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ARTHUR RACKHAM (1867-1939)

The sensible innovator

Arthur Rackham was born in 1867 into a Victorian age that he perpetuated and documented by way of his art. He studied at the City of London School where he won prizes and a reputation for his art. At the age of 18, he became a clerk. In his spare time studied at the Lambeth School of Art. He made occasional sales to the illustrated magazines of the day like Scraps and Chums. In 1891 and 1892, he had a close association with the Pall Mall Budget as one of this weekly's main illustrative reporters.

His first book illustrations were published in 1893 and they were mostly reused images from magazines or books featuring the work of several illustrators. The first book with illustrations done specifically on commission was in 1896. That book, The Zankiwank and The Bletherwitch marks the first hints of the lighter side of Rackham. The Zankiwank isn't high fantasy art, but there are images that presage, if not greatness, then at least the joyous frivolity that was to be an important component of his work.

Nineteen more book assignments followed during the 1890's, with dozens of pictures for two major children's magazines: Cassell's and Little Folks and even one for the venerable St. Nicholas. It's intriguing to watch the progression of subject matter of the books during this period. His second book was In the Evening of His Days. A Study of Mr Gladstone in Retirement his third.Bracebridge Hall by Washington Irving, The Money-Spinner and other Character Notes and Captain Castle followed. A Tale of the China Seas.

He did another boy's adventure book titled Charles O'Malley, The Irish Dragoon, and several books on English Gardens and hunting and fishing. Not really the stuff of fantasy and fairy tales, but there was The Ingoldsby Legends in 1898 (with 12 color plates and 80 line drawings) and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm in 1900 (with a color frontispiece and 95 pen & ink drawings). By far his greatest efforts were being expended in the service of fantasy - at least if you only count quantity. The Ingoldsby Legends was radically revised and updated in 1907.

From 1900 to 1904, it was pretty much more of the same: Two Years Before the Mast, and several boy's books like Mysteries of Police and Crime, The Argonauts of the Amazon, and Brains and Bravery. While the subject matter remained fairly constant, Rackham was developing a style that was not only his own, but was to influence a generation of children and artists. The roots of the style were surely evident in many of the books listed above, but the flowering took place in 1905 in a stunning edition of the old Washington Irving classic, Rip Van Winkle.

Most obvious, in retrospective, is the calm and good humor of the drawings. They seem imbued with a gentle joy that must have been reassuring to both the children and their parents. Rackham had found his niche. His drawings would convey a non-threatening yet fearful thrill and a beauty that was in no way overtly sexy or lewd. It was a perfect Victorian solution and he seems to have taken to it with an impish delight.

To touch on just few of the literally dozens of highlights of a long and successful career, Rip was followed in 1906 by one of his two masterpieces, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. 1907 saw an edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; in 1908 - A Midsummer-Night's Dream; in 1909 - Undine; in 1910 and 1911 The Rhinegold, Walkure,Siegfried and The Twilight of the Gods. These four books contained 115 color plates from Rackham's paintings.

He never lost the joy and sense of wonderment and he never gave in to the baser styles that fell in and out of favor over the years. From Queen Victoria's death in 1901 to the start of World War I, Rackham's illustrations preserved a lifestyle and a sensibility that kept the frighteningly modern future at bay. His beautiful drawings were the antithesis of the industrial advances that allowed them to be printed at affordable prices. Even into the twenties and thirties, his art was a constant reminder of those aspects of innocence that had been left behind. He always kept his gentle humor and his Wind in the Willows, published posthumously in 1940, is as much a children's classic as his Peter Pan. Rackham died in 1939, but his artwork continues to enchant the public of all ages and all cultures.

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