1845 - 1915
Walter Crane (1845 - 1915) was a major British artist, as well as an art theorist, designer, writer and committed socialist. He is best known as an illustrator, as well as an avid promoter of the Decorative Arts. A prolific artist, Crane's work encompasses illustration, painting, ceramics, wallpaper design, upholstery, and many other fields. But primarily known for his imaginative illustrations of children’s books. He was one of the strongest contributors to that genre.
Born in Liverpool, England, on August 15, 1845, Walter Crane grew up surrounded by the influences of art. His father was a moderately successful portrait and landscape painter, he encouraged Walter to pursue his interest in art. As a child, Walter was especially fond of drawing, and he took advantage of opportunities to make drawings based on the portraits that his father painted. Walter’s early successes did not go unnoticed, and he received an apprenticeship as an engraver while a teen. Learning engraving was difficult, often tedious work for the young man, but his dedication brought him a fluency in the language of line. Thomas, seeing potential in his son, introduced him to William James Linton, the head of one of the best printing and engraving companies in England. Linton’s style and political views heavily influenced Walter Crane’s life and work. A socialist, Linton sought political reform, which clearly colored Crane’s view of the world, Crane spent three years (1859–62) as an engraver at the studios of William James Linton, who put him to work at many varied tasks in his shop. In addition, Linton, recognizing Crane’s imaginative passion, provided the youth with creative outlets. Crane’s apprenticeship with Linton also allowed him the opportunity to gain experience in a number of different printing and engraving methods. In 1862, Crane’s apprenticeship came to an end, but his refined drawing skill and his connection to Linton, afforded him an invitation to work as an illustrator for Edmund Evans, the leading woodblock color printer of the time.
The apprenticeship served Crane’s future as an artist in many ways he had gained an insight into printing processes, which gave him a technical advantage when considering methods to improve upon the reproduction of his work. It provided him with a network of professionals who knew of his work with Linton. And it gave Crane an understanding of craftsmanship, which would become increasingly important to him later on in life. Not long after his apprenticeship ended, Crane was at work as a professional illustrator. His rich imagination made children’s books a natural vehicle for his creativity. A thin, inexpensive volume known as a “toy book” would become his livelihood for the next decade. Crane’s toy books were a great success, providing him with a loyal following and establishing his reputation early in his career.
Considered to be the most influential, and among the most prolific, children’s book creator of his generation, Walter Crane was a follower of the newer art movements and was a diligent student of the renowned artist and critic John Ruskin. He was a student who admired the masters of the Italian Renaissance, however he was more influenced by the Elgin marbles in the British Museum. A further and important element in the development of his talent was the study of Japanese color-prints, the methods of which he imitated in a series of toy books, which started a new fashion. After Crane concluded his apprenticeship with William James Linton, he began his association with Edmund Evans. Evans was a printer who produced inexpensive novels, intended for railway travel.
Crane originally was hired to prepare cover designs for these novels, but Evans quickly perceived that Crane’s strength was in imaginative work, and he channeled the artist’s efforts toward a new line of children’s books. Where he could apply his imagination to illustrate children’s nursery rhymes and fairy tales in short, inexpensive picture books referred to as Toy Books (popular in the Victorian era). These slim volumes had a larger range of printed color than previous works, Crane quickly adapted his style to benefit this process. Crane illustrated 37 toy books over the next ten years, earning him the title “academician of the nursery”. The subjects were ranging from fairy tales, English rhymes, and the Arabian Nights, to contemporary stories. Crane devoted a great deal of time to his designs, and to the way that children viewed pictures.
“Children, like the ancient Egyptians, appear to see most things in profile, and like definite statements in design. They prefer well-defined forms and bright, frank colour. They don’t want to bother about three dimensions. They can accept symbolic representations. They themselves employ drawing...as a kind of picture-writing, and eagerly follow a picture story. When they can count, they can check your quantities ,so that the artist must be careful to deliver, in dealing with, for instance, ‘The Song of Sixpence,’ his tale of twenty-four blackbirds.”
Having left toy books behind, his recognition in the field brought him work from a number of areas. Crane was also looking beyond the nursery book for fresh ideas. New circles of friends gave him the opportunities to work with more compelling material illustrations for works by Oscar Wilde, decorations and designs in collaboration with William Morris and his own fanciful stories and costume designs. Outside the realm of publishing, Crane’s association with Morris led him to develop strong feelings about the place of design in society, as well as socialism both topics that he would be very vocal about in the latter part of his life.
