The Artist Arthur Rackham

The fourth of twelve children, Arthur Rackham was born in London in 1867. This one-time clerk would become one of the most famous illustrators of his day and his work would characterize the Golden Age of Illustration. As an artist Rackham’s genius lay in his vision of a work; he vowed never to be a tool for the writer’s vision and always remained true to his own conception of art. Some of Rackham’s masterpieces include Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (1909), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1907), and Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906).

From a solidly middle-class family, Rackham was not encouraged to go into art and he embarked on an artist’s career tentatively by working as a clerk during the day and devoting himself to artistic study in the evening. However, by 1892 he was ready to leave his office job to become a reporter and illustrator for The Westminster Budget. Rackham recalled this has one of his most trying periods as an artist, but the work served as additional training and he continued to hone his craft.

In 1903 he married the artist Edyth Starkie and she encouraged him to indulge his fancy for fantastical scenes of fairies and elves. The couple had a daughter, Barbara, in 1908. Rackham achieved his first taste of fame with his illustrations for The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. New developments in the publishing field allowed color to be translated into print better than it had before and this advance served Rackham’s color palette. Rackham, immensely concerned with the publication process, would often change his original color scheme if the changes would translate better into print.

Rackham’s work continued to garner great acclaim. His work also sold well in art galleries, but it was the high quality illustrated “gift” books that cemented his fame. Although his work for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is considered some of his finest illustrations, it was a controversial assignment at the time he accepted the job; the original illustrated text was beloved by the public. Rackham’s vision of Carroll’s masterpiece was so unique, however, that it led many critics to applaud his alternative offering.

Rackham continued to create exceptional work before WWI such as the illustrations for Richard Wagner’s Rhinegold (1910) and The Valkyrie (1910), Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle (1905), and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1908). The demand for gift books and scenes of fantasy was much affected by the grim realities of the war. After WWI, Rackham’s fame, however, still garnered him lots of work unlike many other great illustrators of his day.

Later works demonstrate Rackham’s immense talent such as the silhouettes of Cinderella (1919) and his last illustration masterpiece, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1940). Rackham died a few weeks after completing the drawings for this last work in 1939. His palette, his fineness of line, and his exceptional translation of literature to art would propel him to the top of the list of the world’s greatest illustrators of all time.