Kate Greenaway was born in Hoxton, London on March 17, 1846 to John and Elizabeth Greenaway, a woodblock printer and seamstress who were determined to give their offspring better childhoods than they had. Though both parents worked hard to provide for their children, the Greenaway family did fall on hard times, which forced them to move from place to place while Kate was young. Many people characterized Kate as an “odd” child, who differed from her siblings in that she spent a great deal of time using her imagination, to escape the stresses of her childhood. Kate is frequently quoted as saying, “I had such a very happy time when I was a child, and curiously, was so very much happier than my brother and sister, with exactly the same surroundings. I suppose my imaginary life made me one long continuous joy—filled everything with a strange wonder and beauty.”
An “imaginary life” helped Kate block out the negative aspects of her childhood, such as her father’s failed engraving business which sent the family into financial difficulty. During this time, as well as on holidays, Kate’s family would go to her mother’s family home in Rolleston, Nottinghamshire where Kate would explore the countryside. An anxious child who often suffered from an alternation of high spirits and deep despair, Rolleston would become her respite and safe haven from the stresses of her life in the city. Her memories of this place influenced her illustrations later on, and may have colored her erratic childhood with comfortable nostalgia.. Her childhood did find some stability when in 1850, her mother opened a profitable millinery business in the fashionable Islington, which helped the family out of financial difficulty. The Greenaways moved into a flat above the shop and Kate could often be found in the garden behind the building, spending time admiring the flowers. This garden would remain “an important part of her childhood memories, the source of her vision of what a perfect flower garden should be like.”
Kate’s imagination was a strength and a weakness for her in everyday life. Though it would prove to be a great asset to her in her illustration, it hindered her ability to interact with other people socially, and it made school nearly impossible for Kate to attend, and soon her mother arranged for her and her sisters to be taught at home. Kate had difficulty focusing on any subjects during her schooling and was content to just draw while her sisters learned. Unfortunately, her erratic childhood education left her with a an underdeveloped understanding of written language; it was due to this that she later had difficulty writing verse to accompany her illustrations. It was not until she was twelve years old when she was enrolled at the Finsbury School of Art (simply so she could chaperone her older cousin on her walks to school) that she discovered her passion for art. Seeing her enthusiasm for the subject, Kate’s parents enrolled her full time in the daytime sessions where she learned arts craftsmanship rather than just painting techniques. During her six years at the school she followed the National Course of Art Instruction and learned about creating patterns for ceramics, textiles, and architectural ornaments. Once completing her education at Finsbury at the age of nineteen, she moved to the Central School in South Kensington to continue her arts education, only to realize that women were being barred from figure drawing classes. Rather than continuing to accept this discrimination, Kate also enrolled in the Slade School of Art when it opened in 1871 because they advertised equal educational opportunities for men and women. By this point Kate was attending both daytime lectures at the National Art Training School in South Kensington, and the evening life drawing classes at Heatherley’s School of Art and the Slade School of Art.
Despite all of this time spent on her education, she was still able to find time to prepare for exhibitions and also take on commercial work to further her career. Kate’s first published drawing was in a book called Infant Amusements (1867), a commission which had been secured for her by her father’s connections in the publishing world. These contacts of John Greenaway would prove to be a great asset to Kate as she worked to find her footing over the next few years. The following year, in 1868 she had her first exhibit at the coveted Dudley Gallery in Piccadilly, which featured a watercolor entitled Kilmeny and a set of six line drawings that were intended to be engraved wood blocks. Both of her works sold easily for two guineas with the line drawings being purchased by Mr. Loftie, the editor of The People Magazine, who later published her drawings in his journal accompanied by stories and verses. Her association with W.J. Loftie would prove fruitful as he helped her gain commissions in the burgeoning greeting card industry. In 1868, the same year of her first exhibition, Kate received many commissions for greeting cards, with her first Valentine’s Day themed card selling 25,000 copies in just a few weeks. Kate worked on commissions for book designs as she continued to design greeting cards, with a couple of her very successful card series re-issued in gift books. Part of what made her cards so popular was Kate’s rendering of costumes. With a mother who was a seamstress and milliner, Kate would have been familiar with the fabrics and styles of clothing. This was evident in her ability to depict costumes from the Medieval Era through the 18th century, a quality which attracted people to her art and continued throughout her career.
