Arthur Rackham

Arthur Rackham, VPRWS (1867-1939)

First and foremost among illustrators of the Gift Book, Arthur Rackham had a particular affinity for the northern literary tradition, from Hans read more...
Arthur Rackham
Arthur Rackham, VPRWS (1867-1939)

First and foremost among illustrators of the Gift Book, Arthur Rackham had a particular affinity for the northern literary tradition, from Hans Christian Andersen to Richard Wagner, and developed a perfect visual response in his intensely observed characterisation and atmospheric depiction of setting. The images tend to be remembered as grotesque and spine tingling but, wide-ranging and always apt, their mood is as likely to be humorous or tender.

Arthur Rackham was born in Lewisham on 19 September 1867 and was educated at the City of London School. He visited Australia in 1884 and, on his return, enrolled in evening classes at Lambeth School of Art as he looked for work. Employed as a clerk at the Westminster Fire Insurance Office between 1885 and 1892, he resigned from the post to join the staff of the Pall Mall Budget, later transferring to the Westminster Budget.

Rackham began to illustrate books in 1894, and this activity offered a field in which he could expand his imaginative gifts. He assimilated a wide variety of influences, including the work of E J Sullivan and the Victorian fairy painters, and by the turn of the century had evolved his characteristic style. Working in both black and white and colour, he enhanced the expressive linear quality of his drawing with a perspectival use of a muted range of pigments that could be accurately reproduced by new printing processes. For some 15 years his only serious rival as a fairy story and gift book illustrator was Edmund Dulac. His first publications included, most notably,
The Ingoldsby Legends (1898) and Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare (1899); and with Rip Van Winkle (1905), Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1908) his reputation was assured.

Exhibiting widely at home and abroad, including several solo shows at the Leicester Galleries, Rackham won many awards. He was elected an associate member of the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours in 1902, a full member in 1908, and Vice-President in 1910. He was also Master of the Art Workers Guild in 1919, and a member of the Langham Sketching Club.

After 1920, Rackham undertook painting in oils and began to show at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. He visited America in 1927, and in 1931 went to Denmark where he made studies for illustrations to Hans Andersen; these were further used, in 1933, as the basis of his designs for a production of Humperdinck’s
Hansel and Gretel, his first professional theatrical project. These last 20 years were something of an anti-climax, partly due to the decline in the standard of book production. But he continued to produce some excellent illustrations, such as those for Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1935) and Peer Gynt (1936). Despite declining health, he completed his last set of designs, for The Wind in the Willows, shortly before his death at Limpsfield, Surrey, on 6 September 1939.

His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum and the V&A; and the Butler Library (Columbia University in the City of New York), The Cleveland Museum of Art (OH), The New York Public Library and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (University of Texas at Austin).

Further reading: James Hamilton,
Arthur Rackham: A Life with Illustration, London: Pavilion Books, 1990; James Hamilton, ‘Rackham, Arthur (b Lewisham, London, 19 Sept 1867; d Limpsfield, Surrey, 6 Sept 1939), in Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, Volume 25, pages 835-856; James Hamilton, ‘Rackham, Arthur (1867-1939)’, in H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, Volume 45, pages 718-721; Derek Hudson, Arthur Rackham: His Life and Work, London: Heinemann, 1960