He became a firm believer that art should exist in all things, and be available to all the people. Along with Morris, Crane became a leading figure in the socialist movement and was for many years its most active artist, devoting a portion of his time to creating cartoons and imagery supporting a socialist agenda.
Over the course of his career, Walter Crane published many illustrated books devoted to his own stories, as well as works on design theory, a memoir, and various articles on socialism. Crane did not hesitate to get involved. He was president of the Art Worker’s Guild in 1884, as well as the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society.
He became one of the most noted children's book illustrators of his era. Crane's illustrations stood out from the usually low quality drawings in children's books of the time, and helped revolutionize the field of children's books. His style was much imitated by other illustrators. His artistic endeavors became more diverse as he got older. Illustrated books had a wide and varied market in the late nineteenth century, and Crane was able to produce a broad range of more serious volumes as well, some offering hundreds of images.
Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and works by Shakespeare, would later be produced by his studio.
During Crane’s commercial successes in publishing, he was involved in academic painting as well. In 1862, The Lady of Shalott, his first submission to the Royal Academy, was accepted. His career as a painter was a partial success at best. Crane claimed that painting was his greatest love, but it did not meet with the success that his commercial work did. His subjects often were allegorical or mythological, similar to many of his contemporaries. He believed that art should be present in the life of everyone. To this end he created images for home furnishings such as wallpaper and rugs, and many of his designs found their way onto tiles and ceramics.
Spenser’s Faerie Queene
Walter Crane's Paintings
About His Work
In his influential book, The Claims of Decorative Arts, Crane argued that decorative art is not a lesser form of art compared to painting or sculpture, and indeed one cannot have high art "where there is no beauty in everyday things, no sources of harmonious thought about us." He compared the decorative arts to the soil from which flowers bloomed. Walter Crane lamented that capitalism distorted man's artistic abilities by motivating him to devote himself to material gain at the expense of beauty. He described the capitalist system as an "unwholesome stimulus" which promoted the creation of cheap and commercial art, which he called a "catch-penny abomination." Crane prophesized that art, especially the crafts, would flourish in a socialist society once the individual was freed from the bounds of wage slavery and would be able to devote himself to artistic pursuits.
Crane’s most famous work is often considered to be the illustrations he created for Edmund Spenser’s 16th century epic poem, The Faerie Queene. The design elements of the Arts and Crafts movement clearly influenced Crane’s style in these illustrations. Like John Ruskin, Edward Burne-Jones, and William Morris, Crane was looking back to the English Gothic style for inspiration, viewing it as an honest time where the artists were craftsmen and the craftsmen were artists. Crane’s focus on the design of an entire book as a cohesive whole are especially evident in this tome, as the intricate borders mesh seamlessly with the medieval scenes. His illustrations for The Faerie Queene garnered such high praise that it is considered to be one of the most beautiful works of the late 19th century Arts and Crafts movement.
Crane’s intricately decorated borders, calligraphy, and Gothic revival images blend together into one harmonious whole, echoing lavish creations by William Morris and his Kelmscott Press.
Walter Crane illustrations are noted for amazing, vivid details, sometimes bordering on the surreal. He had an unmistakable and distinct style, while at the same time he was clearly influenced by medieval wood engravers and illuminated books. Crane was noted for his joyful dedication to his art.
Jack & the Beanstalk
Crane's work featured some of the more colorful and detailed beginnings of the child-in-the-garden motifs that would characterize many nursery rhymes and children's stories for decades to come. He was part of the Arts and Crafts movement and produced an array of paintings, illustrations, children's books, ceramic tiles and other decorative arts. Crane is also remembered for his creation of a number of iconic images associated with the international Socialist movement.
The body of work achieved by Walter Crane during his long career in illustration and design reveals more than the story of a creative mind, it also tells the tale of the development of publishing during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Crane was a driving force in the world of Victorian art who not only participated in the radical shifts that publishing went through during those years, he also was a leading figure who had the vision to see what improvements could be made and then led the way.
Few illustrators of publishing’s golden age had careers as varied and as successful as Walter Crane’s. When Crane died in March of 1915, his children’s books were being embraced by a whole new generation children of those readers who had enjoyed them when newly published. Though his efforts were devoted to producing a varied legacy, it is largely for the enduring imagery of his nursery work that he is remembered today.