By Louise Harlow
Lot 29 from Catalog 483 ” The Ingoldsby Legends or Mirth & Marvels. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham ” Louise takes a closer look at Illustrator Arthur Rackham.
Arthur Rackham is widely regarded as one of the leading illustrators from the ‘Golden Age’ of British book illustration which roughly encompassed the years from 1890 until the end of the First World War. During that period, there was a strong market for high quality illustrated books which typically were given as Christmas gifts.
Many of Rackham’s books were produced in a de luxe limited edition, often vellum bound and usually signed, as well as a smaller, less ornately bound quarto ‘trade’ edition. This was sometimes 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.
Throughout his lengthy career, Rackham was prolific and contributed his talents to illustrating a variety of subjects, including traditional fairy tales, Shakespearean works,
Wagnerian verse, Arthurian legend and tales of Antiquity. His illustrations are characterized by a sinuous pen line softened with muted watercolor, a feature that is typical of the Art Nouveau aesthete. His forests are looming with frightening grasping roots, his fair maidens are sensuous – yet somehow chaste – and his ogres and trolls ugly enough to repulse, but with sufficient good nature not to frighten.
Arthur Rackham was born into a middle-class family in Lambeth, London, on September 19, 1867, to Alfred Thomas Rackham (1829-1912), a legal clerk, and Anne Stevenson (1833-1920), the daughter of a draper. From his earliest moments, Rackham was a prolific and dedicated artist, smuggling pencils into bed with him at night and later drawing on his pillows. He won numerous prizes for his art while still at school. At the age of sixteen he left England for six months (January-July 1884) and traveled to Australia, spending six weeks in and around Sydney painting the landscape.
After Rackham’s return from Australia, his father insisted that he go into business. In 1885 Rackham joined the Westminster Fire Office as a junior clerk. However, Rackham also attended Lambeth School of Art in the evenings, where he studied with William Llewellyn, a prominent Victorian landscape painter, and befriended Thomas Sturge Moore, Charles Shannon, and Charles Ricketts.
Rackham’s first known appearance in print was in the magazine Scraps in October 1884, with a satirical drawing depicting children in Ceylon with threads tied around them to prevent them from eating too much-a clear nod to George Cruikshank and some of his sharper caricatures. In 1892 he resigned his clerkship to work as an illustrator, first at the Pall Mall Budget and then at the Westminster Budget and the Westminster Gazette. During this same period his illustrations began to be published in a number of the cheaper papers. He also painted watercolors of landscapes.
Fairy Tales and Marriage.
The year 1900 marked the real turning point in Rackham’s career with the publication of The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Although the book was reissued later with many more illustrations, Rackham remained fond of the 1900 edition. On May 28, 1914, he wrote to Frank Redway that “in many ways I have more affection for the Grimm drawings than for the other sets . . . . It [the 1900 edition] was the first book I did that began to bring success.” The other major development in Rackham’s life during this time was his marriage to portrait painter Edyth Starkie on July 16, 1903, in Hampstead.
Edyth Starkie (27 November 1867 – March 1941) was an established Irish portrait painter an was born on the west coast of Ireland at Westcliff House, County Galaway.
The youngest of six, she spent most of her youth at Creggane Manor, Rosscarbery,
where her father, William Robert Starkie JP (1824–1897), was a Resident Magistrate, who had also taught himself to play the violin. Her youthful behavior was said to be so wild and outrageous that at Mass in Skibbereen the parish priest denounced her, along with her cousin Fanny, from the pulpit.
When she was sixteen her mother, Frances Maria Starkie, shut up the house, put her husband into rooms in Cork and set off with Edyth on a grand tour of Europe, lasting two to three years. In 1884 she studied art in Paris at the Academie Julian. She then continued her studies in Germany, where one of her brothers, Rex, was an officer in the German Army. In Cassel, Edyth became engaged to a Prussian officer, causing a major scandal when she finally broke it off because she couldn’t stand the stiff Prussian attitudes; her fiancé would insist on challenging any man whom Edyth so much as smiled at in the street to a duel. In 1895, after a brief return to Ireland she moved to London. Her mother joined her after the death of her father in 1897.
Edyth and Arthur met over a garden wall in 1898 and quickly became friends. Arthur, a fellow artist living at 6 Wychcombe Studios, had become a member of the Royal Watercolor Society (RWS) and was afraid other members might mock his fantasy pictures in the company of more traditional watercolorists at RWS exhibitions. She persuaded him to put Grimm and Morte D’Arthur into the Winter RWS Exhibition of 1902 which were very well received. She did much to encourage his fantasy drawings at the beginning of his career. Their personalities; Edyth, quizzical, ironic and imaginative like the Irish; and Arthur, prim, precise and very English in manner, in spite of his bohemianism and his elfish kinks couldn’t have been in greater antithesis. He could count on her as always his most stimulating, severest critic, and he had the greatest respect for her opinion. She also was full of mischief and did her best to shock him.
After their marriage, they maintained separate studios in their home so they could both paint. Their only child, Barbara, was born in 1908.
In her memorial article about her father, she commented that Rackham often used her as a model for form or shape, asking her to “‘bend down and imagine you’re picking an apple off the ground’ or ‘try to look like a witch!'”
Much of his work during this period received both popular and critical acclaim, in no small part due to the contemporary market for illustrated gift-books and the decision of Heinemann, his new publisher, to release deluxe limited editions of his books, a move that “decisively established Rackham as the leading decorative illustrator of the Edwardian period.
In 1920 Rackham’s continued financial success allowed him to purchase his first country home, a Georgian farmhouse near Arundel called Houghton House, where he could indulge in his passion for fly- fishing.
In addition, during 1933 and 1934 Rackham designed costumes, scenery, and drop curtains for an operatic production of Hansel and Gretelat the Cambridge Theater. H. E. Wortham in the Daily Telegraph(December 27, 1933) praised his drop-curtain design, and the production was also favorably reviewed by Punch (January 3, 1934), which lauded the forest Rackham had created.
By 1936 there were permanent exhibitions of his work in Vienna, Barcelona, Melbourne, Paris, and London. Rackham, who now suffered from chronic illness, took on what turned out to be his final commission during that summer. George Macy, an American, asked him to illustrate James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold. Though Rackham was interested, he mentioned that he would be pleased to have another commission as well, at which point Macy suggested The Wind in the Willows. As Macy tells the story, Rackham was very moved at the opportunity: “‘Immediately a wave of emotion crossed his face; he gulped, started to say something, turned his back on me and went to the door for a few minutes,'” then he returned and explained he had always regretted refusing Grahame’s invitation thirty years previously.
Rackham by then was so ill that he was able to work for just a half hour per day. Despite this limitation, Willows was a masterpiece. It was published posthumously in 1940 in a deluxe edition of 2,020 copies. Arthur Rackham died at Stilegate on September 6, 1939, a few days before his seventy-second birthday. While his obituary in the Times described him as “one of the most eminent book illustrators of his day,” a more personal memorial appears in a comment made by his daughter, Barbara Edwards: “To do his job well and give pleasure to as many people as possible was his ambition.”
Lot 28 from Catalog 483 is a fine example of Rackham’s work in the field of fantasy. View it here.