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La Primavera by Walter Crane 1883


Walter Crane, 1845-1915, was an English artist and book illustrator. Born in London, he was a founding member of both the Art Workers Guild (1884) and the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society (1888) and later was President of the Royal College of Art. Walter was an advocate of new art movements and as his art developed, he became an admirer and proponent of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Crane studied under and was a diligent student of the renowned artist and critic John Ruskin. Politically radical, he became a prominent Socialist and was a close friend and colleague of William Morris. But as you can see in his art he had a good sense of humor – and loved fantasy and anthropomorphism which he was able to indulge in his contribution to children’s literature.

Self Portrait by Walter Crane 1905

Walter Crane-Illustrator

Crane was the second son of Thomas Crane, who was a portrait painter and miniaturist.  As a child Crane took a keen interest in art and worked in his father's studio sketching the hands and faces of his father's portrait commissions.

Swallows in Peach Blossoms Detail by Walter Crane 1885

Walter Crane started his development as an artist in his father’s studio. He then progressed to engraver’s draughtsman, which meant that he transferred an artist’s designs onto the engraver’s wood blocks.  Later he became an illustrator in his own right, contributing to books and magazines. His success there led to commissions designing wallpaper, tiles, and other household goods.  As a wood-engraver Crane had an opportunity to study his contemporary artists whose work passed through his hands, of Pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais, as well as Alice in Wonderland illustrator Sir John Tenniel and Frederick Sandys. During this time Crane studied Japanese color prints and applied the style to a series of toy books, which started a new fashion.

The Lady of Shalott by Walter Crane 1883

Crane painted a set of colored page designs to illustrate Tennyson's “Lady of Shalott” which earned him acclaim and he found recognition and approval of wood-engraver William James Linton, to whom Walter Crane was apprenticed for three years (1859–1862).


Beauty and The Beast by Walter Crane 1874

Linton saw Crane’s aptitude for drawing and design and gave him assignments to improve his skills. In 1862, Crane’s apprenticeship came to an end, but his drawing skills and his contacts through Linton earned him an invitation to work as an illustrator for Edmund Evans, the leading woodblock color printer of the time.

Bellerophon on Pegasus by Walter Crane 1889

In the 1860s, color printing with wood blocks was a promising new aspect of the expanding book market, which was quickly growing thanks to the increasing literacy rate. Evans first employed Crane to design book covers for his “yellow back” (referring to the yellow enameled covering paper that didn’t show wear as quickly) novels when he was only eighteen years old. Though Crane quickly adapted to the coloring work, it was his difficulty with rendering everyday scenes that prompted Evans to move him from “yellow backs” to children’s books, where he could apply his imagination to illustrate children’s nursery rhymes and fairy tales in short, inexpensive picture books referred to as Toy Books (popular in the Victorian era) for Routledge Publishing. Crane illustrated thirty-seven toy books over the next ten years, earning him the title “academician of the nursery,” and effectively pigeon-holing his artistic style as that of a children’s book illustrator.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Walter Crane 1865

Though his work with Evans during this time made him the most famous children’s book illustrator of his day, Crane was not enthusiastic about this moniker, and did not think much of the Toy Books that he was illustrating.  He was quoted as saying “They were not very inspiring. These were generally careless and unimaginative woodcuts, very casually colored by hand…” Despite his chagrin for the simplicity of children’s book illustration, Crane did devote a great deal of time to his designs, and to the way that children viewed pictures.

Crane’s early books were heavily influenced by Japanese woodblock prints, with flat, decorative compositions and deep perspective. He, like the Pre-Raphaelites, viewed each book as a work, in which every design element was reflective of the whole, including the covers and endpapers.

Work by Ford Madox Brown 1865

In 1865, Crane visited an art gallery in Piccadilly, London where he viewed Work, a painting by Ford Madox Brown. Though this piece did not have an immediate impact on his artistic style, the subject matter did have a profound impact on his long-term career. The painting shows historian Thomas Carlyle and F.D. Maurice, head of the Christian Socialist Movement observing the labors of a group of working-class men. Madox Brown’s revolutionary painting was a milestone for British art because it was the first time an artist had deemed a working-class person a subject worthy of painting. Crane’s artistic career was composed of political works, focused on the Socialist movement, and his non-political works, which were often considered to be his best pieces. Crane viewed art as a tool for revolution, an implement that could be used to change the minds of society. He worked on Socialist pamphlets and posters when he was not illustrating children’s books. An example of his political views being applied to children’s literature can be seen in his successful illustrations for Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm (1882). Considered by many to be one of his most notable works, these illustrations were filled with historical and allegorical connotations that spoke to the political consciousness of social reform.


The Aventine from the Palatine by Walter Scott 1865

Walter Crane married Mary Frances Andrews on 6th September 1871. They spent the next eighteen months in Italy, where he painted portraits, landscapes and continued his book illustrations. He had paintings accepted by the Royal Academy and had several exhibitions in London art galleries.

Ensigns of Spring  by Walter Crane1894


Walter Crane the Socialist

In 1884, Crane and Morris joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). Its leader, H. M. Hyndman, had been converted to socialism by reading the works of Karl Marx. Crane contributed illustrations for the party journal Justice that was edited by Henry Hyde Champion. As he later explained that he agreed to work for free as "all the work on the journal was gratuitous, from the writers of the articles to the compositors and printers." In one of his most popular drawings, "Capitalism was represented as a vampire fastening on a slumbering workman, and an emblematic figure of Socialism endeavors to arouse him to a sense of his danger by the blast of a clarion.”

