Revelling in Rackham

Arthur Rackham, the fourth of twelve children, was born in Lewisham on 19th September 1867. His father wanted him to have a career in business and he began as an insurance clerk, but attended Lambeth School of Art in the evenings, having won prizes for drawing at school. In 1892, after having illustrations published in the The Pall Mall Budget over the course of the previous year, he took a job there, moving to the new Westminster Budget the following year. After just a few years he was able to become a self-supporting book illustrator, also contributing to The Westminster Gazette and magazines such as Little Folks and Cassell’s Magazine, a career which continued until his death from cancer on 6th September 1939.

This self-portrait is the frontispiece to Derek Hudson’s biography of Rackham, published in 1960.

The Irish author, musician, TCD graduate and professor, Walter Fitzwilliam Starkie (1894-1976), was the nephew of Rackham’s wife Edyth, herself a sculptor and portrait painter. In his autobiography Scholars and Gypsies (shelfmark HIB 828.912 STA:10 K3), he tells of his first meeting with his future Uncle Arthur in 1902, the year before Arthur and Edyth’s marriage:

“One day, when I was with Aunt Edith [sic] in her studio, she introduced me to a strange wizened man with goggle spectacles … I thought he was a goblin when I saw him in his shabby blue suit and carpet slippers, hopping about the studio with a palette on one arm, waving a paint-brush in his hand.”

Arthur Rackham was elected an associate member of the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours in 1902, and promoted to full membership in 1908. In 1909 he joined the Art Workers’ Guild and in 1919 became Master of the Guild. He won gold medals at Milan in 1906, Venice in 1909 and Barcelona in 1910. He was also a member of the Langham Sketch Club, along with such well-known names as John Tenniel and Mabel Lucie Attwell, and an associate member of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Having started by drawing in black and white, he embraced the use of subtle shading as technology began to allow colour printing around the turn of the century. Primarily known for pen-and-ink drawings and watercolours, he later took up oil painting, created some stage set designs, and even produced a series of advertisements for the American Colgate soap company. Although his fantasy images are the most familiar, his work covers a wide range of themes. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Rackham’s birth, here are some of his illustrations from our collections:

One of Rackham’s earliest works for children, and one of his first fantasies, was The Zankiwank and the Bletherwitch – ‘An original fantastic fairy extravaganza’ – by Shafto Justin Adair Fitzgerald, published by J. M. Dent & Co. in 1896 (shelfmark 33.s.54).

Although he did not use very bright colours, his images for Rip van Winkle in 1905 (shelfmark OLS L-5-387) brought Rackham much greater public attention than any of his previous work. Printing in colour straight onto pages of text was not yet possible, so these plates are on coated paper, ‘tipped in’ to the book – i.e. stuck on thicker card – and all bound in at the end, with a sentence from the story on each protective sheet of tissue paper.

The following year, Rackham illustrated a story edition of J. M. Barrie’s popular play. Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (shelfmark 55.b.154), with 50 full-page images tipped in at the end of the book, was the Christmas gift book of choice in 1906.

A similarly beautiful book was Shakespeare’s A midsummer-night’s dream (shelfmark 68.n.15), published in 1908. This contains black line drawings in the text and colour images tipped in between the pages.

Controversially, 1907 saw a number of new editions of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland illustrated by different artists. Rackham’s (shelfmark 73.c.51) is the only one of these to have made any real impact on the market.

On December 4, 1907, Punch (shelfmark 32.o.62) published a cartoon by Edward Tennyson Reed (1860-1933) in favour of the original, illustrated by John Tenniel (1820-1914), who also worked for that magazine. Rackham’s Alice is to the right of the image.

In 1900, Freemantle & Co. had published an edition of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm (shelfmark 88.t.25), illustrated by Rackham. In 1909, Constable & Co. Ltd., having acquired the rights, published a larger edition (shelfmark OLS X-2-291). In a ‘prefatory note by the artist’, Rackham says

At intervals since then [1900] I have been at work on the original drawings, partially or entirely re-drawing some of them in colour, adding new ones in colour and in black and white, and generally overhauling them as a set, supplementing and omitting, with a view to the present edition.”

Also in 1909, J. M. Dent & Co. released a new volume of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (shelfmark 77.o.33) with a note at the front saying “They [the publishers] feel that the fine drawings of Mr Arthur Rackham are a sufficient raison d’être” for doing so.

Rackham’s Christmas book for 1909 was a translation by William Leonard Courtney of Friedrich Heinrich Karl La Motte-Fouqué’s Undine (shelfmark 64.n.90)

and Christmas 1910 saw his illustrated edition of The Rhinegold & The Valkyrie by Richard Wagner, translated by Margaret Armour (shelfmark 82.c.16).

Sales of these two were not as good as the publishers had hoped, so they persuaded Rackham to return to the children’s market with Mother Goose, a book of nursery rhymes chosen by the illustrator, in 1913 (shelfmark 55.h.188). Like a number of his books, this contained both coloured and black and white pictures.

The romance of King Arthur and his knights of the round table (shelfmark 66.ff.51) was commissioned in 1917 to reflect the mood of patriotism in the country. Unusually for Rackham, this included small illustrations for chapter headings.

An early post-war publication was English fairy tales retold by Flora Annie Steel (shelfmark 88.h.26), for which Rackham provided 57 illustrations. A lovely touch is The grebe hat, a painting by Rackham’s wife, hanging on the wall in the three bears’ house.

Edyth’s nephew, Walter Starkie, persuaded his uncle to illustrate Irish fairy tales – a collection by his friend James Stephens (shelfmark OLS L-7-105). The Celtic influence is obvious in this image. This copy is from Stephens’s own collection, presented to TCD library by his daughter. It is inscribed by the actor Frank Wyndham Goldie: ‘For James Stephens, who should possess this, the finest book in the world’.

James Stephens

In 1934, Rackham provided a frontispiece and title page illustration for Starkie’s own travel book Spanish raggle-taggle : adventures with a fiddle in North Spain (shelfmark OLS L-7-618).

One of the last books Rackham worked on before his final illness was Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, published in 1936 (shelfmark 88.n.115).

The greatest challenge in writing this post has been choosing which images not to include! All the books featured, and many more, are available for consultation in the Department of Early Printed Books & Special Collections. The exquisite illustrations are well worth viewing.