Sing a song of sixpence

The Caldecott Society based in Chester, has asked the illustration department to be a part of an exhibition in Liverpool based on Randolph Caldecott in November.  The Society will be exhibiting the history of Caldecott, while we will be exhibiting contemporary images of the Christmas books that he illustrated.

We have been asked to choose one of the texts from his Christmas books and illustrate it in our own personal interpretation, using our own style and media technique.  The work for this exhibition has to be orginal artwork in any format, size, and media.

I have chosen to illustrate the text, Sing a song of sixpence:

Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing,
Oh wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?
The king was in his counting house counting out his money,
The queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey
The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose!

“The rye was purchased for sixpence to attract birds. Blackbirds, and other song birds, were actually eaten as a delicacy! However a court jester may well have suggested to the court cook to bake a pie crust and place this over some blackbirds to surprise and amuse the King! It would not be unreasonable for the blackbirds to look for revenge hence “When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose!” Children love the action in this nursery rhyme of tweaking their nose!”


“When Randolph Caldecott produced this book, the Nursery Rhyme on which it was based seemed to be just a children’s song.  But, only 60 years previously, when the rhyme about “four and twenty black birds” first appeared, it was full of political significance, based on the “Cato Street Conspiracy” (1820) in which 24 men (one of whom was black) plotted to murder the entire Cabinet at dinner one night.  When they were discovered, many of them began to tell about the others in the hope of saving their own lives – hence “the birds began to sing”.  Acts of Parliament had just been passed to restrict public meetings and to take action against any literature considered “seditious”, so there was an upsurge in innocent-seeming poems (or actions) with hidden meanings.”

“The final line of the fourth verse is sometimes slightly varied, with nose pecked or nipped off. One of the following additional verses is often added to moderate the ending:

They send for the king’s doctor,

who sewed it on again;

He sewed it on so neatly,

the seam was never seen.


There was such a commotion,

that little Jenny wren;

Flew down into the garden,

and put it back again.”

“I don’t know what it means, but I heard a long time ago that most nursery rhymes and fairy tales were actually political satire of their time. Sort of their version of ‘Saturday Night Live’. Most of the meanings have been lost, but it may have had something to do with some King, the one who got the pie. The blackbirds probably represented peasants or revolutionaries or something. The King was counting money, obviously money the peasants had to pay in taxes. The Queen was eating bread and honey, maybe meaning having more to eat than the peasants (although that sounds like something peasants could get) and the blackbird snapped off the nose of the maid, maybe this was some sort of revolutionary act against the people who worked for the Royal family.”

These are more contemporary designs:

Lisa Pixley: Four and Twenty Black Birds

Installation, 2009

Red Rose Tea and Charcoal on Paper. Black Drafting Tape.

Four and Twenty Black Birds is a three dimensional illustration of the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Six Pence”.

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