In 1876, a popular children’s magazine, Little Folks, began using Kate’s line drawings in their publication, soon to be followed by the American children’s magazine St. Nicholas in 1877. That same year, Kate’s father wrote to his former colleague Edmund Evans to inquire about a meeting to view Kate’s artwork. By this time, Evans owned a very successful color printing business off Fleet Street, and the Greenaways knew that working with him would guarantee Kate’s success. Evans invited Kate and her father to his home in Surrey where he viewed her portfolio and saw much potential in her style, which exemplified the Aesthetic Movement. The women in Kate’s drawings wore loose-fitting dresses in the popular “greenery-yallery” color, sat on William Morris style rush bottomed chairs, drank tea from blue and white china cups made popular by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and danced in sunflower laden gardens surrounded by flowering Japanese-style trees. Evans knew printing Kate’s artwork was a great opportunity, however he did take issue with the accompanying verses which he thought “grammatically nonsensical.” Though Kate would not agree to publish her drawings without the verse, she knew her limited education posed a problem to her writing, so she accepted Evans offer to employ someone to make appropriate edits before publishing. With this agreement in place, Kate and Edmund Evans worked out a publishing deal with George Routledge that stated Kate would receive one third of the book’s profits, which was more money than the customary single payment often given to the author before publishing. After Edmund Evans’ publishing of Kate’s first book, Under the Window, she became quite close with the Evans family and would visit them regularly. Through this friendship, Kate met some of the other important names in children's’ book illustration—Randolph Caldecott and Walter Crane.
In addition to her new acquaintances in illustration, Evans also introduced Kate to someone who would become an important figure in her life, Frederick Locker-Lampson. Locker-Lampson was a poet hired to assist Kate with her verse writing, who was also wealthy and well-connected. The two became close and Locker-Lampson eventually began to help Kate enter London society in order to make beneficial connections and promote her illustrations to a wealthy market. The success of Under the Window after its release in October 1879 showed that Locker-Lampson’s help was well placed. Evans printed 20,000 copies of Kate’s new book, much to the chagrin of Routledge who thought that number overconfident, and they soon discovered that they had not printed nearly enough to keep up with demand. Though the original run of books sold for six shillings each, the limited number in stores meant that booksellers began to upcharge the copies for ten shillings a piece, especially as the edition went out of print. Evans printed and sold an additional 70,000 copies of Under the Window in American and European countries and soon urged Kate to think about her second book in order to make the most of her success and popularity. This new book planned for the 1880 Christmas market was to be called Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book for Children, her name now at the forefront of the marketing scheme. A great deal of thought was put into the planning this book, with emphasis placed on the design and layout, which catered to children. Similar to Beatrix Potter’s planning of her beloved watercolor books, Greenaway and Evans wanted the book to be small format so that it would be an appropriate size for a child’s hand. In order to speed up compilation and printing of the 382 drawings within the book, only twelve would be colored, and the verses would be written by popular children’s author, Mrs. Lucy Sale-Barker (also known as Lucy Villiers).
Kate found her friendship was Frederick Locker-Lampson to be quite helpful following the the success of Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book for Children. The 1880s looked very different for Kate than her life in past years, with invitations to dinners and parties, as well as high society musical events and evenings at the theatre. Though she attended these events with Locker-Lampson, she never quite felt at ease, describing herself as “a crow amongst beautiful birds.” Despite her misgivings, Kate’s introduction to the leading society hostess, Lady Jeune, would prove to be a meaningful and beneficial friendship with the help of her patronage. Lady Jeune helped Kate become more comfortable at society events, and even arranged a meeting between her and Victoria, the Crown Princess of Germany. Commissions to paint the portraits of wealthy patrons’ children soon followed, as well as invitations to display her paintings at the Royal Academy. The more famous Kate Greenaway became, the more criticism she received, even being parodied in Punch in 1880 alongside Randolph Caldecott and Walter Crane. Kate had reached a level of fame equal to that of her male counterparts, and her good friend and confidante, Frederick Locker-Lampson made sure that her monetary gains from printers and publishers matched those made to male illustrators.
In September 1881, Kate’s collection of old nursery rhymes titled Mother Goose was published to immediate criticism. She had deviated from her usual formula by using nursery rhymes that were familiar to everyone rather than her own verse, and also made demands of Edmund Evans to print on thick, old fashioned paper which disrupted the printing process. Both of these issues meant that this book did not sell as well as her first two, leading to a gradual decrease in Kate’s overall book sales for the rest of her career. Another misstep on the part of her and Edmund Evans occurred when Kate agreed to illustrate a book of songs entitled A Day in a Child’s Life, written by Evans’s nephew, Myles Birket Foster. Though Evans knew musical books never sold well, he still urged Kate to take part in the project which resulted in predictably poor sales.
In 1883, Little Ann and Other Poems was published in Kate’s signature style with verse, as seen in her first two books. She chose to include poems by Ann and Jane Taylor accompanied by fifty of her illustrations, the sales of which did prove that the public would still purchase anything bearing an original Kate Greenaway drawing. In addition to her book of verse, Evans also suggested that she illustrate an almanac to sell at one shilling a piece. Though he had made a poor suggestion with the book of music, he did see a good opportunity to fill a niche in the market which would sell 90,000 copies in England, America, France, and Germany. At this time, publishers started reissuing her previous work and people began commissioning other artists to create imitations of “Greenaway children.”
