Monday, August 13, 2007

The Water Babies

A little mystery has been resolved today. Who drew the above strip?

When Look and Learn Magazine Ltd. bought the rights to the nursery comics there was, unfortunately, only a broken run of bound volumes to accompany them and some strips that I knew about I'd never seen. One was 'The Story of The Water Babies' from 1957. Well, John Wigmans had a spare and sent it over.

The strip is something of a curiosity as it was a reprint. In 1948, Hugh McNeill produced a handful of strips for the women's magazine Woman's Pictorial including adaptations of 'The Wind in the Willows', 'Pinocchio' and... 'The Water Babies'. When Playhour began running adaptations of children's stories and fairy tales on their centre pages, the editor must have felt that McNeill's strip was worth another outing. The original, however, was in black and white so Ron Nielsen was drafted in to colour the strip. The results were a superb blend of McNeill's artwork and Nielsen's colour. The two artists were later reunited for a while when Jack and Jill ran Harold Hare on the centre pages in 1960. (You can find an example of Nielsen's colouring of Harold Hare if you scroll down my piece on Hugh McNeill written last December.)

Thinking about The Water Babies led me to another adaptation of Charles Kingsley's 19th century novel, this one by my favourite artist, Jesus Blasco. His version originally appeared in Once Upon a Time in early 1970, a page of which you can see above. Years ago I picked up a slim book, published by Purnell in 1979, which was an abridged version of the Kingsley novel illustrated with panels from the strip (which you can see below).

The cover to the book reproduced a cover originally drawn for Once Upon a Time by Don Lawrence which you might enjoy. Lawrence had been an irregular contributor during the magazine's first six months or so, illustrating text adaptations of 'Pinocchio' and 'Jason and the Golden Fleece'.

I was surprised to recently find Blasco's illustrations had been used on a set of playing cards produced in Italy in 2003. Each card, plus two 'jokers' and a title card, was illustrated with a frame from the story. I don't have the energy to scan all the cards but hopefully the selection below will give you some idea of what they are like. I've also added the front and back of the box in which the cards were issued. They were clearly meant for wide distribution as the title is given on the box in English, Spanish, German, French and Italian.

(* Artwork © Look and Learn Magazine Ltd.)


  1. Hi Steve, I just read you story on The Story of The Waterbabies. Didn't Philip Mendoza, one of you favourite artists as well, draw a version too for Treasure (1965)?
    Best wishes, John Wigmans

  2. Hi John,

    Mendoza did indeed illustrate a version of The Water Babies in 1965. It was an illustrated text version, abridged from the original novel. I didn't include it here because I wanted to concentrate on the Blasco version. The Mendoza version can be seen in full at the Look and Learn website...

    ... if you search for Water Babies Mendoza you'll get to see the whole story, starting with a selection of scans from original artwork.

  3. I had an ancient Water Babies book as a child--1963 or earlier. It was text with B&W illustrations in an antique style. I always remembered it as being Victorian. I'm reading all these dates here like 1965. I believe the origins were decades earlier. What do you know about that? And what was the fictional premise of the series? was this a race of water breathing people? Or some moral tale. As I recall, what I read was a sort of Pilgrim's Progress.
    =Link Yaco

  4. sorry about the repeat post--my first time here. Now that I know it works, let my amplify-- The water babies I had as a child was heavily illustrated, with one illo per page, and the illos were all great, in a John Allen St. John manner. Some of those images are with me to this day. So the orig. novel was 19th C. was it? Have you seen it? Was it illustrated as I describe...or were following editions...that you know of? I tell you, reality better not f**k with my childhood memories on this one!!! It hasn't let me down so far! All those Sheckley short stories I read when I was 8 or 9 yrs old...are even better now.

  5. Hi Link,

    The Water-Babies. A fairy tale for a land-baby is a very famous 19th century book by the Rev. Charles Kingsley, originally serialised in Macmillan's Magazine in 1862-63 and published in book form by Macmillan & Co. in 1863. So your memory isn't playing tricks. It's a very famous book in the UK and there have been many dozens of editions; it has been a staple of children's book publishing since it was published and, because Kingsley died in 1875, the book has been in the public domain for over 80 years.

    There are good entries on both Charles Kingsley and the book on Wikipedia.

    As far as I've been able to find out, the first edition had only two illustrations by J. Noel Paton. There's a chance that the edition you're remembering is from 1889, 4th printing published by Macmillan in London and New York which had 100 illustrations by Linley Sambourne. If not, it could be one of any number of editions published in the UK or USA. To give you some idea of how often the book was reprinted, in 1908-1910 there were at least four different editions illustrated by George Soper, Agnes Stringer, Warwick Goble and Katharine Cameron. One of the most collectable editions is probably the 1915 edition illustrated by W. Heath Robinson.

    Hope this puts your mind at rest.

    (BTW, I've deleted the duplicate post, just in case you're wondering where it's gone.)

  6. Steve,I'm sure a film was made of the Water Babies.In fact I have a DVD of it buried somewhere amongst all the rubbish that constitutes my "office"!A mixture of live action and animation with some corny songs-circa '70s I think.

  7. Don Lawrence and the Water Babies!
    WOW! Is that weird or what??? I love his artwork but those are NOT babies! In fact they resemble Gerry Anderson puppets!
    Thanks for reproducing that one Steve...



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