The original idea for today’s entry was a contrast between the birth of an illustrator fairy and folk tales into middle-class Victorian society and the death of a folk hero in the 1960s in Montreal, Quebec.

However, my exploration of Arthur Rackham became an illustrated essay; my write up about Monica Proietti (Monica la Matraille /Machine Gun Molly) will probably wait until March’s exploration of women’s history.

Arthur Rackham was born September 19, 1867 into a large, bustling middle class family in Lambeth, South London. From a young age, Rackham was interested in drawing and painting. “Sneaking pencils into his bed to draw under the covers, he eventually resorted to drawing on his pillow case when paper was taken from him” (Corryn Kosik, “Arthur Rackham: Biography” Illustration

A trip to Australia with two aunts in 1884 inspired him to become an artist; his father, however, had different ideas about Rackham’s career. As a compromise, Rackham became a junior clerk in the Westminster Fire Office, and took night classes and lessons at the Lambeth Art School. By 1892, he had submitted hundreds of drawings to the various illustrated publications. These magazines and newspapers were very popular and had a wide audience. Rackham worked for several years as a journalist/illustrator at the Westminster Budget Newspaper.

He wrote to an admirer of those days:

. . .I worked as hard as I could out of business hours (9–5) to H 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. (Quoted in James Hamilton, “Arthur Rackham: A Life with Illustration,” Society of Illustrators. org.)

He worried about the impact of the camera on newspaper illustration, so turned his hand to a different sort of publication – illustrated books. By then, such important magazines as Punch, were commissioning illustrations. This exposure caught the attention of book publishers such as J. M. Dent.

This was the ideal time to receive a commission from J. M. Dent during what scholars call the “Golden Age” of British illustrated books – circa 1890 to the end of the first world war. These were deluxe editions –limited runs of sumptuously illustrated and bound children’s books intended to be given as, especially Christmas, gifts. His illustrations for The Ingoldsby Legends (1898) were deemed a success; Rackham was now a book illustrator.

Rackham has interesting ties to America: one of his earliest book endeavors was illustrating a guide book to the US and Canada, To the Other Side (1893). He illustrated American classics such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. His use of new technological advances in color book printing are on display in his hugely successful decorative illustrations for a new edition of Rip Van Winkle.

“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.” (Peter Harrington, Arthur Rackham: The Golden Age of Illustration)

 Although interest in these deluxe editions and fairy tales began to wane in Britain in the 1920s, his fan base in America grew. He did a series of advertisements for Colgate Cashmere Bouquet soap in his, by then, recognizable style, and worked closely with American publishers, such as Houghton-Mifflin and Lippincott.

“Exhibitions of Rackham’s work took place in New York City, and he received a substantial commission from the New York Public Library to create a series of watercolor paintings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” (Kosik, Illustration History. org) These paintings were bound with calligraphed text by Graily Hewitt, and “remain one of the New York Library’s premium twentieth century holdings.” (Hamilton, “Arthur Rackham”, Society of Illustrators. org).


During this 1927 trip to New York City, he wryly commented in letters home on the difference he saw between America and Britain:

Everything shouts—shop fronts, display windows, architecture. The violence of the competition makes noisy advertisement necessary, I suppose . . . All shops & theatres & cinemas­—all glittering and screaming with light, & skysigns & lighted advertisements flaming over the front of the houses. It is all piercingly blazingly light. . . .  A gorgeous marble palace of a Vander something—built as a marvel 15 years ago—is pulled down in a night & up goes a skyscraper. (Quoted in Hamilton, “Arthur Rackham,” Society of Illustrators. org.)

Edyth Starkie, Woman in White (self-portrait)

I think of Rackham as an illustrator, yet in 1920 he made more from sales of water colour paintings than book illustrations. Rackham was first encouraged to pursue that medium by his neighbour, later, wife, Edyth Starkie, herself an artist.

As a result of her support, Rackham submitted a number of his watercolor fantasy paintings for inclusion in the 1902 Royal Watercolour Society show. In 1905, his publisher arranged for the 51 colour plates Rackham created for Rip Van Winkle be displayed at the Leicester Gallery. This increased the public’s interest in Rackham, and led to a commission by J. M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame to create the illustrations for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.

The 1930s were years of change for Rackham. While the production of deluxe editions remained in decline, he did gain a new readership with the mass-market production of trade reissues of earlier works. Edythe became ill; Rackham’s health declined as well. In 1938, he took on his final book illustration projects for one of his American publishers, George Macy. Wind in the Willows was a sentimental favourite for Rackham. Offered the commission in 1908, he declined due to deadlines for another publication. These would be his last illustrations; Rackham died in September 1939; the book published posthumously.

I think my “entrée” into Rackham’s comic, dark, mischievous, and whimsical world first came through the closet piles and bookcases full of British children’s literature (1920s-1930s in particular) at my paternal grandmother’s. With more of Rackham’s work being reissued as mass-produced books in the 1930s, I’m sure my memories of particular fairy tales were influenced by his illustrations. So, when I rediscovered Rackham years later, looking for images for my fairy tale/fantasy blog posts, I experienced a sense of “childhood” déjà vu.



Selected bibliography:


To the Other Side (1893)

The Sketch Book by Washington Irving (1895)

The Ingoldsby Legends (1898; 1907)

Tales from Shakespeare (1899; 1909)

Tales from the Brothers Grimm (1900; 1909)

Gulliver’s Travels (1900; 1909)

Rip Van Winkle (1905)

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906)

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1907)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1908)

Undine (1909)

The Rheingold; The Valkyrie (1910)

Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods (1911)

Aesop’s Fables (1912)

Arthur Rackham’s Book of Pictures (1913)

Mother Goose (1913)

A Christmas Carol (1915)

The Allies’ Fairy Book (1916)

The Romance of King Arthur (1917),

Cinderella (1919),

The Sleeping Beauty (1920),

Comus (1921),

The Tempest (1926)

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1928)

Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (1932

The Night Before Christmas (1931)

Fairy Tales by Hans Andersen (1932)

Goblin Market (1933)

The Arthur Rackham Fairy Book (1933)

Tales of Mystery & Imagination (1935

Peer Gynt (1936)

Wind in the Willows (1940)

websites/blogs/articles cited:

Corryn Kosik, “Arthur Rackham: Biography” Illustration

James Hamilton, “Arthur Rackham: A Life with Illustration,” Society of Illustrators. org.

Peter Harrington, Arthur Rackham: The Golden Age of Illustration)

See also:

Arthur Rackham, Wikipedia

Arthur Rackham and Fairy Tale, Art Passions

Arthur Rackham, Pook Press

The Golden Age of Children’s Illustrated Books,

The Golden Age of Illustrated Books, Pook Press

“Let the Wild Rumpus Start: Arthur Rackham and Maurice Sendak” Richard Armstrong,

Rackham illustrations from various on-line sources

And, for a musical interlude, this Decemberists song about the mythical Rusalka reminds me of Rackham’s illustrations: