Walter Crane (1845-1915) is today best known for his ornately illustrated 19th century children’s books. He designed artwork for the British master printer Edmund Evans in a variety of capacities for ten years, before Randolph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway joined him as Evans’ triumvirate of children’s Toy Book illustrators.

In life, Crane was inspired by the ideals of socialism and in particular the work of William Morris. Historian Isobel Spencer says that Morris was the great figurehead for socialism in the 19th century while Crane was the artist of socialism: ‘[Crane’s] designs were published in left-wing papers on the eve of workers’ rallies. They were sold separately to be pinned up in homes, factories, and meeting places, and they were stitched in the brilliant silks of trades-union banners.’ (Spencer, 1975, pp. 8-9)

Formative working experiences developed Crane’s social awareness. In 1859, aged 14, he entered one of the best engraving workshops in England, that of William James Linton, master engraver, writer and champion of political freedom. Linton sent Crane to make studies of animals at the Zoological Gardens where Crane learnt the importance of spontaneous line. Animals remained his favourite subjects.

At the age of 19, Crane designed covers for Evans’ yellow backs, an increasingly popular format of cheap novel. These mass produced books were bound between straw boards, with yellow glazed paper and a picture printed in colour on the covers.

Three books from the 1890s.

Yellow backs were an increasingly popular format for cheap novels. Whom god hath joined, 1891; Neuroomia: a new continent, 1894; A living statue, 1893

In 1865 Evans saw the potential of Crane’s art for the growing children’s book market and suggested Crane’s illustrations to the British publisher Frederick Warne for his Sixpenny Toy Book Series and subsequently a similar series for Routledge in America.

A three-page spread of illustrations from Puss in Boots

Puss in boots by Lucy Crane and Walter Crane, 1873

Crane’s trademark style from the 1870s onwards was compositions with strong outline and clear bright colours. In Puss in boots (1873), Crane employs black to striking effect. In the delightful picture of Puss begging for boots, his master is Crane’s self- portrait as a young man.  The work revealed his skill as an animal draughtsman, honed in the Zoological Gardens.

In his later book Little Queen Anne, and Her Majesty’s Letters (1886), Crane is quite ornate but decorative borders no longer delineate both text and image. Instead the images contain a sense of space while the text by Walter’s eldest sister Lucy, is playfully placed inside fine borders including open fans, lamp shades, a slate and a globe of the world.

An illustration of a small boy looking out to sea

Young Dick from Slate and pencil-vania, 1885

Crane brings a touch of island beauty to the adventures of a boy named Dick in Slate and pencil-vania (1885).

The cover and a knight from TITLE and Bluebeard from TITLE

The cover and Jack Frost from Legends for Lionel by Walter Crane, 1887, (left and centre); Bluebeard from Bluebeard’s picture book by Walter Crane, 1899 (right).

His illustrations for the story of Jack Frost in Legends for Lionel (1887) unequivocally evokes winter while the protagonist in Bluebeard’s picture book (1899) is suitably authorative.


This article has 2 comments

  1. I am a school librarian and taking college courses about libraries. Your collections are charming and enthralling to me, as artist, mom and book lover. I think you should be very proud to work there.

    • Hi Kathryn,
      Thanks for your feedback and I am very pleased you enjoy the Illustrated Children’s Books blog series and in particular Walter Crane. The artists we highlight are inspirational and I hope these blogs provide an impetus to your own creative work.
      I have such a personal commitment to research into children’s literature so send my best wishes to you for your studies.
      Juliet O’Conor

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