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.
I appreciate fantasy artwork both for its aesthetic merits and for its importance to selling fantasy novels. They say you should never judge a book by its cover but I will freely admit that there has been more than one occasion on which I have been drawn to read or buy a book because of a spellbinding illustration on the cover that has made me just itch to find out more. Some illustrators have become as synonymous with certain writers’ work as the words themselves – it is difficult to imagine Alice in Wonderland without John Tenniel’s iconic sketches, Dickens and Phiz go together like salt and vinegar, and even today most editions of C S Lewis’s Narnia novels are adorned with the illustrations of Pauline Baynes. Perhaps the most perfect example as far as fantasy novels go of an author and illustrator being artistic soul-mates is that of Alan Lee and J R R Tolkien.