Arthur Rackham: The Golden Age of Illustration
The first two decades of the 20th century have become known as the Golden Age of Illustration, when improvements in printing technology allowed publishers to produce lavish colour illustrations for the first time. Of all the artists who became famous in this period, by far the most popular was Arthur Rackham, who still maintains his hold over the public imagination a century later.
Arthur Rackham was born in London in 1867 and as a child showed great talent for drawing. After finishing his early education at the City of London School he began working for an insurance agency while attending Lambeth College of Art. He later described this period to a young admirer:
….for the next seven years or so I worked as hard as I could out of business hours (9–5) to equip myself as an artist – not being able to embark on a professional career till I was nearly 25, & then for many years getting the barest living from my profession & having to do much distasteful hack work.
What Rackham described was working as a jobbing illustrator for popular newspapers, his main means of support during the 1880s and early 1890s. He was also commissioned to produce illustrations for a number of books, beginning with an 1893 travel book called To The Other Side, a particularly rare volume of which only a handful of copies are known today.
In the late 1890s Rackham produced his first illustrations of a piece with his later, well-known works: The Ingoldsby Legends in 1898, Tales from Shakespeare in 1899, and Tales of the Brothers Grimm in 1900. Though the illustrations in these volumes were not as accomplished as Rackham’s later work, all would be reissued with reworked drawings after he became famous.
The turning point for Rackham came in 1900, when he met his future wife, Edyth Starkie, who was living in the house next door to his Hampstead studio. Starkie was also an artist and was developing a considerable reputation as a portrait painter. “His alliance with this gay artistic Irishwoman brought out the best in Rackham; for she was always his most stimulating, severest critic, and he had the greatest respect for her opinion”.
Most critics agree that it was during Rackham’s courtship and early marriage that he matured fully as an artist. Previously he had focused on line drawings, but from his wife he learned to use colour, particularly watercolour, much more effectively. This talent was developed at a propitious time, as technological advances dramatically improved the quality of book illustrations, allowing his art to achieve its fullest expression.
Unlike previous illustrators, who relied on an engraver to cut clean lines on a wood or metal plate used for printing, Rackham could have his pictures photographed and mechanically reproduced. This change removed the middleman between Rackham and his finished product. In particular, it allowed Rackham to display his particular gift for line, which an engraver, lacking Rackham’s talent, likely could not render onto a printing plate. (Central Michigan University Library)
This type of printing required glazed paper that had to be pasted in (“tipped-in”) after the text was printed. Although this made publications more expensive, “the result enhanced the appearance of books and helped create the early-twentieth-century market for gift-books”.
These new skills and techniques are on display in Rackham’s first major success, Rip Van Winkle, the book that would establish him as “the leading decorative illustrator of the Edwardian period”.
It was also the beginning of a successful partnership with the publisher William Heinnemann. The lucrative pattern that they established was to sell a small number of signed and finely bound copies, like the one above, as well as a larger number of trade editions bound in cloth, capturing multiple segments of the market at once. Legendary London bookbinders Sangorski & Sutcliffe bound many of the deluxe copies of Rackham’s books, often as presentation copies for the artist to give away. Rackham even designed the gilt tools used for the bindings:
Another precedent established with Rip Van Winkle was for Rackham to promote each book by exhibiting his original paintings at the Leicester Galleries in London. In this way he helped to promote the book (the entire deluxe edition was subscribed by the time the exhibition closed) and also earned extra income selling the original artwork. This tactic was incredibly successful and helped make him one of the most highly paid illustrators of the era, earning an astonishing £7,000 in 1920, in large part from the sale of his paintings.
The Rip Van Winkle exhibition had a further advantageous consequence: it brought Rackham the commission for the first edition of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.
