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Artists lured by wonder of ABC

Alphabets: Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh until October 31

An exhibition of alphabet books shows how the simple learning tool has been interpreted differently over the centuries. Julie Morrice reports

A is for apple, B is for ball; but it hasn't always been that simple. An exhibition of alphabet books and toys at Edinburgh's Museum of Childhood shows how this simplest of learning tools has been manipulated by artists and educators to teach children more than just their ABC.

The earliest book in the exhibition is a Latin primer written by John Amos Comenius in 1659. A Czech who worked all over Europe, Comenius was one of the first teachers to use illustration in children's textbooks. Eccentric little etchings accompany his text: Canis ringitur - the dog grinneth; Rana coaxat - the frog croaketh, showing that from earliest times animals were the best prompt for young brains.

A book like Comenius's would have been the preserve of the fortunate child and the private tutor, but by 1830 simple little chapbooks with bold black and white prints were being sold for 3d, reflecting the spread of education down the social scale.

The Victorians went to town on alphabets, revealing more than they may have realised about the attitudes inculcated into their offspring. In The Mother's Picture Alphabet of 1862, "B begins Bible, the book we so prize, That teaches us all to be holy and wise." And some industrious soul has created an entire biblical alphabet, beginning with Ark, Balaam and Christ, and including the delightful V for Virgins, which would go down a treat in today's classrooms.

But if religion was important, it was nothing to Empire. An alphabet of the nations from 1879 ends with Z for Zealander: "In far New Zealand's fertile islesLives a courageous race;But ev'n the bold Maori soonTo white men must give place."

Artists have always been tempted by the possibilities of the ABC, and there are some beautiful examples here, from Edward Lear's wonderful scribbles to Kate Greenaway's exquisite vignettes. In William Nicholson's striking woodcuts for an alphabet printed in 1898, U is for an Urchin who stands watchful against a wall, eyes almost glinting from his young-old face, but E for Executioner and T for Toper (drunkard) proved too much for Heinemann, and were excised from the book.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this exhibition is finding our "modern" ideas are not as new as we think. Dating from the 16th century is a little wooden "book" with a handle. A few printed letters are sealed under a piece of horn, making a durable educational toy - the precursor of flashcards? And from 1903 onwards, Deans was publishing washable rag books for children "who wear their food and eat their clothes".

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