Practical Color Theory, Part 1
Red, a King Dethroned
The Whimsical work of Arthur Rackham, 1867-1939
Dawn of a New Year
Tackling New Media
The Whimsical work of Arthur Rackham, 1867-1939Artist Spotlight
by Giovanna Adams
Arthur Rackham is perhaps the most well known illustrator of the 1870’s – 1930’s. He lived in an era dubbed the “Golden Age” of illustration that he perpetuated and documented by way of his art. He studied at the City of London School and at the age of 18 he studied at the Lamberth School of Art. He illustrated in his spare time for popular magazines of the age and in 1891 he became one of the main illustrative reporters for The Westminster Budget. Rackham would later declare this time as being the worst time of his career due to the newspaper’s rigid deadlines that demanded quick sketches rather than the careful detail work that Rackham preferred.
In 1895 Rackham did five illustrations for Washington Irving’s Tales of a Traveler, but from image to image it was difficult to be certain the work was by the same artist. Nineteen more book assignments followed during the 1890's, with dozens of pictures for two major children's magazines. During this time Rackham was developing a unique style that was to influence generations of children and artists. However, these early illustrations gave no indication of the whimsical fancy that would later show itself in his later works.
It may have been love that was the catalyst that released his full artistic talents, for it was in 1900, after meeting his future wife, painter Edyth Starkie that he began to follow his natural inclination to draw worlds of fantasy and magic. That same year he illustrated The Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. The book was overwhelmingly successful and was reprinted twice.
Most of his paintings started as pen and ink drawings into which he worked layer after layer of transparent watercolor glaze, a painstaking method associated more with classical painting than modern illustration. He would begin each illustration in a similar manner, carefully drawing his subject in pencil and then inking over the pencil lines in India ink. For his color images, he would then use transparent watercolors laid down in delicate washes. This technique gave his images an ethereal quality and was especially suited to subjects of fantasy.
His style was evident, but it was the stunning 1905 edition of the Washington Irving classic, Rip Van Winkle that would feature all of his famous signature traits. His illustrations were filled with flowing pen lines softened with muted watercolor, sensuous but chaste fairy maidens, ugly ogres and trolls that were good natured enough not to frighten, and animated animals and trees. The illustrations where imbued with a gentle joy and his drawings conveyed a non-threatening thrill and a beauty that was in no way overtly sexy or lewd. It was perfectly fitting for the Victorian age.
Rip Van Winkle was followed in 1906 by another masterpiece, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. Throughout Arthur Rackham’s lifetime, he illustrated editions of A Midsummer-Night's Dream (1908), Undine (1909), The Rhinegold and the Valkyrie (1910), Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods (1911), Aesop's Fables (1912), Mother Goose (1913), A Christmas Carol (1915), The Romance of King Arthur (1917), English Fairy Tales (1930), Hansel and Gretel (1923), The Allies Fairy Book (1916),The Vicar of Wakefield (1929), The Night Before Christmas (1931), The Arthur Rackham Fairy Book (1933), Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1935), The King of the Golden River (1932), Goblin Market (1933), The Pied Piper (1934) and many more. It is also interesting to note that many of these same titles had editions with illustrations by Edmund Dulac, who was also a popular illustrator of this time.
Throughout his career Rackham was not content to remain with a proven style but sought new artistic challenges, illustrating Cinderella (1919) and The Sleeping Beauty (1920) in silhouette and experimenting with line and color in Irish Fairy Tales (1920) and The Tempest (1926). He also had the courage to tackle works that were considered sacred, illustrating Alice in Wonderland (1907) and The Wind in the Willows (1940). Rackham considered the opportunity to illustrate The Wind in the Willows a great gift, for he had been offered the original commission previously but had to turn it down because of other commitments. He even consulted with the author Kenneth Grahame’s widow about the illustrations and finished the book just weeks before his death from cancer.
Rackham's illustrations preserved a lifestyle and a sensibility that kept the modern future at bay. His beautiful drawings were a constant reminder of those aspects of innocence that had been left behind. As James Hamilton so eloquently said, "Rackham's illustrations to Grimm, Hans Andersen or Poe show him at his most imaginative and observant of human nature, while his gnomes, fairies and gnarled anthropomorphic trees in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens or A Midsummer Night's Dream represent his more fantastic side. He was and remains a soloist in front of an orchestra, a player with the responsibility to interpret and add a personal luster to great works with variations of infinite subtlety and grace."
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