In the offered pair of drawings, a boy plays a prank on an older man named Isam (representing the letter I of the alphabet) startling him by lighting firecrackers nearby. In the first panel, Isam, dressed in tattered clothes, has fallen asleep astride a mule with a bandaged leg, also dozing. The boy has snuck up on the pair and is igniting a pack of firecrackers. The second panel shows the aftermath of the explosion that has startled the mule, which has forgotten its injured leg and vaulted over the nearby fence, landing Isam on his head while the boy jumps in glee in the background. A caption is divided among the two panels: “I is fo Isam who was havin sweet sleep ‘till a package of squids [sic]…knocked him plum off his feet.” (The caption misspells “squibs,” a type of firecracker that hisses and sputters before exploding).
As caricatures, the intent of the drawings was to amuse the reader. Comic strip historian Allan Holtz has posted online a copy of the entries for S and T from the colored supplement. He stated that Kemble’s gift for drawing and expressive caricature are undeniable, but his drawings of African-Americans reflected common racial stereotypes of the popular culture of his time that are offensive to contemporary sensibilities. Nonetheless, they remain cultural artifacts of this aspect of history.
Edward Windsor Kemble was a prolific illustrator and caricaturist during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born in Sacramento, California, and educated in New York City, he was the son of a journalist and his earliest drawings were sketches of Native Americans in the West made while traveling with his father. Before he had turned 20, some of his drawings were accepted for publication so he pursued formal training at the Art Students’ League. He soon was making a living as a newspaper illustrator for the Daily Graphic. When Life magazine was founded in 1883, he became a regular contributor, later also illustrating for Century, Scribners and Harpers. A profile in an 1894 trade publication stated that Kemble was “closely associated in the public mind with negro sketches,” which began when he was assigned illustrations of African American dialect stories in Life. That led to his selection as the illustrator for the first edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in 1884. In addition to illustrating many books on Southern themes such as a deluxe edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Kemble provided drawings for books on other subjects, notably Knickerbocker’s History of New York on early Dutch colonial history for Putnam’s. Kemble authored two books of caricatures of African Americans: Kemble’s Coons: A Collection of Southern Sketches (1896) and A Coon Alphabet (1898). His newspaper work in the late 90s and early 1900s was mostly for Hearst, including a series called The Blackberries. According to contemporaneous accounts, Kemble and his family lived for many years in New Rochelle, New York. He was a good friend of the artist Frederick Remington and active on the New York cultural scene.
Notations in blue pencil beneath borders: “1-How the Glorious Fourth — 89 P9” and “2-Struck Isam.”
Condition: Generally very good, recently professional cleaned and deacidified with minor remaining toning from former matting, and wear. Few chips and short tears professionally restored as backed on Japanese paper.
H, P.G Jr. “Book Illustrators. VI. Edward Windsor Kemble.” The Book Buyer, Vol. 11. No. 6. July 1894. pp. 293-296. Online at Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=I00DAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA293 (17 September 2014).
Holtz, Allan. “Obscurity of the Day: The Coon Alphabet.” The Stripper’s Guide. 5 October 2011. http://strippersguide.blogspot.com/2011_10_02_archive.html (17 September 2014).
Kemble, Edward Windsor. A Coon Alphabet. Online: University of Florida Digital Collections. New York: RH. Russell and London: John Lane, 1898. http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00085041/00001/citation (19 September 2014).