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Summary Article: Rackham, Arthur from Continuum Encyclopedia of British Literature

Rackham is best known for his fantastic illustrations of such subjects as fairies and gnomes pictured among gnarly trees and other strange characters. This extremely imaginative and talented illustrator of both FAIRYTALES and children’s classics is considered by many to be the premier illustrator of the early 20th c. Throughout his lifetime, he illustrated more than sixty books. Remaining faithful to the Victorian age in which he was born, he captured a romantic and fantasy filled world in his line drawings and watercolor painting. He worked days in an insurance office for some years, while producing illustrations for newspapers and magazines on the side. Throughout the 1890s, he worked for the Westminster Budget depicting the current subjects of the day. This work and his early book illustrations, such as he produced in the Dolly Dialogues, were stiff and matter of fact, very different from the style he came to adopt. Perhaps due to the growing popularity of photography over illustration in journals of this period and also likely due to growing recognition, his style changed dramatically to the amusingly odd, whimsically charged characters for which he is known and cherished. His figures were generally drawn from life, using his own quirky form and that of his daughter as models. He also used details from their home and garden in Sussex, with the result of making his creations, while utterly fanciful, also quite believable.

It was with the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (1900) that Rackham first found success and gained recognition as an artist. His original Grimm included ninety-nine of his mainly black and white illustrations, although in a later edition (1909) half of these were turned to color. He became adept at using the new three and four color process to his advantage by his use of muted, earth-tone browns and grays, less affected by the drain of this printing process. Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle (1905) with some fifty illustrations established his reputation in the U.S. and bought him the freedom to be selective in his choice of future works. Authors greatly admired Rackham’s creative spirit and desired to have him illustrate their books. With his illustration of J. M. BARRIE’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906), Rackham’s work produced a frenzy of interest, although some critics thought the idea of such luxurious and expensively produced art books going to children was ludicrous. Rackham, however, felt strongly about the value of playful and imaginative pictures in the development of a child. He furthermore believed that children would appreciate the fine artistic details present in such pictures and that they thereby deserved to see the same high quality artwork that adults would expect in their books, regardless of price.

He followed Peter Pan with a 1907 edition of Lewis CARROLL’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which appeared on the market alongside many other Alice works after the original copyright lapsed. Rackham was widely criticized at the time for attempting to supplant Sir John Tenniel’s beloved illustrations. Far from doing so however, Rackham’s work draws from the inspiration of the original illustrations and creates works that further support the classic with details influenced by the Art Nouveau movement. Rackham went on to publish illustrations in his self-edited Mother Goose (1913), Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1928), and Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1935), ending his illustrious career with a 1940 edition of Kenneth GRAHAME’s The Wind in the Willows. He had regretted a decision earlier in his career in which he turned down the opportunity to illustrate the first edition, and was thrilled in 1936 when he was again asked to illustrate this work which had become one of his favorite books. Rackham’s illustration of Rat and Mole loading their boat for a picnic was his last effort before his death, leaving the oars of the boat to be completed by others.

Exaggerated noses and limbs, grotesque and terrifying characters, his creation of so many charming creatures and his sense of HUMOR all contribute to the timeless quality of Rackham’s art, which was influenced by the works of Albrecht Dürer, the Pre-Raphaelites, and Howard Pyle. With works that stand out for their intricately detailed patterns and textures, as is seen in Rackham’s depictions of such household accoutrements as fabrics and dishes, his fantasy filled illustrations incorporated the everyday life of late 19th-c. Britain. Rackham’s life work is now displayed in many of the top galleries in Europe and the U.S., and his art continues to influence the decorative arts and crafts as well as stage design and commercials today.


Bibliography Gettings, F., A. R. (1975); Hamilton, J., A. R. (1990); Hudson, D., A. R., His Life and Work (1960); Riall, R., A New Bibliography of A. R. (1994)

Ann Wackham

Brien Fuller

© 2006 The Continuum International Publishing Group, Ltd

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