Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 15 Oct 2018

Walter Crane

If I had to choose a pioneer of children’s book illustration whose style most captivates me, is immediately identifiable and whose work still seems to influence so many modern illustrators, I’d go for Walter Crane (1845 – 1915).

Crane was a hugely gifted and complicated artist as well as a significant cultural and political figure of his age. The son of a painter, he was apprenticed at the tender age of 13 to work in W.J. Linton’s wood engraving studio where he had a chance to become familiar with the big names of the art and illustration world – Tenniel, Rossetti, Millais etc.

After he had qualified and set himself up as a freelance illustrator, he was soon commissioned by Edmund Evans to work on a series of 37 ‘Toy Books’ specifically designed for children. At the age of 20, Crane found that these books gave him his first big success and a degree of public attention for the skill of his illustration which, combined with Evans’ superb printing techniques, produced vibrant decorative books that grabbed the attention of younger readers.

The big influence in Crane’s art at this time was undoubtedly the Pre-Raphaelites and Dante Gabrielle Rossetti in particular. He also studied Japanese prints which were making their way to the West and which would be such a major influence on the Aesthetic art movement. Inevitably this found its way into Crane’s work and provides the template for many of the stylised designs that are typical of his drawings from this period. Others have identified that his interest in Florentine art also informs this period of his development.

Art critic John Ruskin was also an important figure in Crane’s thinking  -  and not just for his theories on art but also for his wider political vision which was becoming a major part of Crane’s thinking at this early point in his career. The Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that:

“A strong didactic, moral element underlies much of Crane’s work, and for several years he contributed weekly cartoons to the socialist periodicals Justice and The Commonweal. Many of these were collected as Cartoons for the Cause (1896). He was founder-president of the Art Workers’ Guild and in 1888 founded the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society.”

The ideas of William Morris and the early Victorian Socialist movement were attractive to Crane’s developing political credo. The ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement that put a priority on the production of artefacts – including books – that were  hand-crafted, utilitarian but beautifully designed steered Crane towards broadening his repertoire and producing designs for commodities like wallpaper, tiles and fabrics.

The Wikipedia entry for Crane highlights this issue of the Arts and Crafts philosophy that Crane adopted:

“In his early "Lady of Shalott", the artist had shown his preoccupation with unity of design in book illustration by printing in the words of the poem himself, in the view that this union of the calligrapher's and the decorator's art was one secret of the beauty of the old illuminated books.”

One of my absolute favourite sets of Crane illustrations are those for the 1875 edition of Beauty and the Beast published by Routledge and Sons which demonstrate his characteristic use of the anthropomorphic  - the Beast is essentially a human-sized boar dressed in flamboyant, bright red cavalier costume while  Beauty takes the form of the sinuous, languid, idealised Pre-Raphaelite woman.

Writing about these illustrations in her paper entitled  “Victorian Counter-Worlds and the Uncanny: The Fantasy Illustrations of Walter Crane and Arthur Rackham” Amzie A. Dunekacke says:

“Crane’s Beast takes the form of a boar-like animal with great big teeth and a trunk for a snout. Despite his wild, animal looks, the beast maintains impeccable posture and wears magnificent clothing. Furthermore, instead of drawing the beast as a frightening monster, Crane uses his skill and knack for detail to give the beast an expression of harmlessness. Suddenly, a character capable of inspiring nightmares is approachable to child readers. … Crane transforms the extraordinary—a gruesome beast—into something that appears quite ordinary… the beast sits with Beauty on an elegant sofa. His bearing is relaxed as he wears a monocle on his eye and grasps a fashionable hat with his hoof. The exaggeration of the beast’s human qualities allows the reader to imagine the Beast—who belongs to a counter-world—in the context of Victorian Britain. Of course, the Beast’s fanciful attire as well as his palace’s very Victorian décor are not only meant to confuse reality and fantasy; these details also serve as effective humor.”

Crane went on to illustrate many more traditional stories – including a fascinating edition of Don Quixote – before turning his attentions more to other art and craft projects later in his life. But it’s his children's book illustrations that most interest me and which I’ve come to love the more I look at them. I find that the quality of the colours is hugely important to that enjoyment and trying to get hold of original editions is important if you’re going to get the full experience of his work. Reprints never quite pull off the texture of the early editions and leave a sort of flat impression when they should really be jumping off the page. So buy as expensively as you can afford but buy early would be my tip.

Terry Potter

October 2018