladies the minute we find an excuse!

10. Captain Leslie St. Clair Cheape Cheape (1882-1916). We always promise the obscure as well as the well-known at Mary Evans, and Leslie Cheape may not be a familiar name but in his day was hailed, ‘England’s greatest polo player’ – playing for England in the Westchester Cup three times in 1911, 1913 and 1914. He was pivotal in bringing the cup home in 1914 despite a ball breaking his nose during practice just a couple of days earlier (what a hero). Seated here on his polo pony, with, thrillingly, the hint of a tattoo on his muscular forearm, he’s the very essence of the upper class sportsman, many of whom lost their lives during the Great War. Unfortunately Leslie was one of them. He was killed on 23 April 1916 while commanding a squadron of the Worcestershire Yeomanry in Egypt.
9. Gary Cooper (1901-1961) There are so many movie stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age to choose from but Gary Cooper made the top ten because lurking behind those chiselled good looks, is the sense of masculine potency and seductive promise. Talullah Bankhead said there was only one reason she accepted a role alongside Cooper in the 1932 film, The Devil and the Deep, but you’ll have to look it up as it’s unprintable here.
8. Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (1928-1967) As Cuban revolutionaries go, Che had his fair share of good looks, and excellent facial hair to boot. Surely not everyone who wore a T-shirt with his face on it did so purely out of political empathy?
7. Anthony Wilding New Zealand tennis player Tony Wilding reputedly caused lady spectators at Wimbledon to faint when he made an appearance and it’s easy to see why. Tall, blond, a dedicated athlete and with matinee idol looks, he won Wimbledon four times between 1910 and 1913. He was also romantically linked with the actress Maxine Elliott, his elder by some fifteen years. Contemporary accounts testify to him being a proper gent and thoroughly nice chap – an ideal Valentine’s dinner companion. He was killed during the Battle of Aubers Ridge in 1915.  Read more about him on our WWI blog here.
6. Paul Newman Undeniably, dazzlingly, perfectly handsome, Newman once joked, “I picture my epitaph: ‘Here lies Paul Newman, who died a failure because his eyes turned brown.’”
5. British WWI flying ace  Captain Albert Ball (1896 – 1917) was our highest scoring fighter pilot during the conflict. Combining heroics with aerial wizardry and devastating boyish good looks, Albert was something of a pin-up but, like so many heroes of the skies, died tragically young, just before his 21st birthday. Special mention must also go to Manfred von Richthofen (1892-1918) whose cheekbones were as finely honed as his cockpit skills. May we recommend Michael Fassbender for any forthcoming biopic?
4. Robert Powell as Jesus of Nazareth (7–2 BC to AD 30–33). We should point out that Mr Powell remains hale and hearty but his portrayal of Jesus in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 film saw him give a mesmerising and swoonsome performance as the son of the Lord. Those rippling locks, those piercing eyes…it’s enough to convince the most ardent atheist to attend a Last Supper.
3. Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926). If anyone has any doubt over why the greatest movie idol of the early C20th attracted such global adulation, then this photograph of him in the character of the faun for a proposed film version of the erotic ballet, L’Apres Midi d’un Faun, might prove to be that moment of revelation. Valentino’s sensual on-screen seductions were enough to make millions of women fall under his spell. Here, with oiled limbs and smouldering gaze as the priapic faun, the world may have quite simply imploded with unsuppressed lust had this film ever made it into cinemas. If the Internet had existed nine decades ago, Valentino would definitely have broken it.
2. Leslie Hutchinson (1900-1969). Better known simply as Hutch, clubland crooner and serial womaniser Leslie Hutchinson numbered Edwina Mountbatten, Tallulah Bankhead (and Ivor Novello!) among his many conquests. Suave, sophisticated and a talented tickler of the ivories, Hutch was not only the biggest cabaret stars of the 1930s, he was also rumoured to possess a member of legendary proportions (Sir John Mills once witnessed him in the shower in a men’s changing room and confirmed the rumours by simply commenting “What a man,”). Locker room secrets aside, being serenaded by Hutch might just have been the perfect Valentines treat.
1. King Charles II Claiming the top spot is the Merry Monarch himself, whose lust for life and bawdy bedroom antics marks him out as the king to have a fling with. Swarthy and sensual, he famously stood six feet two inches tall, an impressive height in the C17th. Lavishing apartments, jewels and other gifts and money on his succession of demanding mistresses while the kingdom went to pot, John Evelyn commented that the libidinous Charles would have made a good ruler, “if he had been less addicted to women”. More interested in fleshy delights than government business, the King might not have been the most dedicated ruler, but who wants sensible when it’s Valentine’s Day? Ruled by love, rather than duty, Charles II is our naughty but nice choice for a Valentine’s dinner companion.

