Fair Use: Randolph Caldecott’s “Hey Diddle Diddle”

Fair Use: Randolph Caldecott’s “Hey Diddle Diddle”

Presenting “Fair Use,” a recurring series that traces the rabbit hole of online research we fall into when we stumble upon a public domain image that we find compelling.

Fair Use Find: Randolph Caldecott’s illustration of “Hey Diddle Diddle,” featuring a fiddle-playing cat presiding over a group of dancing children while their caretaker, perhaps under the spell of the cat’s virtuoso, watches at a distance with a slight smile. A table of decadent treats, seemingly ignored by the distracted children, rests in front of her.

Why did it catch our eye? When a casual search for a decent cat illustration (harder to find than you think) yielded Caldecott’s colorful, action-infused scene of gaiety, we were immediately intrigued. Beyond the technical skill evidenced in the illustration (the lines, the colors, the general joie de vivre), what held our curiosity was the image’s title, “Hey, diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle,” which you might recognize as a line from the familiar “Hey Diddle Diddle” Mother Goose nursery rhyme.

“Hey, diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle,” illustrated by Randolph Caldecott. 1885. From the New York Public Library.

So, who is Randolph Caldecott? Credited as the “father of the picture book,” Caldecott (1846–1886) was a prolific artist, illustrator and satirist in the Victorian era. He is most remembered today for his children book illustrations.

Still not ringing a bell? Even if you have never heard of Caldecott, you might recognize his namesake golden seal on celebrated children books, such as “Owl Moon,” “The Polar Express” and “The Little House.”

Why? Noticing a growing need to recognize illustrators, in 1937 the American Library Association created the Randolph Caldecott Medal, an annual award given to the artist behind the year’s “most distinguished American picture book for children” — a testament to Caldecott’s enduring legacy and influence.

How did he get his start? Caldecott wasn’t always a children’s book illustrator. In fact, he didn’t step into the mainstream until 1875, when his imaginative (and very Victorian) illustrations appeared in Irving’s “Old Christmas and Bracebridge Hall: From the Sketch-book of Washington Irving.”

What happened next? A couple years later, these illustrations caught the eye of successful publisher-printer Edmund Evans, who was looking to replace illustrator Walter Crane after their partnership turned sour. Evans reached out to Caldecott to illustrate two children’s books — “The House that Jack Built” and “The Diverting History of John Gilpin” — for the 1878 edition of Evans’s annual Christmas series. Caldecott agreed (after much negotiation), and the stories, filled with both line drawings and full-color illustrations, began a lucrative partnership that lasted until Caldecott’s untimely death in 1886.

Why did this matter? The 16 picture books that Caldecott produced during this time defined his legacy and helped to foster a new appreciation for book illustration. The stories were also incredibly influential to generations of illustrators to come. Caldecott’s buoyant, anthropomorphized figures (such as the well-dressed frog below), for example, are said to have influenced beloved illustrator Beatrix Potter, whose own work to marks a shift in book illustration:

Left: “A Frog He Would A-Wooing Go,” illustrated by Randolph Caldecott. 1885. Right: “Mouse in a top hat with his walking stick,” illustrated by Beatrix Potter. 1917. Both images from The New York Public Library.

What’s the importance of all this? Caldecott taught people how to see stories. Instead of viewing illustrations as mere decoration, as was common practice during the Victorian era, Caldecott used images as storytelling devices to deepen understanding of the text.

Speaking of this ability to expand language through illustration, in a collection of essays titled “Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books and Pictures,” illustrator Maurice Sendek said:

Caldecott’s work heralds the beginning of the modern picture book. He devised an ingenious juxtaposition of picture and word, a counterpoint that never happened before. Words are left out — but the picture says it. Pictures are left out — but the words say it. In short, it is the invention of the picture book.

And so, we come back to “Hey Diddle Diddle,” a nonsense nursery rhyme that traces back to the 16th century. The text, spare and abstract, hardly contains all of the imagery found in Caldecott’s illustration, and yet, they call to each other through faint echoes. There’s the fiddle, the cat. In other pages, we see the spoon and the dish. It’s the same story but expanded, like a dream that pushes real-life just past its boundaries.

“And the dish ran away with the spoon,” illustrated by Randolph Caldecott. 1885. From the New York Public Library.