Hopping into the new year

Last year we marked Chinese New Year with images of ferocious tigers discovered within our collections. 2023 is the year of a less fearsome creature, the rabbit, whose natural habitat appears to be the pages of children’s picture books. As a way of welcoming in the new year, this post will share some of the images unearthed from the warrens of our stores.

We start however, with a rabbit who has hopped his way into the very stonework of the College Chapel! Designed by master mason John Wastell, in the early 16th century, the jamb of the Chapel’s west door boasts an elaborate pattern of roses, crowns, leaves and stems, and at the base of one side can be found a dog playing hide and seek with a rabbit. The dog is now sadly weathered beyond recognition, but the rabbit is still very much visible, gazing up into the foliage above.

Stone rabbit in closeup

Close-up view of the rabbit on the jamb of the West door of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

The stonework of the door jamb of the West door of King's College Chapel

The rabbit within the larger context of the decorative pattern on the door jamb

Next we have two illustrations from one of the early nineteenth century natural history titles featured in last year’s tiger post: Histoire naturelle des mammifères by Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire and Frédéric Cuvier. These depict a familiar brown rabbit and one of the albino variety. 

Brown rabbit clutching a carrot

Plate from Vol. 2 of Histoire naturelle des mammifères, 1824, Shelfmark F.1.21

Albino rabbit

Plate from Vol. 2 of Histoire naturelle des mammifères, 1824, Shelfmark F.1.21

From here, we move into the realm of children’s books. The library holds an early edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, which features a very famous rabbit, the White Rabbit, whom Alice follows down the rabbit-hole, thus beginning her strange and  eventful sojourn in Wonderland. The White Rabbit, complete with his waistcoat and pocket watch, is charmingly depicted by John Tenniel. 

The White Rabbit, dressed in a waistcoat, looking at this pocket watch

Illustration by John Tenniel from chapter one of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, London 1874. Classmark: Rylands.C.CAR.Ali.1874

Rabbits also appear in books intended to educate children about the natural world and its inhabitants. My Own Annual: An Illustrated Gift-Book for Boys and Girls edited by Mark Merriwell, has a chapter entitled “Rabbits, hares and ferrets”which informs us that rabbits hail originally from Spain, and that Cambridgeshire is amongst the counties of England where they are most common.  

A rabbit bounding into its warren

Page 65 from My Own Annual: An IIlustrated Gift-Book for Boys and Girls edited by Mark Merriwell, London, 1847. Classmark: Ryland’s.C.MER.Ann.1847

Similar information is conveyed in The Pleasure Book of Domestic Animals by Harrison Weir, which has its own section on rabbits, accompanied by some attractive illustrations.

From The Pleasure Book of Domestic Animals by Harrison Weir, London, circa 1855-1870. Classmark: Ryland’s.C.WEI.Ple

From The Pleasure Book of Domestic Animals by Harrison Weir, London, circa 1855-1870. Classmark: Ryland’s.C.WEI.Ple

Finally, a very large and stately looking rabbit appears in full colour in Aunt Louisa’s Birthday Gift, dating from around 1875. 

Plate from Aunt Louisa’s Birthday Gift [by Laura Valentine], London, circa 1875. Classmark Rylands.C.VAL.1875

We hope you have a fruitful new year, and that, like the reproductive capacities of rabbits, your good luck grows and multiplies many times over! 

AC

References

King’s College Chapel: a History and Commentary by John Saltmarsh; edited by Peter Monteith and Bert Vaux. Peterborough, Jarrold, 2015.

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