The artist and illustrator Arthur Rackham died in September 1939, just three days after the outbreak of war in Europe. At the time, he was honored and admired in the United States, while in Britain his fame, briefly in decline during the 1920s, had developed new audiences as the vogue for illustrated books had moved from the deluxe edition to mass-market trade publishing.
Seventy-four years after his death, it is greatly to be appreciated that the Society of Illustrators in America has given Rackham the posthumous honor of entry into its Hall of Fame, though in a very real sense he has been there for decades already. In difficult economic times, it was the American public who were buying his books, commissioning him as an illustrator, and exhibiting and buying his original drawings. It is salutary to realize that while in 1917 Rackham’s U.S. earnings were 2% of his total gross income, by 1920 this figure had risen to 44%. Responding in their shopping habits to the thirty drawings he made to advertise Colgate’s Cashmere Bouquet Soap (1922-25), the American public gave him the complimentary (but inaccurate) title of “Noted English Knight of Pen and Palette.” While he never was “Sir”Arthur Rackham, though perhaps he should have been, it is no wonder that in 1930 Rackham told the English author A. E. Bonser that “the Americans have done great things for me.”
Arthur Rackham was born in Lambeth, south London in 1867, the son of a senior legal officer. Theirs was a large, bustling family, perhaps a touch Dickensian in the profusion of children: the crowded, restless home, the picturesque formality of the father’s profession. All this helped to feed Arthur’s imagination, and to instill in him an understanding of character and a feeling for the comedy and variety of life. He determined to be a painter, and even as a boy treasured his paint box, the “modest silent convenient companion” that he used at home and on his travels. After some false starts as an office clerk, and study at the Lambeth School of Art, he began to find work as a magazine illustrator while still pursuing his ambition to be a painter of landscape and portraits. The grotesque, humorous manner that later became firmly associated with Arthur Rackham was born at this time in his illustrations commissioned in the 1890s by magazines including Punch and the Pall Mall Budget.
Rackham’s first break as a book illustrator came when J. M. Dent commissioned him to illustrate The Ingoldsby Legends (1898). This was followed by his Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm and Gulliver’s Travels (both 1900), in which the style and subject matter for which he was to become famous found its early maturity. While in retrospect we might imagine that from this point his fame as an illustrator was assured, he was still passing through what he described as a “very thin time,” with meager income, a difficult economic situation following the Boer War, and a fear, as he put it, “that the camera was going to supplant the artist in illustrated journalism.” However, he persevered, and became part of a fertile circle of artists whose enthusiasms and activities generated a buoyant and energetic lifestyle and, in Arthur’s case, a body of subject and landscape work which he exhibited at the Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Academy. As he wrote to his elder brother Stanley, then a pioneer farmer in the Canadian North West Territories, “in a profession like mine income stops, of course, the instant I stop work … it is no good sitting lazily.”
Circumstances began to turn for Arthur when he found the love of a young artist, Edyth Starkie, a neighbor in Hampstead. It was on Edyth’s insistence that Arthur put some of his fantasy subjects into the 1902 Royal Watercolour Society exhibition despite his own diffidence.To Arthur’s surprise all these works found buyers, and he earned more from this venture, £60.14 shillings, than he had ever before from exhibited work. This boosted Arthur’s confidence, gave him the will to continue with illustration, and sealed his future. Arthur and Edyth were married in 1903.
The years up to 1914 were ones in which Rackham developed his fame as an illustrator, found wealth through his work, and contributed richly to the literary culture of Europe and America through his interpretations of such classics as J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906), Alice in Wonderland (1907), and Wagner’s Rhinegold and Siegfried (1910–11). Through these titles, produced in both deluxe and trade editions, Arthur Rackham’s illustrations touched the hearts of millions. This was also the period in which Rackham began his conquest of American literary life through U.S. editions published by companies including Scribners, Doubleday and Dutton. But like many Englishmen of his period, Rackham had an ambivalent attitude towards America. At its most banal level this expressed itself in a loathing of horn-rimmed spectacles because they were “new-fangled, impractical, fancy and, worst of all, American”; at its best it reflected his professionalism as an artist who found that “the Americans have done great things for me in buying my pictures.”
America also welcomed Rackham as a visitor, and what he saw of the country intrigued him greatly. He crossed the Atlantic in November 1927 at a time when his popularity in Britain, and consequently his income, had dropped from the equivalent of $500,000 in 1920 to about one-fifth of that figure by 1926. Traveling to the American east coast to meet publishers, collectors and gallery owners was his practical and assertive way of restoring his standing as an artist. His letters home to Edyth reflect the vivacity of his impressions of New York, Boston and Philadelphia:
Everything shouts—shop fronts, display windows, architecture. The violence of the competition makes noisy advertisement necessary, I suppose . . . All shops & theatres & cinemas—all glittering and screaming with light, & skysigns & lighted advertisements flaming over the front of the houses. It is all piercingly blazingly light.
He watched from his hotel window the growth of a skyscraper:
I can see the men heating rivets to red heat then pitching them over to others who run them into holes prepared for them & crash them into bolts with heads with great whangs of hammers . . . A gorgeous marble palace of a Vander something—built as a marvel 15 years ago—is pulled down in a night & up goes a skyscraper.
Rackham brought one major commission home with him from this trip: to illustrate and oversee the production of a manuscript copy of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to be written by the calligrapher Graily Hewitt, for the Spencer Collection of the New York Public Library. The volume, bound in leather tooled to Rackham’s designs by Sangorski and Sutcliffe of London, is one of the NYPL’s twentieth century treasures. Meetings with U.S. publishers, including Lippincott and Houghton Mifflin, brought further commissions that led to the continued publication of his books in America until the end of his life: late titles include Charles Dickens’ The Chimes and Clement Clarke Moore’s The Night Before Christmas (both 1931), as well as The Arthur Rackham Fairy Book (1933), which traded on the continuing commercial potency of Rackham’s name.
The Rackham “brand” has remained recognizable and popular in the U.S. for the second half of the twentieth century, and now into the twenty-first. Arthur Rackham’s welcome into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame surely confirms his status and proves the continuing enchantment of his art.
Author, Arthur Rackham: A Life with Illustration
Senior Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, U.K.