Curating Cole

One of my earliest memories is of looking through the pages of Cole’s Funny Picture Book. It was
the 1979 edition marking the 100th anniversary of a much-loved family classic, reputed to have sold more than a million copies via its many reprints, editions and updates over a century. My parents, grandparents, great and even great-great-grandparents may well have had a copy of this book. When I received mine, I was a young boy living in rural Tasmania with no concept of the world outside. Cole’s Funny Picture Book, with its fantastic illustrations and worldly wisdom, opened my eyes to a dizzying combination of fantasy and reality in a black hardcover package. The front cover was adorned with interlinked rainbows and a promise to ‘delight the children and make home happier’: it may not have made my broken home happier, but it certainly delighted and inspired me like little else.

Inside were words and pictures arranged in chapters such as Boy Land, Girl Land, Play Land and Learning Land. Then there were the animal-themed chapters – Pussy Land, Doggy Land, Monkey Land, Piggy Land, and so on – featuring fanciful images of animals dressed and acting as humans. The book also contained picture puzzles, nursery rhymes and morality tales, as well as essays on the dangers of smoking, our evolutionary link with monkeys and the ‘oneness of man’, written by the book’s creator Edward Cole.

I was particularly taken with the dozens of illustrated portraits of men, women and children of the world, from a Chinese girl and a bonnet man of central Africa to an American woman of New York. Until this book I had little idea that any people existed outside my little home town of Geeveston, let alone such varied and exotic ones – and I was utterly fascinated. It seems I fell for Cole’s plan to open children’s (and their parents’) eyes to a world of knowledge, culture and the universal language of pictures, all the while entertaining them with funny characters and rhymes.

Twenty-five or so years later, my partner Dale Campisi and I – with Rose Michael and Peter Daniel – started Arcade Publications: a small publishing house with a focus on fascinating and little-known Melbourne true stories. Our first title was a biography of Edward Cole: the creator of the Funny Picture Book. His life and achievements – from selling lemonade on the Victorian goldfields to a successful publishing career and the world’s biggest bookstore – made a story too good to ignore. After friend and author Lisa Lang brought the story to our attention while writing a creative interpretation of his colourful life (later to become the Australian/Vogel-winning Utopian Man, published by Allen & Unwin), Dale convinced Lisa to pause her fictionalised account and write a small biography that would inform her story and become EW Cole: Chasing the Rainbow.

This was my first book design project and required revisiting the funny pictures that had delighted me so much as a boy. I tracked down an old copy of Cole’s Funny Picture Book and was taken back to the amazing world of curious creatures, intriguing cultures and utopian ideas. Chasing the Rainbow revealed a man who made an extraordinary impact via his books, ideas and the massive emporium he named Cole’s Book Arcade.

On the back cover of Cole’s Funny Picture Book is an illustration of Cole’s multi-storey Melbourne arcade, which ran from Bourke Street to Collins Street and contained over million books, a Chinese tea salon, a monkey enclosure, a fernery and a brass band that entertained customers daily. For a time, the eccentric entrepreneur Cole even lived on the top floor of the Book Arcade with his family, overseeing his unique creation. As a youngster, I was convinced that this was the grandest shop in the world and that one day I would visit it. Unfortunately it closed not long after Cole’s death in 1918 and only remains in stories and a section of glass ceiling over Howey Place off Little Collins Street in the Melbourne CBD.

When Hardie Grant Books – via Rose Michael, now a senior editor there – decided to publish a new edition of the Cole’s Funny Picture Book, I jumped at the chance to work on this updated version of my favourite childhood book. This involved many hours of selecting, scanning and digitally editing finely-drawn etchings and woodcut illustrations from yellowed versions of the original Funny Picture Book, as well as choosing text written by Cole himself.

Deciding what to include in the new Cole’s Funny Little Picture Book posed all kinds of challenges. The old editions contained content that would now be seen as inappropriate for any audience, particularly children – including racial references and gender stereotypes that by today’s standards would raise the eyebrows of many parents. That said, I left in the ‘Whipping Machine for Boys’ and ‘Electro Micro Scolding Machine for Girls’ purely because they are the things that my parents’ generation (and those who came before them) seem to remember the most vividly. Cole’s Funny Little Picture Book contains the same timeless lessons about life, death and the pursuit of knowledge and joy that were published in the original book 135 years ago. And the funny pictures are as delightful as ever. Some things never change, and now this books sits on the laps of my friends’ children just as it did on mine.

by Brady Michaels
(This article was first published in Island magazine issue 136 in March 2014)

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