The English illustrator, designer, author, and artist Walter Crane (1845–1915) was influential in a great variety of fields, ranging from children's literature to design to socialist political and aesthetic theory. Crane was one of the founders of England's Arts and Crafts movement, and his conception of children's literature as a learning tool has remained a model for educational publishers.
The third of five children, Walter Crane was born on August 15, 1845, in Liverpool, England. His sister Lucy also became an artist and collaborated with him on some of his children's books. Crane's father was a struggling artist and art publisher, and the family moved first to Torquay and then to London in search of better financial prospects. Curious and artistically talented, Crane encountered lavishly illustrated works of literature in the English capital and began to imitate the drawings he saw. One visitor to the Crane household, the engraver William Linton, was impressed by a set of drawings the boy made for Alfred, Lord Tennyson's long poem “The Lady of Shalott,” and agreed to take the 13-year-old on as an apprentice. Crane spent three years in Linton's shop, beginning in 1859. At first, he executed simple backgrounds for the engraver's publications and then advancing to more difficult illustrations such as faces.
Evans's decision was a savvy one: Crane exhibited talent and was on the verge of creating distinctively new styles of children's book illustrations. Well ahead of other English artists and designers, he had been inspired by his study of Japanese color prints, and his drawings of imaginative, sometimes almost surreal figures would follow Japanese models.
Crane was also rethinking the idea of the children's book. Children's books of the time were often referred to as “toy books,” but Crane saw them as something more serious, something that contributed a child's education and to the development of his or her imagination. In 1868 he wrote and illustrated a children's book of his own, Grammar in Rhyme, which introduced the study of grammar as an activity a child might enjoy.
In 1871 Crane married Mary Frances Andrews and left on a two-year honeymoon. While in Italy, the newlyweds spent time in Rome and Naples, traveling to other parts of the new country and making contact with many of the artists from other countries who were also visiting. Crane executed some illustration projects during the trip, sending them back to Evans in London by mail. While he was away, in 1872, Routledge published a collection of his drawings under the title Walter Crane's Picture Book. Although it became a bestseller, Crane saw only a fraction of the profits.
Meanwhile, Crane returned to London in 1873 and immediately returned to illustrating children's books. Some of these, published by Evans, included a new illustrated edition of Beauty and the Beast; others included a series of children's stories written by Mary L. Molesworth. In the 1870s and 1880s, Crane illustrated more than two dozen classic children's books and children's books by other authors, becoming one of England's best-known artists in the field. Often he experimented with the form of children's books; some of his books, like those of today, were square, and his 1874 illustrations for Puss in Boots resembled comic strips, which were completely unknown at the time.
Determined to assert creative and financial control over his output, Crane teamed with his sister Lucy to create The Baby's Opera, an adaptation of a group of fairytales that included his illustrations as well as lyrics and music. Aimed at the market for Christmas of 1876, The Baby's Opera sold more than 40,000 copies, an impressive total for the time. It also spawned the successful sequels The Baby's Bouquet (1877) and Household Stories from the Collection of the Brothers Grimm (1884). After Lucy's death, Crane continued the series in 1886 with The Baby's Own Aesop, adapting the familiar group of moralizing fables from ancient Greece. By this time Crane was so well known that Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll proposed that Crane join him in collaborating on a new project, but the two could not work out the details.
Crane was also successful as an illustrator of literature for adults. He issued illustrated editions of English and continental classics including plays by Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote de la Mancha, and the 16th-century English epic poem The Faerie Queene, as well as several of his original poems and stories. He also illustrated several works by William Morris, the English Arts & Crafts designer and writer whose influence was to shape Crane's output for much of the second part of his career.
Morris, one of the leading figures of what became known as the Arts and Crafts Movement, believed that industrialization had degraded the aesthetic and moral quality of English society. It fell to the arts, especially the decorative arts, to bring simplicity and beauty to the lives of ordinary people, with works created by traditional methods instead of through mass production. Crane found Morris's ideas sympathetic and began to apply them to his growing list of commissions for wallpaper and other decorative objects. In 1888 Crane founded the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society, which promoted public appreciation of decorative arts, and he served as the group's president from 1888 to 1893, and again from 1896 to 1912.
Crane's support for socialism raised eyebrows in 1891 when he visited the United States, where such ideas had fewer adherents. He was a backer of the newly established international May Day labor holiday, which originated in commemoration of leftist unrest at Chicago's Haymarket Square in the first days of May of 1886. Nevertheless, Crane's artwork for adults became perhaps more popular in the United States than in his home country. An exhibition of his paintings toured through museums in Boston, Chicago, and St. Louis, with Crane on hand to give lectures about his work.
Crane continued to work across all fields, issuing educational children's books such as 1899's The Walter Crane Reader as well as decorative designs in mediums as varied as tiles, pottery, and stained glass. Many of his efforts were in the field of education; beginning in 1894 he served as director of design at the Manchester Municipal School, where his lectures were collected into the books The Bases of Design (1898), Line and Form (1900), and The Decorative Illustration of Books, Old and New (1900). The last of these was published in New York City as well as in London. Crane later served as art director at Reading College and briefly as principal at the Royal College of Art.
Crane received many honors later in his life. In 1903 he became a member of Britain's Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours, and the following year he was awarded the Albert Gold Medal of the Society of Arts for his work in promoting the arts & crafts movement. At the 1906 Milan International Exhibition, he was also awarded a gold medal.
Crane's wife Mary was killed in a tragic train accident in 1914. The despondent artist followed her in death at age 70, passing away on March 14, 1915, in Horsham, West Sussex, England. His work remains highly sought-after by collectors.
Spencer, Isobel, Walter Crane, Macmillan, 1975.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), May 1, 2007, Christopher Howse, “Marxists on Their Bikes,” p. 27.
Books for Keeps, http://booksforkeeps.co.uk/issue/185/childrens-books/articles/other-articles/walter-crane-a-revolution-innursery-picture-books (September 2, 2017), Lesley Delaney, “Walter Crane: A Revolution in Nursery Picture Books.”
English Heritage, http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/crane-walter-1845–1915 (September 2, 2017), “Crane, Walter, 1845–1915.”
The Illustrated Word at the Fin de Siècle, http://brbl-archive.library.yale.edu/exhibitions/illustratedword/craneCause/00a-crane.html (September 2, 2017), “Walter Crane's Children's Illustrations for the Cause.”
The Victorian Web, http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/painting/crane/index.html (September 2, 2017), “Walter Crane, RWS 1845–1915.”
Walter Crane Book Illustrations, http://www.waltercrane.com (September 2, 2017).□