Arthur Rackham: A Biography
Some years ago a London Sunday paper had a feature on J.R.R. Tolkien. The photograph, by Lord Snowdon, showed the author of The Lord of the Rings sprawling against a tangle-rooted, gnarled-trunked, wild-branched tree: man and tree seemed to be growing into each other. It was the perfect image for the creator of Treebeard, the benignant giant “clad in stuff like green and grey bark.” It also looked like an hommage to Arthur Rackham. Surely a memory of his trees lurked behind the concept of Treebeard and the photograph of his creator. We have the witness of Kenneth Clark, Graham Sutherland, Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis, and many others to the impact of Rackham’s pictures on childish imaginations. As a child in Aberdeen I was fascinated, and rather frightened, by the trees with faces in his illustrations to Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens; it was a letdown when on my first visit to London I found these Gardens trees faceless and rather ordinary. But Rackham’s nephew Walter Starkie remembered how as a boy he would accompany his uncle when he was working on the Peter Pan illustrations:
He would make me gaze fixedly at one of the majestic trees with massive trunk and tell me about Grimm’s fairy tales, which he had illustrated, and about the little men who blew their horns in elfland. He would say that under the roots of that tree the little men had their dinner and churned the butter they extracted from the sap of the tree. He would also make me see queer animals and birds in the branches of the tree and a little magic door below the trunk, which was the entrance to Fairyland. He used also to tell me stories of the primitive religion of man which, in his opinion, was the cult of the tree; but he made my blood run cold when he told me of the punishment meted out to those who injured trees. This consisted of impaling the culprit by the navel to the trunk and winding his guts round and round—
—a punishment which Rackham had lately come across in The Golden Bough!
The fascination with trees seems to have started in an old neglected garden in Lambeth, near Rackham’s early home. It had been planted in the seventeenth century by John Tradescant with a mixture of native trees and rarities from Russia, North Africa, and America. It had fallen into decay, with yews and elms “overgrown, and even blighted and misshapen by the knots, gnarls and contorted root and branch structures that in later life Arthur was to make his own special preserve,” his biographer tells us. The trees were black, in sooty London, and for Rackham the right way to draw them was in black ink; he was startled to find, later, “that treebranches were not black in the country.”
Outwardly Rackham’s was not an eventful life, and the photographs of him in James Hamilton’s biography suggest someone very sober and correct. Born in 1867, he was one of a large family in South London, and though his talent for drawing was recognized, he was expected to earn his own living as soon as possible. From a clerkship in the Westminster Fire Office—with classes in the evening at the Lambeth School of Art—he moved to the Pall Mall Budget as an illustrator; decided to work as a freelance artist and set up a studio; married a fellow artist, Edyth Starkie; exhibited his original drawings in London and abroad; had great success in America; worked for worthy causes like the Royal Watercolour Society and the Art Workers’ Guild; died of cancer in 1939. About the most exciting event recorded by his assiduous and thorough biographer is escorting Augustus John safely home after a Bohemian orgy.
A life uneventful, but fulfilled. To his nephew he was “the only truly happy man I had yet come across because he was absorbed in his work to the exclusion of everything else.” So it is entirely right that James Hamilton should give most of his space and attention to the work. Mr. Hamilton organized the Rackham exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1980; he is an expert on techniques of reproduction, he can explain the improvements in color printing that enlarged the illustrator’s scope, he has searched out contemporary appraisals of Rackham. Best of all, he offers a profusion of pictures—color, black-and-white, silhouette, cheeky little drawings in the margins of the pages—that display Rackham’s range and variety. With this scholarly, sumptuous, and delightful book he and his publishers have done Rackham proud.
When Rackham was sixteen he was sent, for his health, on a sea voyage to Australia and came back with some remarkable watercolors painted around Sydney: odd-shaped rocks, weird plants, misshapen trees. In his Lambeth art-school days he showed oils and watercolors—mainly landscapes of Southern England—at the Royal Academy and other galleries, and tried his luck as an illustrator with cheap periodicals like Scraps and Illustrated Bits. When the Pall Mall Budget took him on he was dispatched as “Our Artist” to cover assignments that would now be a photographer’s job: a rowdy Votes for Women meeting addressed by Bernard Shaw, a Christmas party for waifs, the funeral of the Duke of Clarence. As a freelance illustrator he would turn his hand to anything; rattling good yarns in Chums, Mysteries of Police and Crime, The Homes and Haunts of Thomas Carlyle, Anthony Hope’s The Dolly Dialogues. “Quite, quite stupid & uncongenial” he found much of this work. Far more congenial were commissions to illustrate Washington Irving’s Tales of a Traveller and Bracebridge Hall, and a book for children, The Zankiwank and the Bletherwitch, that at last gave scope to his bent for the fantastic.
People began to buy books because they were illustrated by Arthur Rackham. They were also buying books—Morte D’Arthur, The Rape of the Lock—because they were illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley. Rackham thought highly of the younger man—they had shown work in the same exhibition in 1894—but after Beardsley died in 1898 there was a gap in the market which Rackham was there to fill. No more Carlyle’s homes, no more police mysteries, but commissions for books whose romantic, odd, funny, or fantastic character suited his own inclinations: Stories of King Arthur, The Ingoldsby Legends, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Gulliver’s Travels.
