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May 2011 - Théophile Schuler's alphabet

Théophile Schuler is known more particularly for his illustrations of a number of works by Jules Verne, Victor Hugo and Erckmann-Chatrian, but he was also the author of an admirable and highly innovative illustrated alphabet, published by J. Hetzel in 1868 in Le premier livre des petits enfants. Under pressmark B.12.290, the BNU has a copy of the second edition (1878) of this work; the story of how it came to be published deserves to be told.

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An introductory page presents the originality of the illustrator's approach: "They [Our young readers]i will quickly notice that, thanks to the ingenious skill of his composition, Mr Théophile Schuler has managed to show and to hide one letter of the alphabet in each of his original compositions. Mr Schuler has started out from the idea that every letter exists in nature, and that without distorting objects or tormenting creatures but arranging one and the other most carefully, it is possible to achieve every form of the letters that comprise our alphabet. When all this is accomplished by an artist of great merit, the result will charm their vision and at the same time exercise their sagacity, by making each image some sort of enigma enclosing the shape of the letter to e discovered in the position of the things or in the movement of the characters." This is followed by 25 full-page illustrations, each accompanied by a quatrain. The result is such that one commentator (1) remarked that, "In Schuler's alphabet, the letter is there without being there, in a perfect indetermination of the method of reading to adopt, confusing writing and drawing".

Schuler's alphabet invites the reader to see the letters in the images of everyday life in a stylised rural environment: the wine-press, the country policeman, the log sledge, washing, goose-keepers, horseshoeing, knife-grinders, etc: so many scenes that demonstrate the artist's attachment to his native region and his lively interest in ordinary country people.

Théophile Schuler's alphabet was a great success very quickly, and was published in the United States in 1871 with the title Letters Everywhere: Stories And Rhymes For Children. For the occasion, Théophile Schuler illustrated the letter W, which did not appear in the French edition (2). The first children's book was re-edited in French in 1878, again without an illustration for the letter W. It was still popular enough for a colourised re-edition to be published by Gallimard in 1978, in its Enfantimages collection, with the title Devinez l'alphabet, this time with a complete alphabet in French.

The drawings, outlines, sketches and trials used by Théophile Schuler for his alphabet are in the safekeeping of the Société des Amis des Arts et des Musées de Strasbourg. They are to be presented next autumn at the Tomi Ungerer Museum. An event not to be missed!

To consult on the Internet:
An article on the alphabets published by J. Hetzel, printed in 2008 in La Revue de la BnF: "Hetzel, album et abécédaire", by Marie-Pierre Litaudon; view here.

The digitised version of the American translation: view here.

(1) Litaudon, Marie-Pierre. See her article printed in La Revue de la BnF.
(2) The letter W was long considered to be a letter only used in French in writing a certain number of words borrowed from the languages of peoples in the North, from whence it comes. (Grévisse)

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