Walter Crane

March 19, 2019

“The story of man is fossilized for us … in art and books.”
Walter Crane, Of the Decorative Illustration of Books Old and New, 1896

Walter Crane (1845-1915), son of portrait painter and lithographer Thomas Crane, was born in Liverpool in 1845. As a child, he exhibited signs of artistic talent. He spent his days in his father’s studio sketching the hands and faces of Thomas’s portrait commissions and studying illustrations in books and periodicals. Under his father’s tutelage, Walter learned to paint in oils and designed illustrations for stories and poetry. In 1858, his amateur work caught the eye of famed engraver William James Linton who invited Crane to apprentice with him in London. Recognizing the young artist’s extraordinary talent, Linton allowed him to work as a draftsman (a person who makes detailed technical plans or drawings). During his three-year apprenticeship, Crane honed his drawing skills, learned the craft of wood engraving, and became familiar with the publishing trade.

In 1865, Crane began collaborating with engraver Edmund Evans—a pioneer in color printing—on a series of toy books of nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Toy books were inexpensive illustrated children’s books, typically six pages long and paperbound, which sold for sixpence (1/40th of a pound of silver). At the time, most children’s books were primitively decorated and cheaply produced. Crane himself described them as “generally careless and unimaginative woodcuts, very casually colored by hand, dabs of pink and emerald green being laid on across faces and frocks with a somewhat reckless aim.” Evans believed these paper picture books could be both beautiful and affordable if printed in sufficient quantities. Many publishers disagreed, claiming that the coarse illustrations appealed to a broader audience and would therefore sell better. Evans’s instincts proved correct. His careful printing techniques and Crane’s sophisticated illustrations combined to make the toy books appealing to both children and adults. George Routledge & Sons published 37 of these toy books between 1865 and 1876 and their enormous success established Crane as one of the most popular illustrators in England.

Crane’s distinctive style for many these toy books—bold black outlines filled with flat areas of color—worked well with Evans’s technique for color wood engraving and was heavily influenced by Japanese prints he viewed in 1870. Crane wrote of his fascination with the prints in his autobiography “Their…vivid dramatic and decorative feeling struck me at once, and I endeavoured to apply these methods to the modern fanciful and humourous subjects of children’s toy-books and to the methods of wood-engraving and machine-printing.” Crane continued to illustrate children’s books throughout the 1870s and 1880s, most notably a three-book series with Evans—The Baby’s Opera (1877), The Baby’s Bouquet (1878), and The Baby’s Own Aesop (1887). These would prove to be Crane’s most enduringly popular and beloved works in the United States.

By the early 1890s Crane was increasingly turning his focus to adult readers. His design for the six-volume set of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen, published between 1894 and 1897, is considered by many  to be Crane’s crowning achievement and one of the most beautiful works of the Arts and Crafts movement. Crane viewed the book as a cohesive whole, framing the full-page illustrations within decorative borders that foretell subsequent passages, a device used in medieval tapestries.

In addition to his prolific illustration career, Crane was a decorative artist who designed wallpaper, textiles, stained glass, and embroidery. An instrumental figure in the Arts and Crafts movement of the 1880s and 1890s, Crane helped to found the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1888 which formed “to prove that there are artists in other ways than oil or water colour, and other art than that enclosed in gilt frames or supported on pedestals.” Crane was a Socialist, having been introduced to the movement through his friend William Morris. His inspiring designs for leaflets, posters, pamphlets, and magazine covers promoting socialist causes prompted H. M. Hyndman, founder of the Social Democratic Party, to call Crane “the Artist of Socialism.”

The Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives holds several books written or illustrated by Walter Crane in Special Collections, the John Sloan Library Collection, and the Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft, Jr. Pre-Raphaelite Manuscript and Library Collections. A selection of items is on view on the lower level of the Museum through the end of May. Other examples of Crane’s work are currently on view in the Pre-Raphaelite Galleries and in the exhibition Fairy Tales to Nursery Rhymes: The Droller Collection of Picture Book Art (March 2–May 12, 2019).

Rachael DiEleuterio

Crane, Walter. 1907. An Artist’s Reminiscences. New York: Macmillan.
Engen, Rodney K. 1975. Walter Crane as a Book Illustrator. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Gooding, Ruth. 2011. “Walter Crane’s toy books.”
National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives. 2007. Illustrated Books by Walter Crane. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada.Captions, top to bottom
The Sleeping Beauty, illustrated by Walter Crane, engraved and printed by Edmund Evans (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1876). Special Collections, Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives. | Illustration from The Sleeping Beauty (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1876). Walter Crane (1845-1915). Special Collections, Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives. | Illustration from Cinderella (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1873). Walter Crane (1845-1915). Special Collections, Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives. | Illustration from The Baby’s Own Aesop: Being the Fables Condensed in Rhyme with Portable Morals (London: F. Warne, 1887). Walter Crane (1845-1915). Special Collections, Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives. | Chants of Labour: A Song Book of the People, edited by Edward Carpenter (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1888; 1922 printing). Walter Crane (1845-1915). Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft, Jr. Manuscript Collection, Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives. | Illustration from Spenser’s Faerie Queen: A Poem in Six Books with the Fragment Mutabilite, edited by Thomas J. Wise (London: George Allen, 1894-1897). Walter Crane (1845-1915). Special Collections, Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives. Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society: Catalogue of the First Exhibition, 1888. Walter Crane (1845-1915). Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft, Jr. Library Collection, Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives.

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