With improved printing techniques he began to use watercolor in his pictures; what we now think of as the Rackham style is apparent in his Rip van Winkle of 1904: rocks and trees twisted into eerie shapes enfolding fairies and goblins and horrid hags. Two years later with Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens he aimed to make Peter the genius loci of the Gardens as Rip van Winkle was to the Catskills, and was later cross with Barrie for creating a second Peter in the play that eclipsed the book: “I think Never Never lands are poor prosy substitutes for Kaatskills & Kensingtons, with their stupendous powers of imagination.” Peter Pan, it seems to me, shows that Rackham’s imagination was far more stirred by the grotesque than by the fairies and the human children of the story, who look mawkish and banal compared with the sinister birds and talking flowers.
After Peter Pan, Rackham’s reputation and his fortune grew. The publication of each handsome new picture book—usually appearing in both a deluxe edition and a cheaper trade one—was followed by a profitable exhibition of the original drawings at the Leicester Galleries. (Mr. Hamilton has an intriguing appendix on “The Business of Illustration and How Rackham Made it Pay.”) Among the productions from 1907 to 1920 are Undine, Alice in Wonderland—Rackham not a bit abashed at following Tenniel—Midsummer Night’s Dream, Wagner’s Ring, Malory, many collections of fairy tales. However various the subjects, nearly always there was something in a picture—a grayish green light, a muted brown or red, an ink-black branch, a grinning goblin, a malevolent tree-face, a faint whiff of menace—that proclaimed it a Rackham. To be so recognizable was one reason for his appeal. Another was suggested by a reviewer of 1919 who wrote that he “almost miraculously turned into visible image all those subconscious feelings that still are able to haunt us along lonely country lanes, no matter how sophisticated we may be.” An earlier critic had noted his “faculty for exaggerating certain odd developments of humanity to the pitch of monstrosity, yet with an affectionate liking for the monster.”
Whatever the reasons, Rackham had wide appeal. Debussy’s little girl had one of the fairy pictures above her bed, which inspired her father to compose a Prelude. Nowhere was Rackham more appreciated than in America, where the books sold well and collectors were keen to buy originals: most of the illustrations for Hamilton’s review come from American sources. A New York gallery, Scott and Fowles, continued to give him exhibitions after the Leicester Gallery in London had turned him down in favor of Wyndham Lewis, Epstein, and other moderns. By 1920 nearly half his earnings came from America.
In Britian, after the war, the outlook was bleaker. Fairies were no longer so acceptable after the realities of 1914–1918, and the market for illustrated books was changing. Wood engraving, cheaper to reproduce than color, was back in fashion with artists like Claire Leighton, Robert Gibbings, and Gertrude Hermes. Private presses, like Gregynog and Golden Cockerel, “were creating a new kind of fine book, complete works of art in themselves.” With ever-rising costs children’s books had to be produced more cheaply, with little margin for pictures. “The freely illustrated ‘Rackham’ book is no longer possible,” its creator lamented, “& I find my way rather precariously & with much less profit into the outskirts of the fashionable ‘limited edition group.’ ” He found it “just worth my while” to go on.
For his more limited audience he produced in the 1920s and 1930s what we might call grown-up fairy tales, which were less likely than the earlier books to fall into children’s hands: Comus, The Tempest, Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, Peer Gynt—and for the American market only, Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Dickens’s The Chimes, and The Night Before Christmas. The Poe stories in particular gave scope to the macabre side of his imagination. Mr. Hamilton reproduces the terrifying “Maelstrom,” and the cluster of villains trussed up and set on fire in “Hop-Frog.”
Rackham’s last commission came from George Macy, director of the Limited Editions Club of New York, to illustrate Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. It was an assignment after Rackham’s own heart—thirty years earlier Grahame had wanted him to illustrate the original edition, but he had had too much work on hand to accept—and he worked steadily on it through illness and painful cancer treatment: “4 of the Wind in the Willows pictures were done in my Bedroom,” he told Macy, “& all the line drawings actually in bed.” The completed book was near production when he died in 1939. Yet for all the pain in which they were produced, Mr. Hamilton finds in these last pictures
an exuberance of their own, as if in them Rackham is at last skipping free into a commission he always longed for. Owing perhaps to weakening sight, and almost certainly to a new confidence in the ability of the three-color printing process to reproduce high tone, Rackham consistently uses much brighter and clearer colors than before, creating poignant and indelible images of “a golden afternoon.”
Some time in the 1930s Rackham confided to his private notebook:
I began life with two fixed purposes which for many years seemed impossible of achievement. Despairing of success in either, I compromised as middle age drew near and burnt my boats with respect to the more imperatively urgent of the two. Immediately that step was taken, success in the lesser aim followed and has been maintained, and all is vanity.
Mr. Hamilton suggests that the “two fixed purposes” were to illustrate books and paint portraits in oils. He reproduces Rackham’s portrait of his mother (1899), with its echo of Whistler, which shows the road he might have taken. But when in 1903 he married Edyth Starkie, Slade School and Paris trained, she was already painting portraits. So Mr. Hamilton speculates that there may have been a private pact; illustration for Arthur, portraits for Edyth. All we know for sure is that she encouraged the fantastic element in his work; and that he considered her “a companion in craft as well as in the rest of life,” and told an interviewer that “she is at least as distinguished in her own way…only her work makes such rare appearances that she is very little known…. To give any true picture of our life she should appear, and as a fellow artist.” When illness put an end to Edyth’s painting in the 1920s, Arthur began to paint portraits again and show them at the Royal Academy. Those reproduced in the book are impressive, especially the self-portrait of 1934.
Yet though the triumph of the “lesser aim” of illustration may have been a grief to Rackham, I don’t think we need share his regrets. Among his contemporaries there were many who could paint portraits as well as he. There was only one who could create that fascinating and frightening world where trees had faces.