The Sunday Section: Art - Arthur Rackham

As it’s been a couple of months since I featured an artist, time to continue methinks.  I can’t remember the first Arthur Rackham illustration I saw but I do remember that I fell in love with his style immediately.

(self-portrait 1934)

Arthur Rackham was born in September 1867, in Lewisham, one of 12 children.  In an effort to improve his fragile health, he was sent to Australia when he was 17, in the company of two aunts.  It is not noted when he returned but he did finish his education at the City of London School, after which he began working as a clerk at an insurance agency.  At the same time, he also attended Lambeth College of Art.

In Derek Hudson’s ‘Arthur Rackham, His Life and Work’, Rackham is quoted describing this time in his life:

… for the next seven years or so I worked as hard as I could out of business hours (9-5) to equip myself as an artist … not being able to embark on a professional career till I was nearly 25, and then for many years getting the barest living from my profession and having to do much distasteful hack work.

The “distasteful hack work” he referred to was his job as illustrator for popular newspapers, which he did until the early 1890s.  In 1892, he left his job to work as a reporter and illustrator for the ‘Westminster Budget’.  His first book illustrations were published in 1893 and, soon after, he would concentrate on book illustrating as his chosen career.

In the late 1890s, Rackham began steadily producing illustrations for volumes including ‘The Ingoldsby Legends’ in 1898, ‘Tales from Shakespeare’ in 1899, and ‘Tales of the Brothers Grimm’ in 1900.


'Fairy Dance'

'Little Miss Muffet'

'Sleeping Beauty'

'The Frog Prince'

'The Goblin Market'

In 1900 Rackham met the woman who would become his wife, Edyth Starkie; she lived next door to his Hampstead studio.  She, too, was an artist with a growing reputation as a portrait painter.  She “brought out the best in Rackham; for she was always his most stimulating, severest critic, and he had the greatest respect for her opinion.” (Hudson’s ‘Arthur Rackham, His Life and Work’) In 1903, Rackham and Edyth Starkie married.  Their only child, Barbara, was born in 1908.

Before he met Edyth, Rackham’s drawings were mainly of pen and India ink.  But she helped him mature as an artist by teaching him to use colour, especially watercolour, more effectively.  This couldn’t have occurred at a more favourable time as it coincided with technological advances, which improved the quality of book illustrations – pictures could be photographed and mechanically reproduced.  Rackham would start drawing with a soft pencil then work over it in lines of pen and India ink, gradually removing the pencil traces.  For colour pictures he would use multiple thin washes of watercolour to build up the painting, creating translucent tints.  The new printing technique added to costs as it required the use of glazed paper that had to be pasted in after the text was printed.  Publications that used this type of printing were more expensive but “the result enhanced the appearance of books and helped create the early twentieth-century market for gift-books”. (Central Michigan University Library)

In 1905, Rackham’s reputation grew with the publication of Washington Irving’s ‘Rip Van Winkle’.  He decided to promote the book by exhibiting his original paintings at the Leicester Galleries in London.  He not only helped to successfully promote the book, he also earned extra income selling the original artwork, making him one of the most highly paid illustrators of the era.

(first edition)

Rip Van Winkle

One of the visitors to the ‘Rip Van Winkle’ exhibition was JM Barrie.  So taken was he with Rackham’s work that he arranged a meeting to discuss collaboration on a Peter Pan book.  The result – ‘Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens’ – became the “outstanding Christmas gift-book of 1906” (Hudson), and was one of Rackham’s biggest financial successes.

Peter Pan in a bird's nest

The fairies have their tiff with the birds

In 1906, the Rackham family lived in Chalcot Gardens until they moved to Houghton, West Sussex, in 1920.  In 1929, they settled in Limpsfield, Surrey.

In 1906, Rackham won a gold medal at the Milan International Exhibition, and again, in 1912, at the Barcelona International Exposition.  He exhibited regularly, including at the Louvre in Paris in 1914.

Well-established as the pre-eminent illustrator in Britain, Rackham had to continuously turn down commissions as he was regularly fully booked.  The one he regretted most was having to decline Kenneth Grahame’s invitation to illustrate the first edition of ‘The Wind in the Willows’; his time was already taken with working on ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.  Published in 1908, it is considered probably his greatest work.



In 1907, the original copyright for ‘Alice in Wonderland’ expired, resulting in a number of publishing firms planning new editions.  Although Rackham’s version was popular, there were those who believed that to have any other illustration other than that of John Tenniel just would not do.  Despite this, the book with Rackham’s illustrations proved to be successful.

'Alice in Wonderland'

The Pool of Tears

In 1936, Rackham got another chance to illustrate a version of ‘The Wind in the Willows’.  Thirty years previous, when he’d declined Grahame’s invitation to illustrate it, the book had been published without illustrations until 1931.  Despite his failing health, Rackham seized this unexpected opportunity.  The last illustration he ever did was of Mole and Rat loading their boat for the picnic.

(Rackham's final illustration)

Arthur Rackham died of cancer in September 1939, at his home.



The following are from 'The Ring of the Nibelung':

The Rhine Maidens tease Alberich the dwarf

The giants, Fasolt and Fafner, take Freya hostage to make Wotan pay them what they are due

Siegmund and Sigelinde


Brunhilde searching for Siegmund

The Valkyries

Wotan descends, enraged

Wotan puts Brunhilde to sleep surrounded by Loge's magic fire

The dwarf, Mime, and Siegfried, the child of Siegmund and Sigelinde

Siegfried slays the dragon, Fafner

Waltraute confronts Brunhilde

Siegfried and Gutrune