Enchanted by beastly tales

11th November 1994 at 00:00
Neil Philip and William Feaver investigate the darkness within fairy tales and nursery rhymes.

Paula Rego's nursery rhymes, Thames amp; Hudson Pounds 12. 95, 0 500 01649 6 What happens in nursery rhymes isn't so much fantastic as logical, on the understanding that metaphors are insights and animals, in these rhymes, are only human. That, certainly, is what Paula Rego makes apparent in her suites of nursery rhyme etchings brought together by Thames amp; Hudson in a handsome volume, more artbook than picture-book.

In her introduction, Marina Warner rightly emphasises "a structure of sexual opposition" in, for example, Miss Muffet's encounter with the spider. It was always so. Nursery rhymes operate on the basis of short sharp shocks and warnings ("Ladybird, Ladybird, Fly away home . . ."); and even without the illustrations one can tell that there is more to the situations than the nursery rhymster actually says.

For Paula Rego each verse is an excuse to delve into childhood memories - Portuguese in her case - and to draw not just the distant memories but the overlays of adult experience. Margery Daw see-saws opposite a childish adult. And Old King Cole is obviously distraught, mad maybe.

The rhymes come from all sorts of sources, some from catchpenny pamphlets,some from folklore, most from rigmarole and oral tradition. "Ring-a-ring o'roses" is reclaimed from the playground and reintroduced as an adult refrain, a memory of bubonic plague. Yet these etchings also take the rhymes literally. The cat fiddles, the cow jumps, the dog laughs. The grand old Duke of York fails to appear, but 32 of his 10,000 men obey his orders, stumbling uphill and downhill, victims of absurd authority.

That, ultimately, is the message of the rhymes and these penetrating illustrations. Wisdom comes when fears are recognised. The knife flashes and the blind mice, having lost their tales, cavort like humans, poor things.

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