Arthur Rackham (1884-1939) has been one of my favorite illustrators since I first saw his work at age 16. He was British, and illustrated many of my favorite classic children’s books. My brother managed to collect several of his original publications, and I was smitten when I first saw his copies of Peter Pan and Undine.
Arthur Rackham is widely regarded as one of the leading illustrators from the ‘Golden Age’ of British book illustration which encompassed the years from 1900 until the start of the First World War. During that period, there was a strong market for high quality illustrated books that typically were given as Christmas gifts. Many of Rackham’s books were produced in a de luxe limited edition, often vellum bound and sometimes signed, as well as a larger, less ornately boundquarto ‘trade’ edition. This was often followed by a more modestly presented octavo edition in subsequent years for particularly popular books. The onset of the war in 1914 curtailed the market for such quality books, and the public’s taste for fantasy and fairies also declined in the 1920s.
In the ’70’s there was a resurgence of interest in his work in the USA, and I remember buying a lot of greeting cards and posters at the KU bookstore. Eventually, I bought all the newer reprints of his books that I could find. I don’t own any of those collector’s editions that are now worth hundreds and thousands of dollars.
It’s interesting to note here that while one illustrator might be the most famous for a particular classic, others frequently deserve more recognition than they get. For example, here is an example of the classic John Tenniel illustration from Alice in Wonderland:
I wouldn’t dream of saying Tenniel isn’t good, but I like Rackham’s better:
He did so many books, it’s hard to pick a favorite. Of course, I don’t even own recent publications of most of them. But I enjoy my copy of Once Upon a Time best, because it has Rip Van Winkle, seven of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Three Tales from Shakespeare (Charles and Mary Lamb), A Christmas Carol, Aesop’s Fables, and Alice all in one volume.
Here are a couple more witches. I think I love Arthur Rackham’s fairy tale illustrations so much because I believe they are as close as you can get to what those fairy tale creatures ought to look like. They look both realistic and fantastic at the same time.
There are a few other good illustrators of fairy tales out there, but the ones that know what they are doing always say they were influenced by Rackham.
Here’s one more of my favorites. This one is from Mother Goose, and he put himself in the picture. Can you recognize which nursery rhyme it is?
As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?
If you’re willing to spend $3,000- $4,000 you can even own one of his original books! There are still Rackham originals available if you go to the right gallery. But f you want to see more Rackham online, I’d advise you to go on Pinterest and look him up. He has a huge following even after all these years!