In 1905 J. M. Barrie visited the Rip Van Winkle exhibition and was so taken with Rackham’s artwork that a meeting was arranged to discuss collaboration on a Peter Pan book. The “boy who never grew up” had first appeared as one of many stories in The Little White Bird (1902), and became a successful theatrical production the following year. But it was the partnership between Rackham and Barrie that made Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens the “outstanding Christmas gift-book of 1906″, and one of the most beloved of all 20th-century children’s books. It was also one of Rackham’s biggest financial successes, reprinted numerous times and leading to the production of the Peter Pan Portfolio, a selection of twelve of the artist’s favourite illustrations reproduced in their original sizes.
For the next ten years Rackham was the preeminent illustrator in Britain, so fully booked with commissions that he often had to turn offers down. The one he most regretted was Kenneth Grahame’s invitation to illustrate the first edition of The Wind in the Willows, which he declined in order to complete what is probably his greatest work: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Published in 1908, it was described by the designer William de Morgan as, “the most splendid illustrated work of the century”, and Rackham’s biographer has argued that his “gnarled trees and droves of fairies, have represented the visual reality of the Dream for thousands of readers. Here he excelled especially in landscape, and in reconciling dream and reality, giving himself to the luxury of rich detail with a rare generosity”.
Another significant work from this period was Alice in Wonderland. In 1907 the original copyright expired and a number of publishing firms planned new editions, with Rackham’s version gaining much attention, though not all of it positive. Many readers loved the new illustrations, but Alice was “so completely identified with the drawings of John Tenniel that it seemed to many critics almost blasphemous for anyone to attempt to prepare alternatives”. Nevertheless, the book was successful, and Rackham’s lively designs, still in print, place his Alice among the best loved of all versions of this classic.
During the 1920s Rackham’s reputation expanded overseas. Though the privations of the First World War had dampened British enthusiasm for deluxe illustrated books, a new generation of collectors was establishing itself in the United States. Rackham illustrated a variety of books conceived for the American market, including Where the Blue Begins by Christopher Morley (1925), Washingon Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1928), and Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1935).
Rackham’s career continued to be productive during the 1930s, his last decade of life. Though the family struggled with his wife’s ill-health, he also experienced the joy of his daughter’s marriage in 1935, and in the same year held his first exhibition at the Leicester Galleries since 1919. Commissions continued to roll in, and in 1936 a representative of the Limited Editions Club paid a call. Discussing the possibility of the artist illustrating some books for them, he idly suggested The Wind in the Willows. To his surprise he saw Rackam “much moved”.
‘Immediately a wave of emotion crossed his face; he gulped, started to say something, turned his back on me and went to the door for a few minutes.’ When he came back he explained that for years he had ardently wished to illustrate the book, and had always regretted that he had refused the invitation of Kenneth Grahame and his publishers nearly thirty years before.
After Rackham had declined the Wind in the Willows commission to work on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the book was published without illustrations and remained so until 1931, when Ernest H. Shepherd completed his own version. It was one of the great regrets of Rackham’s life, but now, even as his health was failing, he had another chance.
Slowly, the drawings for The Wind in the Willows neared completion. The last drawing of all to be finished was that of Rat and Mole loading their boat for the picnic. Rackham’s daughter remembers his great exhaustion and the extreme difficulty he had in getting it done. When he had, as he thought, finished it, he suddenly discovered that there were no oars in the boat. Barbara tried to persuade him that this was a detail that did not matter, but he insisted that everything must be right, and with great labour he altered the drawing and put in the oars. After he had done this, he lay back in bed and said: ‘Thank goodness, that is the last one.’ And so it proved in every sense.
To learn more about Rackham see:
- The website of the Arthur Rackham Society.
- Arthur Rackham: His Life and Work, by Derek Hudson.
- Arthur Rackham: A Bibliography, by Sarah Briggs Latimore and Grace Haskell.
- A New Bibliography of Arthur Rackham, by Richard Riall.
Click here for our complete stock of Arthur Rackham books and original artwork.
Below the fold, more of Rackham’s illustrations: