Children's Literature

Rackham is perhaps best remembered for his illustrations of children's books, and this is something he thought about quite extensively. In 1934 he wrote about the topic in The Junior Book of Authors, commenting:
I can only say that I firmly believe in the greatest stimulating and educative power of imaginative, fantastic, and playful pictures and writings for children in their most impressionable years . . . . Children will make no mistakes in the way of confusing the imaginative and symbolic with the actual. Nor are they at all blind to decorative or arbitrarily designed treatment in art, any more than they are to poetic or rhythmic form in literature. And it must be insisted on that nothing less than the best that can be had, cost what it may (and it can hardly be cheap) is good enough for those early impressionable years when standards are formed for life. Any accepting, or even choosing, art or literature of a lower standard, as good enough for children, is a disastrous and costly mistake.1
Throughout his career he adhered to these principles, and some of his best work appeared in the books that were generally considered to be works for children.
Rackham's earliest illustrations for children are generally unremarkable, as both The Greek Heroes (1903) and Richard Henry Dana's Two Years before the Mast (1904) show. The first example looks like a modern chapbook, and its color illustrations in particular seem far less distinctively Rackham than does his later work. However, the eight black-and-white illustrations show the beginnings of his distinctive use of line.
His work just two years later, for an American edition of Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill (1906), is far stronger;2 the best illustration shows the splendid feathers of a turkey and has a classic Rackham tree in the center. In 1910 he returned to Martineau's Feats on the Fjord (1899); his revisions there were far more successful and the book, retitled Feats on the Fiord, was republished in 1914 with color plates. Three interesting deluxe editions were published between 1918 and 1922: Swinburne's The Springtide of Life (1918), Hawthorne's A Wonder Book and Christopher Morley's Where the Blue Begins (1922). Taken together these three books demonstrate Rackham's tremendous range of subjects for illustration.
Springtide was a collection of poems for children. In this work Rackham elevated his portrayal of childhood to an angelic level, though with mixed success. Although "A Child's Future" is a pleasant illustration of a boy in a sailboat skimming over the waves, the picture portraying an angel holding a tiny child as s/he learns to walk borders on the precious, despite the pastoral scene at the foot of the hill. In contrast, Rackham's illustrations for A Wonder Book, show his experimentation with three-color prints and pay less homage to the notion of idealized childhood.
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Where the Blue Begins must rank as Rackham's oddest work, both in terms of style and subject matter. The story is set in a society of anthropomorphic dogs who dress in the latest fashions and have butlers and country-club memberships. It concerns a hero with an annual income of one thousand bones per year. What is unusual about Rackham's illustrations is that they are urban, with none of his characteristic softening elements of parks or gardens or even fairies. The jacket, which is also the frontispiece for the book, shows a very rare Rackham cityscape, while the illustrations portray the characters as they go about their daily business of shopping downtown or attending cocktail parties.
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Rackham's later works of children's literature include three Victorian classics: Clement Clarke Moore's The Night before Christmas (1931), Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market (1933), and Robert Browning's The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1934). In these three books Rackham returns to his earlier, more decorative style, and this was a popular move as far as the public was concerned. The endpapers for The Night before Christmas are quite delightful, with their festive red-and-white pattern, while Rackham's pre-Raphaelite treatment of Lizzie in Goblin Market reminds readers of his earlier portrayals of women, such as Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
His illustrations to The Pied Piper stand as some of Rackham's most distinctive, and demonstrate his mastery of line, color, and design. The cover illustrates Rackham's perfection of the use of tricolor silhouette, while the design on the title page, with its distinctive green-and-black lettering and color frontispiece of the piper smiling at the audience while children dance gaily around him and an old woman in a white habit looks distressed, draws readers into the story. The numerous black-and-white sketches throughout the book look incredibly simple, yet each one lives. In the headpiece to the first verse, it looks as though the piper's fingers are actually moving, while the mouse and child dance. Later in the story the piper seems as though he is going to walk off the next page. The illustrations for this book are indeed "thoroughly happy,"3 and, moreover, are an utter joy to experience.
1 Hudson, Arthur Rackham, 82.
2 The English edition contains minor textual changes and illustrations by H. R. Millar.
3 Hudson, Arthur Rackham, 140,