Though Kate met Oxford Professor and art critic John Ruskin in 1883, the two had originally started writing to one another in 1880. Ruskin wrote to Kate to compliment her on her drawings and the two began an ongoing correspondence from that point on. Their relationship grew close over the years as Ruskin provided Kate with criticism of her work, and, as she presumed, tried to help her improve her technique. While Kate began to think of their correspondence as a courtship, Ruskin, who was notorious for his controversial relationships with younger women, did not have any intention of marrying Kate. Their correspondence continued, with some visits to Ruskin’s home in the Lake District, until Ruskin’s death in 1900. Unfortunately, as Ruskin’s health deteriorated over the course of their friendship, he would make comments urging Kate to give up book illustration and pursue “higher” art forms such as watercolors and oil painting. By this time, Kate had effectively replaced her friend and “adviser” Locker-Lampson with Ruskin and began to take his criticism, which was not very constructive, to heart. “To exchange Ruskin for Locker-Lampson as the principal adviser in her life was the most disastrous move Kate ever made. Her luck seemed to change overnight. Ruskin gave out advice on her career which wrecked it, his attempts to improve her drawing ability destroyed her confidence, and matters she became involved in, which had no connection with Ruskin, were destined to fail.” Kate viewed Ruskin’s advice to her as “holy” despite the fact that it was in contrast to what everyone else, including Evans and Locker-Lampson, was telling her in regards to her art.
Evans began urging Kate to come visit him and his family in Surrey more so that he could work with her on new book ideas and hopefully get her back on track with her illustration. This plan worked, and in 1884 Language of Flowers was published to good reviews from critics and negative reactions from Ruskin. In an effort to listen to Ruskin, Kate worked on illustration for Dame Wiggins of Lee and her Seven Wonderful Cats, a black and white reissue of an early 19th century children’s book, with only four new verses by Ruskin and four new drawings by Greenaway.
Kate’s final major book entitled Marigold Garden was published in 1885. After years of trying to listen to Ruskin’s negative comments about her technique, Kate had lost a great deal of confidence in her abilities and took longer than usual to finish her verses and illustrations. When the book was released it only sold 6,500 copies, which seemed to signal a nearing end to Kate Greenaway’s illustration career. In the following years, Kate illustrated Robert Browning’s Pied Piper of Hamelin (1888) and Kate Greenaway’s Book of Games (1889), each selling about 10,000 copies. During the 1890s, Kate continued to illustrate for magazines and began to create watercolor paintings as Ruskin had suggested, though she found that they were not her strength. Kate exhibited a few times at the Fine Arts Society during the 1890s, but the works were never as popular as she had hoped.
Kate’s father died suddenly in 1890 and her mother followed several years later in 1894, both disturbing Kate greatly. Childhood was something that Kate held onto dearly throughout her adult life, in some ways never fully gaining independence since she lived with her parents and had difficulty accepting adulthood. After the death of her parents, Kate attempted to start a business with her sister, Fanny, though it never materialized, and she began to try writing poetry, an autobiography, and plays without any success. By the late 1890s Kate was in ill health with what she knew to be breast cancer but she told no one and would not agree to surgery until it was too late. When John Ruskin died in 1900, Kate was devastated despite the fact that he had not responded to her letters in several years. She continued on for a short time claiming that she was suffering from colds and rheumatism rather than complications from breast cancer until she died at her home in Frognal, London on November 6, 1901.
 Susan E. Meyer, A Treasury of the Great Children’s Book Illustrators (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987), 111.
 Ina Taylor, The Art of Kate Greenaway: A Nostalgic Portrait of Childhood (Gretna, LA: Pelican, 1991), 13.
 Ibid., 50.
 Ibid., 59.
 Ibid., 74.
Corryn Kosik, Rockwell Center Fellow, June 2018
Illustrations by Kate Greenaway
Dalby, Richard. The Golden Age of Children’s Book Illustration. London: Michael O’Mara, 1991.
Doyle, Susan, Jaleen Grove, and Whitney Sherman. History of Illustration. New York: Bloomsbury, 2018.
Meyer, Susan E. A Treasury of the Great Children’s Book Illustrators. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.
Taylor, Ina. The Art of Kate Greenaway: A Nostalgic Portrait of Childhood. Gretna, LA: Pelican, 1991.
White, Gleeson. “Children’s Books and their Illustrators.” The Studio. London: Offices of “The Studio,” 1897.