Golden Age Illustrators: The Fantastical Art of Arthur Rackham

Sat, 06/16/2018 - 10:26am -- mfarias

Gulliver's Travels into Several Remote Corners of the World
By Jonathan Swift, Illustrated by Arthur Rackham

When British illustrator Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) was born in 1867, the art of book illustration was limited to mostly woodcut engravings and other methods that limited the artistic potential of illustrators. Fortunately for Rackham and his contemporaries, rapid technological advances around the turn of the century led to the development of new printing processes that created the Golden Age of Illustration (traditionally defined as ca. 1880s-1920s). The introduction of photo-mechanical reproduction removed the engraver from the process and allowed Golden Age artists like Rackham to display their skill with the newly developed color separation practices and three-color printing processes. As a result, these artists produced colorful, detailed, intricate illustrations in their own distinctive styles, which were reproduced and spread widely to the delight of people of all ages.


Miscellaneous illustrations by Arthur Rackham from the Collection of the Redwood Library


Arthur Rackham was born in London as the third of twelve siblings to Annie and Alfred Rackham. He received his early education at the City of London School where he won a few prizes for drawing during his school days, expressing an early interest in becoming an artist. After leaving school, he worked as a clerk to finance his studies at the Lambeth School of Art while also reporting and illustrating for a number of London newspapers. His first book illustrations were for To the Other Side, a travel guide published in 1893, and the Dolly Dialogues (1894). In these earlier works, his style was simple and focused on line drawing. As printing techniques progressed, Rackham experimented with his fantastical watercolors, encouraged by his future wife Edyth Starkie (1867-1941). Rackham met the portrait artist over a garden wall in 1898 and referred to her as “his most stimulating, severest critic.” Rackham and Starkie were married in 1903 and had one daughter together, Barbara, in 1908.


The Tempest by William Shakespeare, Illustrated by Arthur Rackham


The colorful, photo-mechanical prints produced by Rackham and other artists at the beginning of the 20th century led to the development of the “gift book.” Illustrations were printed and then pasted or “tipped in” after the final book was printed, usually in limited runs. This process was expensive, but the quality of the illustrations and artists led to the creation of a gift book market. Publishers were able to meet the high demand for the artistic works, even though the production of the gift books was expensive, because the cost for materials and labor was declining.

Rip Van Winkle, By Washington Irving, Illustrated by Arthur Rackham 


The first widely distributed gift book was Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle published in 1905 with 51 colour plates by Arthur Rackham. He created each plate by first drawing his subject in a pencil line before applying an ink layer. On this was added layer after layer of delicate watercolor paint to produce a romantic, fantastical, ethereal image. A contemporary artist called him “one of the most inexhuastibly imaginative painters of poetic and grotesque fantasies whom our watercolor school has ever produced.”


Miscellaneous illustrations by Arthur Rackham from the Collection of the Redwood Library

Throughout his career, Rackham illustrated children’s books, adult dramas, Shakespearean plays, and a host of other classic works. After showing Rip Van Winkle at the Leicester Galleries in London, J.M. Barrie asked Rackham to illustrate Peter Pan in Kensington Garden (available for circulation in a modern edition: here). His success continued throughout his life and his final illustrations were published a year after his death in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1940).


The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Illustrated by Arthur Rackham


Among the distinctive imagery in Rackham’s illustrations, much attention has been paid to his trees. These “looming and sometimes frightening anthropomorphics trees...exude character with their detailed knots and tangles.” Wild, dangerous, haunting, and often dark, these trees occupy many of Rackham’s illustration. When experimenting with silhouette cuts in illustration work, particularly in the period after the First World War, his trees lost some of their menace, but they still have a unique character intruding upon the tranquility of any scene.


Sleeping Beauty, Illustrated by Arthur Rackham
Silhouette Cuts


The illustrations shown here represent just a small sample of the creative life of Arthur Rackham. Among the Redwood’s holdings are original gift books, later editions, modern reprints, and biographical studies of one of the most prolific figures of the Golden Age of Illustration.