Sunday, April 13, 2008

Obadiah Oldbuck redux: James B. Sparke

The recent column on a hand drawn version of Obadiah Oldbuck has generated quite a bit of interest thanks to a mention of the piece on the Platinum list (an introduction to Platinum Age comics can be found here, written by Robert Beerbohm). As usual, comments have come directly to me—this is what happens when you advertise your e-mail address—and I've had some very interesting ones.

Hand drawn versions of early comic strips are a little more common than I thought. Both John Adcock (Yesterday's Papers) and Michel Kempeneers (Signs) have mentioned a discussion on the Platinum list of a discussion about hand drawn version of Cham's Histoire de M. Lajaunisse (1839).

I'm no expert on these early comics (I'm learning as I go along) but from what I read I believe this version (see pic at the top) is a coloured, pencilled version of the original which was pen-and-ink. The page is signed "J. B. Sparke, 1847", and the whole book has been scanned (including blanks). The large scans of illustrated pages appear between pages 5v and 75v.

Sparke seems to be a real person: James B. Sparke is credited with a lithographed book held by the British Library: The fortunes & mis of lunes (sic) of Narcissus Muff or the adventures of a day. [2], 36 leaves, 19 x 25 cm (obl.). Lithographed illustrations with captions. The cover title is The Adventures of Narcissus Muff by Jas. B. Sparke. The B.L. gives a date of c.1840.

James Sparke isn't a common name... but it's not uncommon enough for there not to be a number of them listed in various records. Once your brain has settled after that tortuous multiple negative, I'm tempted by one: a James B. Sparke who lived in Norfolk, full name James Bird Sparke.

There was a James Bird Sparke who ran Sparke's Foundry, based at Thorn Lane, Norwich, which was sold off by court order in 1843. James Bird Sparke (senior, if you like) was already deceased by then. A younger James Sparke appears in the 1841 census, a 22-year-old solicitor, living with his mother, Mary Sparke, in Mountergate, Norwich. In 1851 he is listed as a 30-year-old Attorney at Law. The 1851 census gives him the middle initial B.

Let me emphasise that this is total guesswork. I've no way of connecting James Bird Sparke to the Jas. B. Sparke who drew Narcissus Muff, about which I can find absolutely no reference so it might be something else for the Platinum group to explore if someone can get along to the British Library. James Bird Sparke just has the right initials and for some mysterious reason people involved with the law also seem to have the urge to write and draw. Look no further than Justice of the Peace William Webb Turner (artist of the Obadiah Oldbuck book which was the subject of the earlier column).

Was James Bird Turner a creative type? Well, yes he was. The next trace of him I've found is that he and his younger brother Alfred, describing themselves as "engineers" patented "improvements in sawing machinery" in 1857.

In the 1861 census we find James Sparke, now a 42-year-old Independent Gentleman, still living in Norfolk. In 1866, he married Mary E. Knapman at Clerkenwell, London, and the 1871 census shows him working as a solicitor and living with his wife in Islington. In 1891, the couple are still together, now living in Paddington with their daughter Ellen. James is described as no longer practicing (at 72 that might not come as a surprise).

Death records reveal that James Bird Sparke, born 1818, died in 1892 in Paddington, London.

More on this interesting subject tomorrow.

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