The Maurice Collins Collection

Mary Evans’ reputation as purveyors of the quirky and unusual was given a boost last year with the welcome addition of the Maurice Collins Collection to the library’s offerings. A cornucopia of gadgetry and bizarre inventions, Maurice’s unique collection is a celebration of technological advancement, manufacturing prowess and rampant consumerism over the 19th and 20th centuries (not to mention a heavy dose of Victorian eccentricity). Among the thousands of peculiar and often dubiously useful objects Maurice has collected over the years are such curiosities as hen peck protectors, adjustable skirt lifters (to protect long hemlines from muddy puddles), bed linen smoothers, cricket bat string applicators and chewing gum holders. We thoroughly recommend whiling away an hour or so browsing his fascinating collection online. Click here to see the entire collection.

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Image numbers (left to right): 11041344, 11041464, 11041359 & 11041457

In the first of a series of contributor interviews, we talked to Maurice to find out more about his fascinating hobby and collecting habits.

How did you start your collection?

I began collecting when my children were younger in the 1970s. My daughter was handicapped, and in order to spend time with my son, we used to go bottle digging on old Victorian rubbish tips to see what we could find. We uncovered pot lids, old bottles and I recall finding a particularly unusual bottle – a genuine Hiram Codd mineral water bottle, with a pointed bottom and a marble in the neck to stop the contents’ gas escaping and the drink going flat. That was the beginning and I’ve been collecting ever since.

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Image numbers (left to right): 11043914, 11043905, 11043895 & 11043869

What is the scope of the collection? What are the qualifications an item must have to be included?

I look for anything unusual or something I simply like the look of. They might be every-day items for their time, though seem curious in retrospect. But the main rule I have is that the majority of objects fall roughly within the century from the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851 to the Festival of Britain in 1951. The collection now numbers around 2000 individual items, and they are catalogued in so far as they are stored eight to a box, with a description of each piece.

Do you have a favourite particular piece?

It’s my clockwork teasmade dating from 1902. The Science Museum have one in their collection. Other than that I’m intrigued by security devices, such as traps in coat pockets against thieves, or products that were powered by clockwork. Also escape items – I have button or collar stud compasses, or compasses disguised as razor blades, used by the RAF during the Second World War.

And a preference for a particular period?

I admire the aesthetics and design of the 1930s and the Bauhaus movement, but for sheer variety and invention, the gadgets of the late 19th century take some beating. Some were essential advances to improve the health and well-being of the population such as Royal Doulton’s water filter or the Jennings toilet as shown at the 1851 Great Exhibition (George Jennings invented the first public flush toilet). There are other gadgets that demonstrate society’s increasing quest for comfort and ease such as car seat heating or coachman’s belly warmers. Others are just plain bonkers such as a tin of South-end air you could send as a refreshing alternative to a postcard!

Where do you find your treasures?

I’m always looking – antiques fairs and markets, eBay of course now, which makes searching internationally so much easier.

What is the most recent acquisition?

A clockwork alarm from around 1820 consisting of a small clock connected to a bell and ratchet. It is very beautiful and the mechanism is very effective.

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Image numbers (left to right): 11041331, 11042765, 11041461 & 11041660

As an inveterate collector yourself, are there other collections you admire?

It has to be Robert Opie and his marvellous collection of advertising, packaging and brand ephemera.

And do you collect anything else other than gadgets?

I have a sideline collection of ephemera consisting of graphic design material, adverts and posters, particularly a major collection of WWI and WWII posters. I was a compositor and then owned my own printing business for a number of years, so am naturally drawn to this sort of material.

What projects have you got lined up for the collection?

I have always lent objects to museums and for exhibitions – any fees are donated to disability charities. I will be at the Gadget Show in Birmingham this year (the show runs from 31 March to 3 April at the NEC) showing a selection of objects. I have written books based on the collection (Ingenious Gadgets and Eccentric Contraptions) and have another planned.

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Image numbers (left to right): 11047261, 11047192, 11047000 & 11044365

What do you think your collection tells us about society over the past two centuries?

It’s commonly assumed today that we buy and own too much stuff. But there is a rationale behind this and that is that society is dependent on the production and sale of goods. All wealth is created by someone buying something over a shop counter which in turn means that people are buying products, meaning employment, which allows taxation, which is then spent on the infrastructure of a democratic society, from health, roads, education and even the preservation of our past through provision of museums. It is a principle of economics that has remained constant over the centuries. My collection of objects and gadgets, whether life-changing, ground-breaking, totally pointless or utterly obsolete, represents this perennial rhythm of industry and consumerism.

The Maurice Collins Collection is exclusively represented by Mary Evans Picture Library, with 3800 images available to search. Click here to see the entire collection.