Arthur Rackham: A Biography

by James Hamilton
Arcade Publishing/Little, Brown, 199 pp., $45.00

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.…

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