Walter Crane was born on August 15, 1845 in Liverpool, England. His father, Thomas Crane, was a portrait painter who encouraged Walter to pursue his interest in art. At a young age, Walter would decorate books with watercolors for amusement, and 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, as can be seen in his art. Crane’s apprenticeship with Linton also allowed him the opportunity to gain experience in a number of different printing and engraving methods. Linton saw Crane’s aptitude for drawing and design at an early stage, and gave him assignments to practice his skills. 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.
In the 1860s, color printing with wood blocks was a promising new aspect of the expanding book market, which was quickly growing thanks to the increasing literacy rate. Evans first employed Crane to design book covers for his “yellow back” (referring to the yellow enamelled covering paper that didn’t show wear as quickly) novels when he was only eighteen years old. Though Crane quickly adapted to the coloring work, it was his difficulty with rendering everyday scenes that prompted Evans to move him from “yellow backs” to 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) for Routledge Publishing. Crane illustrated thirty-seven toy books over the next ten years, earning him the title “academician of the nursery,” and effectively pigeon-holing his artistic style as that of a children’s book illustrator.
Though his work with Evans during this time made him the most famous children’s book illustrator of his day, Crane was not enthusiastic about this moniker, and did not think much of the Toy Books that he was illustrating. “They were not very inspiring. These were generally careless and unimaginative woodcuts, very casually colored by hand…”1 Despite his chagrin for the simplicity of children’s book illustration, Crane did devote 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.”2
Crane’s early books were heavily influenced by Japanese woodblock prints, with flat, decorative compositions and deep perspective. He, like the Pre-Raphaelites, viewed each book as a work in itself, in which every design element was reflective of the whole, including the covers and endpapers.
In 1865, Crane visited an art gallery in Piccadilly, London where he viewed Work, a painting by Ford Madox Brown. Though this piece did not have an immediate impact on his artistic style, the subject matter did have a profound impact on his long-term career. The painting shows historian Thomas Carlyle and F.D. Maurice, head of the Christian Socialist Movement observing the labors of a group of working-class men. Madox Brown’s revolutionary painting was a milestone for British art because it was the first time an artist had deemed a working-class person a subject worthy of painting.3 Crane’s artistic career was composed of political works, focused on the Socialist movement, and his non-political works, which were often considered to be his best pieces. Crane viewed art as a tool for revolution, an implement that could be used to change the minds of society. He worked on Socialist pamphlets and posters when he was not illustrating children’s books. An example of his political views being applied to children’s literature can be seen in his successful illustrations for Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm (1882). Considered by many to be one of his most notable works, these illustrations were filled with historical and allegorical connotations that spoke to the political consciousness of social reform.
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 (originally published 1590). 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 (1894-1897) 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.
At this point in the late 19th century, there was a shift towards referencing the medieval era as a pastoral, idyllic period of time, which Crane and the followers of the Arts and Crafts movement perpetuated. The industrialization of England inspired many to reminisce and look to the past for simpler, “honest” work that connected them to nature and the land. This yearning for a connection to nature may be part of what drew Crane to work primarily with woodblock prints, a natural technique that was often used in the medieval era, and earlier. This method certainly connected him with the past, as well as with natural materials, and yielded an old-fashioned, less polished appearance appropriate for the fantastical and historical stories he illustrated.
Walter Crane also wrote books, including Of the Decorative Illustration of Books Old and New (1896), India Impressions (1907), and An Artist’s Reminiscences (1907). Much of his writing and illustrating, especially later in his life, was focused on his socialist politics, which had a lasting impact on the art of the labour movement in Britain, and heightened his artistic reputation in Europe, especially Germany. His populist approach to art ensured that he exerted a great deal of influence on illustration and book design at the end of the 19th century, arguably more than William Morris. Throughout the 1890s Crane contributed to socialist periodicals that published his political cartoons featuring themes that more subtly permeated his earlier work. This continued until the end of his career. Walter Crane died in Horsham Hospital, on March 14, 1915, nearly three months after his wife of forty-four years, Mary Crane.
1. Susan E. Meyer, A Treasury of the Great Children’s Book Illustrators (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987), 82.
2. Susan E. Meyer, A Treasury of the Great Children’s Book Illustrators (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987), 88.
3. Simkin, John. “Walter Crane.” Spartacus Educational. October 2016. http://spartacus-educational.com/Jcrane.htm.
Corryn Kosik, Walt Reed Distinguished Scholar, March 2018
Illustrations by Walter Crane
Bland, David. A History of Book Illustration: The Illuminated Manuscript and the Printed Book. Cleveland, OH: The World Publishing Company, 1958.
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.
Suriano, Gregory R. The British Pre-Raphaelite Illustrators. London: Oak Knoll, 2005.