Arthur Rackham has been called ‘the leading decorative illustrator of the Edwardian period’ and is widely acknowledged as one of the most iconic fantasy artists who ever lived. His work has inspired not only other painters but, even more impressively, major writers like J R R Tolkien, C S Lewis and Poul Anderson. Appropriately enough for a fantasy artist, Rackham seemed perfectly in tune with the mythic past and his illustrations of the works of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Edgar Allan Poe in particular show him at his most creative and observant. In imagination, draftsmanship and colour-blending, his work has never been surpassed, even by modern day masters such as John Howe and Charles Vess. His deep understanding of the spirit of myth, fable, and folklore seems to have afforded him a transcendent range of expression which has perhaps only ever been equalled by his ‘spiritual son’ Alan Lee. In this post I’ve attempted to showcase some of his best work but it is a mere drop in the ocean of Rackham’s immense talent, which has produced an intimidatingly impressive body of work.
Rackham was born in London but in 1884, at the age of 17, he was sent on an ocean voyage to Australia to improve his fragile health. It was on this journey that Rackham first invented his own unique technique, which resembled photographic reproduction; he would first sketch an outline of his drawing, then lightly block in shapes and details. Afterwards he would add lines in pen and India ink, removing the pencil traces after it had dried. With colour pictures, he would then apply multiple washes of colour until transparent tints were created. This unusual yet highly effective technique is often described as a fusion of the northern European ‘Nordic’ style strongly influenced by the Japanese woodblock tradition of the 19th century. The dreamy, ethereal feel of much of Rackham’s work was perfectly suited to fairy tales and children’s stories. Rackham came along at exactly the right time, for the Edwardian era is now commonly regarded at the ‘Golden Age’ of children’s book illustration. His first book illustrations were published in 1893 in To the Other Side by Thomas Rhodes, but his first serious commission was in 1894 for The Dolly Dialogues, the collected sketches of Anthony Hope, who later went on to write The Prisoner of Zenda. Book illustrating then became Rackham’s career for the rest of his life. His works were included in numerous exhibitions during his lifetime, including one at the Louvre in Paris in 1914.
During the years from 1900 until the start of the First World War, there was a strong market for high quality, illustrated books that typically were given as Christmas gifts. Many of Rackham’s books were produced in a de luxe limited edition, often vellum bound and sometimes signed, as well as a larger, less ornately bound quarto ‘trade’ edition. This was often followed by a more modestly presented octavo edition in subsequent years for particularly popular books. The onset of the war in 1914 curtailed the market for such quality books, and the public’s taste for fantasy and fairies also declined in the 1920s. Arthur Rackham’s works have, however, become very popular since his death in 1939, both in North America and Britain. His images have been widely used by the greeting card industry and many of his books are still in print or have been recently available in both paperback and hardback editions. His original drawings and paintings are to this day keenly sought at the major international art auction houses. His most lasting legacy, however, is the list of books that he has illustrated, which reads like a Who’s Who of fairy tales, fantasy and children’s stories. To name but a few they include: Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Gulliver’s Travels, Rip van Winkle, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Rhinegold, The Valkyrie, Aesop’s Fables, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, Mother Goose, A Christmas Carol, The Tempest and The Wind in the Willows.