I thought it would nice to start the year with something a little light-hearted, although as always with such things there is a more serious undertone.
Walter Crane was an English artist and book illustrator. Born in 1845 he was a founding member of both the Art Workers’ Guild (1884) and the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society (1888) and later was President of the Royal College of Art. Politically radical he became a prominent Socialist and was a close friend and colleague of William Morris. But as you can see he also had a good sense of humour – and loved fantasy and anthropomorphism which he was able to indulge in his contribution to children’s literature.
Along with Randolph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway, his work was in a style that would set the tone for many books of nursery rhymes and children’s stories for decades to come.
Today’s post is about A Floral Fantasy in an Old English Garden set forth in verses & coloured designs, which was one of the last of the fifty or so children’s books that he illustrated and which was published in 1899. All the images come from that unless otherwise stated.
But first a little background. Walter Crane was the son of a painter and in 1857 was apprenticed to become an engraver’s draughtsman, which meant that he transferred an artists designs onto the engraver’s wood blocks. Later he became an illustrator in his own right, contributing to books and magazines. His success there led to commissions designing wallpaper, tiles and other household goods. In 1865 Crane was asked to contribute to a series of picture books of traditional fairy tales and nursery rhymes for very young children, which were to be printed by Edmund Evans, the most talented woodblock colour printer in London. Evans believed paper picture books could be greatly improved and still sold for sixpence, ‘if printed in sufficient quantity’.
Crane wrote: “The books for babies, of the cheaper sort called toy books were not very inspiriting. These were generally careless and unimaginative woodcuts, very casually coloured by hand, dabs of pink and emerald green being laid on across faces with a somewhat reckless aim.” Over the next ten years Crane illustrated thirty-seven of these Toy Books, as they were known and in doing so he revolutionized the genre and his Toy Books became the most popular children’s books of their day and were an enormous success both commercially and aesthetically.
In A Floral Fantasy in an Old English Garden Crane depicts himself first lying under a tree and later being led through an hedged garden by a fairy wearing a ‘phrygian cap’ or ‘bonnet rouge’. This was the well known symbol of the French revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, and it features prominently elsewhere in Crane’s work.
On his stroll through the garden, Crane encountered a series of human characters dressed as flowers and plants, in elaborate costumes of petals, tendrils and leaves, making visual puns about the plant’s common name.
The pages in Crane’s book are only printed on one side of the leaf , but each is folded once in Japanese style. Because printing technology had improved and the transfer of sketches to the wood blocks could now be done photographically Crane was able to work with softer outlines and gentler shades of watercolour than the old hand engraved blocks had allowed. He was also very influenced by Japanese prints, as were so many other artists at the time, Crane wrote: ‘Their treatment, in definite black outline and flat brilliant as well as delicate colours, vivid dramatic and decorative feeling struck me at once, and I endeavoured to apply these methods to the modern fanciful and humorous subjects of children’s toy-books and to the methods of wood-engraving and machine printing.’
Crane was also determined to coordinate text, image,and layout. To do this meant a high degree of co-operation between everyone producing the book. But it worked and gradually with Evans, Crane transformed the toy book into a sophisticated art form.
How could anyone not love Sir Dandelion!
Surprisingly there isn’t very much critical commentary on Crane’s children’s books but Samantha Manton who curated an exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester which included many of them in the autumn of 2016 argues that his “imaginary figures were devised to collectively epitomize the nobility of labour and demonstrate a just and happy society deeply connected to nature.”
She went on “the enchantment of the garden setting, and this ‘flowering’ of humankind, served to condemn the greed and unjust social order of the world beyond it. Furthermore, the inhabitants’ jubilation over the arrival of springtime articulated a vision of hope and renewal.”
Of course this vision fits in with Crane’s political views. His use of the plant-filled spaces for Utopia can be seen in many of his cartoons such as “The Worker’s Maypole” and “A Garland for May Day” which date from roughly the same period.
We’re used to seeing William Morris’s use of plants in designs, often formalized and abstracted but Crane’s approach is very different, much more figurative and rooted in reality. They’re clearly not botanical drawings but they are obviously derived from his knowledge of real plants and very carefully chosen to suit the purpose. In his hands mares tail does look like a mares tail!
Crane had more than a taste for fantasy. For his son’s 21st birthday he dressed as a giant crane [of the winged avian sort] while Mary dressed as a giant sunflower! He had himself photographed as Cimabue, the 13thc Florentine painter who was a pioneer towards naturalism.
You can see how illustrating nursery rhymes and fairy stories for the young suited his vivid imagination. However, he also wanted to be taken seriously as an artist, exhibiting twice at the Royal Academy, but his work for adults never appealed in the same way as his work for children. Despite that he was appointed Director of the Design School at Manchester University in 1893, then took a post at Reading before moving to be President of the Royal College of Art.
Crane died in 1915 and his obituary in The Times summed him up as “one of the chief of those artists who redeemed English design from hopeless and incompetent ugliness.” But it continued “if we were less familiar with his work we should see its originality more clearly. But we have known it since our childhood, when we enjoyed his children’s books so much that, rather ungratefully, we have never enjoyed any of his works so keenly since.”
To find out more about Walter Crane, although sadly little more about his Toy Books or his interest in plants and gardens then good places to start are:
This post has only used about the first half of the plates from the book. The last plate showing Crane and the Fairy at the end of the book is below but to see the rest go to: