Walter Crane, RWS RI ROI (1845-1915) Though he considered himself primarily as a painter, Walter Crane was a wide-ranging artist and theorist who, allied to the Arts and Crafts Movement, developed as a significant and influential designer and illustrator. His groundbreaking ‘toy books’ of the 1860s and 1870s, printed by Edmund Evans, increasingly emulated the flat colour and asymmetrical compositions of fashionable Japanese prints. Later, William Morris employed Crane to work for the Kelmscott Press, and encouraged him to turn to Socialism.
Walter Crane was born in Liverpool on 15 August 1845, the son of the portrait painter, Thomas Crane. He grew up in Torquay and London. At the early age of 13 he made a set of coloured designs to Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott that were seen by the wood-engraver, William James Linton.
He was so impressed that he took Crane on a three-year apprenticeship (1859-62), and not only gave him a thorough grounding in theory and practice of illustration but encouraged his interest in politics. He also studied at Heatherley’s. In 1863, he met Edmund Evans, the pioneer of colour printing, and they soon began to produce the long series of cheap children’s picture books that made Crane’s name, beginning with The ‘House That Jack Built’ Alphabet (1865). From 1867, he also worked for the Dalziels, for Once a Week and Fun. His illustrative work in general would help to establish the Aesthetic Style of the 1870s and 1880s.
Meanwhile, inspired by Burne-Jones’s exhibits at the Old Water-Colour Society, Crane began to show paintings at the Dudley Gallery (and subsequently at many other venues, including the Fine Art Society and the Leicester Galleries). He met Burne-Jones and William Morris in 1871, the latter further stimulating his interest in politics. In the September of that year he married and set out with his wife for an extended honeymoon in Italy (the first of many travels), returning in 1873 and settling in Shepherd’s Bush. (Crane and his family would move to Holland Street, Kensington, two decades later.) While he continued to paint and exhibit, maintaining that his painting was his first love, he made his greatest mark as a prolific and versatile designer; he undertook important decorative schemes for George Howard, Frederic Leighton, Alexander Ionides and the American heiress, Catherine Wolfe.
Crane identified closely with the growing Socialist movement, and joined Morris’s Socialist League shortly after his establishment in 1884. In the same year he became a member of the Fabian Society, and for the rest of his life he often placed his versatile talents at the service of the Socialist cause. He was also much involved with art education, being Examiner in Design to the Board of Education to London County Council and the Scottish Board of Education; Director of Design at Manchester School of Art (1893-96); Director of the Art Department of Reading University (1898); Principal of the Royal College of Art (1898-99).
Ever willing to help raise the public profile of art, Crane was founder and first master of the Art Workers Guild (1884) and first President of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society (1888-93, and again in 1896-1912). His memberships of the other exhibiting societies included the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours (1882-86, resigning to join the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours), ARWS (1888), RWS (1899), the Royal Institute of Painters in Oils (1893) and the Society of Painters in Tempera (as a founder in 1901). His many and influential publications include Of the Decorative Illustration of Books Old and New (1896), The Bases of Design (1898) and Line and Form (1900). He also published An Artist’s Reminiscences (1907). He had an international success as both designer and painter, and his later paintings – flat, stylised and symbolic – appealed in particular to German collectors. In 1902, his contribution to Turin’s decorative art show, in which he was assisted by Robert Anning Bell, led to his being made a Knight of the Order of the Crown of Italy by King Victor Emmanuel. He died at Horsham Cottage Hospital, Sussex, on 14 March 1915.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the V&A; Manchester Art Gallery; Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums; the Musée du Louvre (Paris); and the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, MA).
Further reading: Alan Crawford, ‘Crane, Walter (1845-1915)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 13, pages 996-998; Christopher Newall, ‘Crane, Walter (b Liverpool, 15 Aug 1845; d Horsham, W Sussex, 14 March 1915)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 8, pages 121-122; Gregory Smith and Sarah Hyde, Walter Crane: Designer and Socialist, London: Lund Humphries/Manchester: Whitworth Art Gallery, 1989; Isobel Spencer, Walter Crane, London: Studio Vista, 1975