William Morris speaking from a wagon in Hyde Park, May 1 1894 by Walter Crane

 On 13th November 1887 Walter Crane was involved, along with William Morris in what became known as Bloody Sunday, when three people were killed and 200 injured during a public meeting in Trafalgar Square. Crane later recalled, "I never saw anything more like real warfare in my life - only the attack was all on one side." The police, despite their numbers, apparently thought they could not cope with the crowd. The following week, a friend, Alfred Linnell, was fatally injured during another protest demonstration and this event resulted in Morris’s writing Death Song. Crane provided the cover drawing for this work. Crane, because of a suggestion made by his friend and fellow socialist George F. Watts, provided twelve designs that illustrated heroic deeds carried out by working-class people. This included Alice Ayres, who died while rescuing three children from a fire, and two Paisley railway workers who were killed during an attempt to help others in trouble. This work was first shown at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition in 1890.

A Garland for May Day by Walter Crane, 1895

Walter Crane became a close friend of Oscar Wilde, who also held socialist beliefs. Wilde, who was editor of Woman's World, commissioned him to provide illustrations for the magazine. In 1888 Crane also contributed three full-page illustrations for Wilde's highly successful book, The

Crane, like many socialists, believed that wars were often begun by capitalists for reasons of commerce rather than for idealism. In 1900 Crane resigned from the Fabian Society over its decision not to condemn the Boer War. Walter Crane published his autobiography, An Artist's Reminiscences in 1907. In the book he attempted to explain why he had spent so much of his life fighting for socialism: "Such experiences convinced me that freedom in any country is measured by the impunity with which unpopular opinions can be uttered - especially those advocating drastic political or social changes"

Cartoons for the Cause 1886-1896 A Souvenir of the International Socialist Workers and Trade Union Congress, 1896.

Crane's work contributed a lasting impression on the art of the labour movement in Britain. Between the 1880s and World War I, the socialist artwork developed by Crane can be seen on posters, pamphlets, membership cards and trade union banners. Crane's work was also widely circulated in Europe, and in Italy and Germany his reputation as an artist was greater than it was in England.

The Faierie Queen-Britomart, by Walter Crane 1900

Crane’s most famous work is often considered to be the illustrations he created for Edmund Spenser’s 16th century epic poem, The Faerie Queen (originally published 1590). The design elements of the Arts and Crafts movement clearly influenced Crane’s style in these illustrations. Like John Ruskin, Edward Burne-Jones, and William Morris, Crane was looking back to the English Gothic style for inspiration, viewing it as an honest time where the artists were craftsmen, and the craftsmen were artists. Crane’s focus on the design of an entire book as a cohesive whole are especially evident in this tome, as the intricate borders mesh seamlessly with the medieval scenes. His illustrations for The Faerie Queen (1894-1897) garnered such high praise that it is one of the most beautiful works of the late 19th century Arts and Crafts movement. Crane’s intricately decorated borders, calligraphy, and Gothic Revival images blend into one harmonious whole, echoing lavish creations by William Morris and his Kelmscott Press.

Ruth and Boaz by Walter Crane 1863

At this point in the late 19th century, there was a shift towards referencing the medieval era as a pastoral, idyllic period of time, which Crane and the followers of the Arts and Crafts movement perpetuated. The industrialization of England inspired many to reminisce and look to the past for simpler, “honest” work that connected them to nature and the land. This yearning for a connection to nature may be part of what drew Crane to work primarily with woodblock prints, a natural technique that was often used in the medieval era, and earlier. This method certainly connected him with the past, as well as with natural materials, and yielded an old-fashioned, less polished appearance appropriate for the fantastical and historical stories he illustrated.

The Angel of Peace by Walter Crane 1990

Walter Crane the Author

Walter Crane also wrote books, including Of the Decorative Illustration of Books Old and New (1896), India Impressions (1907), and An Artist’s Reminiscences (1907). Much of his writing and illustrating, especially later in his life, was focused on his socialist politics, which had a lasting impact on the art of the labour movement in Britain, and heightened his artistic reputation in Europe, especially Germany. His populist approach to art ensured that he exerted a great deal of influence on illustration and book design at the end of the 19th century, arguably more than William Morris. Throughout the 1890s Crane contributed to socialist periodicals that published his political cartoons featuring themes that more subtly permeated his earlier work. This continued until the end of his career.


A Dream Voyage by Walter Crane 1902

On 18th December 1914 Crane's wife Mary was found dead on the railway line near Kingsnorth in Kent. The couple had been married for forty-four years and Crane was devastated by her death. Walter Crane died three months later in Horsham Hospital, on 14th March 1915. When Crane died in 1915 his obituary in The Times summed him up as “one of the chiefs of those artists who redeemed English design from hopeless and incompetent ugliness.”  But it continued “if we were less familiar with his work, we should see its originality more clearly. But we have known it since our childhood, when we enjoyed his children’s books so much that, rather ungratefully, we have never enjoyed any of his works so keenly since.”

Neptune's Horses by Walter Crane 1892