The Sunday Section: Art - Walter Crane

I first became aware of the English artist, Walter Crane, through his children’s book illustrations.  

Walter Crane (photo by Frederick Hollyer)

A prolific illustrator, his work, together with that of Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott, characterised nursery rhymes and children’s stories of the time and for decades afterwards.

Walter Crane was born in Liverpool in August 1845, the third child of Thomas and Marie Crane.  His father was a portrait painter and miniaturist.  His older brother, also called Thomas, followed in their father’s artistic footsteps, and his sister, Lucy, became a writer.  The family moved to London in 1851; unfortunately Crane Sr. died a few years later.

Walter Crane, painted by his father, Thomas Crane

Walter Crane was an avid follower of the pre-Raphaelite movement.  In 1859, he was apprenticed to the wood-engraver, William James Linton, having impressed him with a set of illustrations for Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’.  While working as a wood-engraver, Crane was able to study closely the art of pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais, Frederic Sandys, and Sir John Tenniel.  Influenced further by Italian Renaissance painters, Crane also made a study of Japanese colour prints.

It was during his apprenticeship that Crane’s developing political opinions were influenced by Linton, who had been a member of the Chartist movement; his stories of the struggle for parliamentary reform had a profound effect on Crane.  While working on the illustrations of the radically political and religious JR Wise, Crane was introduced to the works of John Ruskin, John Stuart Mill and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Although the Royal Academy exhibited his painting, ‘The Lady of Shalott’, in 1862 (when he was 17!), their repeated refusal to accept his later work caused Crane to stopped sending his art.  Working mainly on children’s books, Crane’s artistic reputation continued to flourish, and his talent as a book illustrator was acknowledged. 

'The Lady of Shalott'

'Queen Summer'

'Beauty and the Beast'

Crane’s interest in politics grew, and he became a supporter of the Liberal Party, and campaigned for the 1867 Reform Act.  In 1871, he also spoke out in favour of the Communards attempting to overthrow the French government.

Although he had met William Morris in 1870, they did not become friends until 1881.  Both shared a dislike of modern manufacturing, and the commercialisation of craftsmanship and design.  Crane, like Morris, created designs for tiles, fabrics, wallpapers and ceramics, bringing art into the daily life of all classes.  He was heavily involved in the Art Workers’ Guild, of which he was master in 1888 and 1889; and he helped found the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society.

Wallpaper design

Wallpaper design

Set of tiles - 'Flora's Train'

Under Morris’ influence, Crane became closely associated with the Socialist movement, and used his art, through weekly cartoons, for advancement of the cause.  In 1884, he joined the Socialist League, which had been formed by William Morris, Belford Bax, Eleanor Marx, and Edward Aveling.  Crane saw himself as a Marxist, and his hope that socialism would be achieved through education, and not revolution, influenced his decision to join the Fabian Society. 

On 13th November 1887, along with William Morris, Annie Besant, HH Hyndman, and John Burns, Crane was involved in a public meeting in Trafalgar Square that became known as 'Bloody Sunday' after 3 people were killed and about 200 injured.

Illustration for Edmund Spenser's 'Faerie Queene'

By now considered to be Britain’s leading socialist artist, Crane was being asked to illustrate for the labour movement.  From the 1880s to the First World War, his work decorated posters, pamphlets, and trade union banners, and was also widely circulated in Europe, most notably in Italy and Germany.

'The Solidarity of Labour' 1891

In 1898, Crane was appointed head of the Royal College of Art, but resigned after a year to concentrate on his own work.

A strong critic of the British Empire, Crane, together with Ramsay MacDonald and Emmeline Pankhurst, resigned from the Fabian Society in 1900 when it decided not to condemn the Boer War.

'King Arthur's Knights: The Tales Retold for Boys and Girls' by Henry Gilbert; illustrated by Walter Crane

'King Arthur asks the Lady of the Lake for the sword Excalibur'

'Sir Lancelot forbids Sir Bors to slay the King'

'Sir Geraint and the Lady Enid in the deserted Roman town'

'Sir Galahad is brought to the Court of King Arthur'

'The Death of Sir Lancelot'

In December 1914, Crane’s wife, Mary, was killed by a train.  Having been married for 44 years, her loss was too much for him to bear, and he died 3 months later, on 14 March 1915 in Horsham Hospital, West Sussex.  The couple were survived by their children, Beatrice, Lionel and Lancelot.  His ashes are still at the Golders Green Crematorium where his body had been cremated.

Mary Frances (photo by Frederick Hollyer)

In his book, ‘The Claims of Decorative Art’ (1892), Walter Crane argued that art could not flourish in a world where wealth was unfairly distributed, claiming that only under “socialism could use and beauty be united”.

'The Fate of Persephone' (1877)

'Britomart' (1900)