Aesop the agitator

The gods and heroes of the British working class overlapped with those used by opponents of slavery. Thomas Clarkson’s An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African (1786), which began life as a Latin prose composition at Cambridge University, discussed ancient authors who themselves belonged to the slave class. It listed the fable composers Aesop and Phaedrus and the Stoic philosopher Epictetus,13 all of whom also formed part of the unofficial syllabus of the home-grown British working class. Simple, illustrated versions of Aesop, including chap books,14 were widely familiar, since they were used to teach literacy to both children and adults. Some editions of Aesop interpreted the fables in ways that furthered conservative or elitist agendas.15 But they also proved magnetically attractive to radicals and revolutionaries of a more egalitarian kind, as we have noted already in the chapter on working-class readers above (Chapter 3).

Sometimes this directly affected the way the Fables were retold. Thomas Bewick, whose illustrations to Aesop are acknowledged as masterpieces of miniature design, was one of eight children of a Northumberland tenant farmer; his favourite among the few books at home was Croxall’s 1722 edition of Aesop’s Fables, with its beautiful illustrations by the 18th-century printmaker Elisha Kirkall. He remained troubled by the lack of access to beauty and culture suffered by the poor throughout his life; his last project was ‘to improve the taste and morals of the lower classes, particularly in the country, by a series of blocks on a large scale, to supersede the wretched, sometimes immoral, daubs with which the walls of cottages were frequently clothed’.1*’ Bewick hated Latin grammar but drew constantly, especially animals, which encouraged his interest in ancient fables. Despite poverty, in 1770 he bought himself a 17th-century edition of Phaedrus. But from his teens he mixed with various Newcastle-upon-Tyne radicals, including Thomas Spence, the notorious author of The Real Rights of Man.'7

There are traces of Bewick’s radical tendencies to be found in his engravings. For example, in the intricate tail-piece from his famous General History of Quadrupeds (1790), the crack in the wall surrounding the lush woodland hints towards the perceived fragility of land enclosure, against which radicals such as Spence railed. The sign above the crack reads ‘steel traps and gins’, serving to detertrespassers as well as indicate (like the bird house) the bloody desire to obliterate freedom.18 The classical bust and urn symbolise opulence and governance, in contrast with the ragged dress of the beggar boy, who leads two blind fiddlers on their footloose course. The lower-class ancient Greek world of Aesop resembles the rural environment depicted in The General History, and Bewick returned to Aesop’s fables repeatedly throughout his working life, from his apprenticeship to the Newcastle bookseller Thomas Saint onwards. In 1775 he illustrated a version of Aesop by the writer and publisher Robert Dodsley (published 1776), adapting the designs from Croxall/Kirkall originals. From 1812 to 1818, and in collaboration with his brother and multiple apprentices, he illustrated Brooke Boothby’s Aesop of 1809.

A more explicitly political Aesop was illustrated by Walter Crane, the visionary graphic designer and chromolithographer, ardent socialist, Marxist, Trade Union supporter and friend of William Morris. Crane developed a widely intelligible artistic vocabulary that merged public and private and retained a moral basis while avoiding overtly religious symbols and complicity with images of capitalism.19 Crane was apprenticed to the radical wood-engraver, William James Linton. Enthused by the Paris Commune of 1871, Crane became the artist of the cause, designing posters, Trade Union banners, cartoons and newspaper headings, adapting the emblematic figures of his paintings to socialist themes. The Triumph of Labour, drawn for May Day 1891,20 is a Renaissance-style triumphal procession rendered in the gritty texture of wood-engraving and filled with sturdy workers, bullock carts, and banners.

Crane’s Baby’s Own Aesop, brought out in 1887, uses short, rhymed limerick stanza versions. In the preface, he tells us that he has produced the text of the tales from a manuscript kindly lent to him by Linton, but Crane does say ‘I have added a touch here and there’.21 Since Linton was as radical in his own Chartist way as Crane, it is impossible to tell who is responsible for the character of the morals, embedded within the frame of the picture and text: ‘King Log and King Stork’, for example, demonstrates simply ‘DON’T HAVE KINGS’; ‘The Farmer’s Treasure’ shows that ‘PRODUCTIVE LABOUR IS THE ONLY SOURCE OF WEALTH’. ‘The Cock and the Pearl’ becomes an exhortation to feed the hungry poor: ‘IF HE ASK BREAD, WILL YE GIVE HIM A STONE?’

The volume was scrutinised by Trade Union organisers and workers’ reading groups. Although the motif had appeared in working-class art before, notably on the blacksmith James Sharpies’ dazzling banner for the Amalgamated Society of Engineers in 1851,22 it was almost certainly through Crane that illustrations of one of the most profound of Aesop’s fables, ‘The Bundle of Twigs’, came to prominence on several banners of the 1890s. The fable said that a father, worn out by the quarrels between his sons, asked them each in turn to break a tightly bound bundle of twigs. Each son failed. Then he asked them to break a single twig, a feat which they easily accomplished.23 The moral the father drew in Crane’s volume was that ‘STRENGTH LIES IN UNITY’; the political relevance is again underscored by Crane in the detail of the red freedman’s cap (Figure 19.3). This had been adopted by French republicans because they knew that when slaves were manumitted in ancient Rome, they were given a red ‘Phrygian’ cap (pileus orpilleus) to wear: servos ad pileum vocare (‘to call slaves to the cap’) was a summons to liberty, by which slaves were called upon to take up arms with a promise of emancipation (Livy XXIV.32). In ancient art, for example on coins minted during the reign of Antoninus Pius (138-161 ce), the personified Libertas sometimes wore or carried the cap.24

Before the wholly separate image of the originally Roman fasces was pirated by fascists in the twentieth century, artistic representations of twig bundles were inspiring and wholesome. When 19th-century workers without legal rights banded together against their employers and state legislation to form Trade Unions, Aesop was one of the few ancient authors most of them had met, since his fables were by then commonly used to teach elementary literacy. Integrating an illustration of the fable into a banner was visual shorthand for ‘Unity is Strength’. Men trying to break bundles of twigs therefore appeared on, for example, the Watford branches of the Workers’ Union (this magnificent banner is reproduced on the back cover of John Gorman’s seminal study Banner Bright [1973]), the Ashton & Haydon Miners’ Union, the Pendlebury, Pendleton and Kersley Good Intent Lodge (1890), the Amalgamated Society of Engineers,

‘The Bundle ofSticks’, reproduced from Walter Cranes Baby’s Own Aesop. Public Domain image

FIGURE 19.3 ‘The Bundle ofSticks’, reproduced from Walter Cranes Baby’s Own Aesop. Public Domain image.

Banner of the National Union of Public Employees. Reproduced by courtesy of the People’s History Museum, Manchester

FIGURE 19.4 Banner of the National Union of Public Employees. Reproduced by courtesy of the People’s History Museum, Manchester.

Machinists, Millwrights, Smiths and Pattern Makers,25 and the East Ham branch of the National Union of Public Employees (Figure 19.4). Whatever the original political message of the ancient fables, Crane’s work meant that Aesop indisputably became a figure whom the oppressed underclasses of late-Victorian Britain recognised as a political forebear.

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