“The leading decorative illustrator of the Edwardian period” – Arthur Rackham

6 September 1939, the English book illustrator Arthur Rackham died at the age of 71 in his home at Limpsfield, Surrey.

“My dear Rackham, It was immensely good of you to put that delicious little picture in my copy of ‘Peter’. I have been a wreck with colds and coughs for six weeks which is why I have not written you sooner, especially about the exhibition. It entranced. I think I like best of all the Serpentine with the fairies, and the Peter in his night-gown sitting in the tree… I am always your debtor, and I wish the happiest Christmas, and please, I hope you will shed glory on more of my things.“ (J.M. Barrie in a letter to Arthur Rackham)

Arthur Rackham: "Siegfried kills Fafnir" from his 32 colour plates illustrating Richard Wagner's "Siegfried" (1911), imagery that heavily influenced Fritz Lang's and Thea von Habou's imagery of their 1924 "Nibelungen" movie

The stills of the men who lived, fought and died in the camps and battlefields as well as the sites of the Crimean War, the Great Mutiny in India or at Shiloh, Antietam and Gettysburg were already caught on camera. But neither was the available technology advanced enough to capture the action nor the print settings capable of mass publication of photos. They had to be manually translated into line drawings until 1880. However, illustrated newspapers went up in popular estimation since the “Illustrated London News” was first printed in 1842 – with wood engravings of illustrations made by draughtsmen who had been on the scene or not and used lots of drama and imagination. During the U.S. Civil War, especially “Harper’s Weekly” used a host of illustrators to cover the events of the war theatres, artists influenced by American Luminism and European Realism who found their livelihood in a fast growing niche. It was the dawn of the Golden Age of Illustration in the U.S., inseparably linked with names of Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth. The Europeans were not idle, though, and illustrations, especially of fairy tales, legendary history and other mythological subjects grew from the imagination of Edmund Dulac in France and John Bauer in Sweden, Walter Crane and Arthur Rackham in England. The latter took advantage of a quantum leap in printing technology, when new photographic reproduction methods became available that allowed his wonderfully fine and intricately drawn lines as well as the autumnally restricted palette of his watercolours to be printed without the need of an equally gifted engraver. The method was quite sophisticated and the outcome were wonderful and rather expensive gift-books ranging from illustrated Shakespeare and Wagner edition to fairy tales and literary classics like “Gulliver’s Travels” and the up and coming genre of children’s literature, most notably J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens” with 49 colour plates by Arthur Rackham, publication date 1906.

"I think I like best of all the Serpentine with the fairies" -
Arthur Rackham's
“Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens” (1906)

Japanese woodcuts hit Western artists’ fancy like a bomb when they became known to the public in the second half of the 19th century and thusly inspired, Rackham masterfully blended the Ukiyo-e’s bittersweet ephemeral character of depictions of nature and stylisation of characters with the clear, dynamic lines of European illustrations into a masterful whole, depicting the graphic essence of the late Victorian and Edwardian mindscape and its imagery like no other artist. Lost in post-Romantic reverie, the age’s understanding and imagination of the fantastic and worlds to escape to, or at the very least that of its middle and upper class nurseries, was shaped by Rackham’s illustrations. Up to the point that the men who had outgrown these nurseries and were sent to the frontlines and trenches of the Great War were gifted with storybooks illustrated or inspired by Rackham to give them something to cling to. When the market for expensive gift books had ebbed away after the War to end all Wars was over in Europe, for economic reasons, Rackham found a new livelihood in crafting images for American audiences, confidently stylish without ever becoming kitschy, a threat that always lurks behind every corner for visual artists specialised on his sujets. Ten years later, towards the end of his life when myths, more often than not, had been perverted into the fundaments for propaganda of terror across the globe, Rackham had the opportunity to finally fulfil a dream of his lifetime – illustrating Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows”. He had to reject the offer to illustrate the first edition in 1908 because he was fully committed in other projects, gift-book editions of the Lamb’s “Tales from Shakespeare” and the “Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm” and regretted the circumstances for the rest of his life, or almost. During his last months, Rackham created 16 colour plates for a new US edition version of the children’s classic, posthumously published a few months after his death in 1940.

Toad dressing up, Arthur Rackham's swan song
from "Wind in the Willows" (1939)

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