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.
Although for the next decade Rackham continued to contribute regularly to magazines, including Little Folks, Cassell's Magazine,
and St. Nicholas
, after 1893 he focused most of his efforts on book illustrations, a market he entered with To the Other Side,
a guidebook to Canada and the United States. His most successful book-length works during the 1890s were an early version of The Ingoldsby Legends
(1898), containing twelve full-page color illustrations along with ninety black-and-white drawings, and Tales from Shakespeare
(1899), containing eleven black-and-white illustrations. Both volumes were reissued less than a decade later as deluxe editions: The Ingoldsby Legends
(1907) with twenty-four color plates, and Tales from Shakespeare
(1909) with thirteen full-page color illustrations and numerous black-and-white pictures, chapter headings, and tail-pieces.
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. 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!'"
The peak period of Rackham'scareer occurred between 1905 and 1929. The year 1905
started him on some of "the most prolific and prosperous creative work ever enjoyed by an English illustrator." He received steady commissions until the beginning of World War I, publishing at least one book per year and holding annual exhibitions at Leicester Galleries in London, where he sold the original illustrations of that year's newly published book. He won gold medals in Milan in 1906, in Venice in 1909, and in Barcelona in 1910 and 1912. In 1911 the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts held a special exhibition in Paris of his Wagner drawings, made Rackham an associate, and awarded him another gold medal.
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." These books, published in numbered limited editions ranging from 250 to 2,020, were specially bound in vellum, printed on handmade paper, and signed by Rackham.
Trade editions were published at the same time, but usually they contained fewer color plates and used less elaborate bindings and cheaper paper than the deluxe editions. The first deluxe edition was Rip Van Winkle
, published in 1905. Over the next two decades,
deluxe editions were published of such classic titles as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens
(1906), Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
(1907), A Midsummer-Night's Dream
(1908), Gulliver's Travels
(1909), Aesop's Fables
(1912), Mother Goose
(1913), A Christmas Carol
(1915), The Romance of King Arthur
(1917), English Fairy Tales
(1919), The Sleeping Beauty
(1921), A Wonder Book
(1922), The Tempest
(1926), The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
(1928), and The Vicar of Wakefield
(1929). A commission Rackham declined during this time was The Wind in the Willows.
Kenneth Grahame invited Rackham to illustrate the book when it was first published in 1908, but Rackham reluctantly turned him down due to his many other commitments, a decision Rackham would greatly regret and would reverse late in his life.
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. However, as the decade progressed it became increasingly difficult to publish illustrated books of high quality because the cost of producing such books became progressively higher. Moreover, the British market was not the same as it had been before the war. As Hudson explains, "The realities of war had dealt a blow to imaginative craftsmanship in general, and to fairyland in particular." Fairies, a specialty of Rackham's, had been quite in fashion before 1914 but no longer captured the attention of the majority of English readers.
As a result of the change in British tastes, Rackham's sales in Britain declined as the 1920s progressed. Fortunately for Rackham, sales in the United States more than compensated for this loss. This change led to his new books being simultaneously published in London and New York. There were profitable exhibitions of his work in New York in the early 1920s, and one of the significant commissions he received was from the New York Public Library. Rackham created a series of watercolor paintings illustrating A Midsummer Night's Dream, a project he completed in 1930.
In 1929 the Rackhams moved from Houghton House to Stilegate, their new home in Limpsfield,
Surrey. Rackham's wife Edyth, who had become ill during the war, continued decline and became an invalid. Despite the trials of poor health and a
diminishing market, Rackham continued to produce not only deluxe editions but also numerous other works. The gems of the next few years include deluxe editions of The Night Before Christmas
(1931), The Compleat Angler
(1931), Fairy Tales by Hans Andersen
(1932), Goblin Market
(1933), The Arthur Rackham Fairy Book
(1933), and The Pied Piper of Hamelin
(1934). He also illustrated trade editions of such works as The Lonesomest Doll
(1928), The Sun Princess
(1930), and Oxted and Limpsfield
(1932), and designed title pages and frontispieces for three works written by his nephew, Walter Starkie: Raggle-Taggle: Adventures with a Fiddle in Hungary and Roumania
(1933), Spanish Raggle-Taggle: Adventures with a Fiddle in North Spain
(1934), and Don Gypsy
In addition, during 1933 and 1934 Rackham designed costumes, scenery, and drop curtains for an operatic production of Hansel and Gretel at 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.
The two men agreed that Rackham would do Willows
, which turned out to be a fortunate
decision. 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."