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Style, Subjects, Technique, and Technology

Rackham's success was connected to contemporary improvements in the means of reproduction, namely photography. Unlike previous illustrators, who relied on an engraver to cut clean lines on a wood or metal plate used for printing, Rackham could have his pictures photographed and mechanically reproduced. This change removed the middleman between Rackham and his finished product. In particular, it allowed Rackham to display his particular gift for line, which an engraver, lacking Rackham's talent, likely could not render onto a printing plate.
Advances in photographic and printing technologies allowed a full-color original image to be separated into three images, each in a primary color, and then printed very much like the original by using ink in each color. However, this process also required the use of specially glazed art paper for the best reproduction of the image, which meant that illustrations could not be printed on the lower quality paper that was used for type. Instead, they had to be "tipped in" or pasted to the pages of normal paper after printing. Although this was a process that had to be done by hand, and thus added to the cost of book production, the result enhanced the appearance of books and helped create the early-twentieth-century market for gift-books.
Rackham's technique was to sketch the outline of a drawing with a soft pencil, block in the various shapes surrounding his outline, and then add some of the details. Once he completed his pencil sketch he would add his lines in pen and India ink, removing the pencil lines at the end of the process. If the picture were to be in color, he would follow the same process after applying a light wash of color to the paper, and then add successive layers of color washes with transparent tints to finish the painting, a technique he essentially invented, and one which was well suited to photographic reproduction.
As Hamilton notes, Rackham tended to restrict his colors to "soft blues, greens, and reds, in local highlights or in several layers of transparent water wash, over a yellowy-buff tone which gives to the whole a quality of vellum, or age."1 Initially his illustrations were drawn at twice the size of their reproduction, but after Rackham started selling his originals in conjunction with the publication of a new book he began creating larger originals.
Rackham's use of line and detail became sharper and more intense during the first two decades of the twentieth century. He often included realistic and sometimes recognizable settings in his works of fantasy. For example, in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland he copied exactly his wife's best china pattern for the illustration, "The Mad Tea Party," and he included a dress pattern designed by his model, Doris (Jane) Dommett.2 By the early 1920s his use of line began to soften a little, as can be seen by comparing "She never had so sweet a changeling" from 1908's A Midsummer Night's Dream, with "A Favourite Song of Dryden's" from 1929's The Vicar of Wakefield. The contrast between the two pictures, particularly in his rendering of the women's hair, is quite remarkable.
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As his style matured so did his technique. One of Rackham's innovations was his development and use of silhouettes. The cutting of silhouettes for portraits was common during the nineteenth century, but this technique was thought to have limitations for book illustrations until Rackham came on the scene. Although he used the suggestion of silhouettes as early as 1896 in The Zankiwank & the Bletherwitch, and again throughout Mother Goose (1913), he mastered the style in Cinderella (1919) and The Sleeping Beauty (1920). These two books were financially successful because they were cheaper than their color-plate equivalents, despite Rackham's occasional use of color silhouettes. Although he continued to employ this style for the rest of his career in his illustrations, one of the most striking uses of it was for his endpapers, perhaps best seen in those for Milton's Comus (1921), with their distinctive Wedgewood-like white silhouetted figures against a blue background.
Perhaps among the most recognizable of Rackham's elements are his depictions of gnomes, goblins, witches, and fairies, as well as his anthropomorphized trees. Indeed, Hamilton notes that it was with Rip Van Winkle that "Trees with human limbs and faces became one of his trademarks,"3 although this trend appears even more strongly in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. Rackham's whimsical illustrations are reflected in the fanciful stories he told his nephew, Walter Starkie, about trees: "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."4
Despite such fancies, his illustrations were absolutely true. As Selma Lanes points out, Rackham draws the three little bears in Southey's poem "exactly as they would be found in the zoo, unadorned and unquestionably the real thing" despite the fact that they live in a Victorian cottage, complete with china, rugs on the floor, and a grandfather clock in the background.5
Rackham often included a self-portrait, caricaturized, in his works because it was convenient to draw. His nephew once likened him to one of the characters in his paintings: "I thought he was a goblin when I saw him in his shabby blue suit and carpet slippers, hopping about the studio with a palette on one arm, waving a paint-brush in his hand."6
Rackham passionately believed that illustration and painting were two separate fields, commenting:
A picture both in subject and treatment must be considered as a work for constant contemplation - a permanent companion. An illustration, on the other hand, is only looked at for a fraction of time, now and then, the page being turned next, perhaps, to a totally different subject, treated, it may even be, in a totally different way. In this branch, bizarre and unusual effects of arrangement, violent actions, exaggerations and other matters of spasmodic interest may find a place almost forbidden on the walls of a room.7
Whatever his beliefs about this distinction, Rackham's illustrations were often enjoyed in both ways: people purchased his books for their illustrations and his original paintings of those illustrations (and, later, cheaper reproductions of them) to hang on their walls.
The reasons for this lie in Rackham's multiple abilities. In addition to catching his subjects at some climactic moment that clarified part of their character for the viewer, he also included background details such as fairies or elves going about their daily duties, or trees leering at the audience, which inevitably drew the viewer's attention to the depth and complexity of his pictures. His art, both in book and painting form, not only set the standard by which all other illustrations of the time were judged,8 but also influenced many of the major artists and illustrators of the twentieth century, including Walt Disney, the Brothers Hildebrandt, Brian Froude, Jan Pienkowski, Jerry Pinkney, and Trina Schart Hyman. In the end, the art of Arthur Rackham is equally suitable for illuminating the pages of a story or enhancing the walls on which it is hung.
1 James Hamilton, "Rackham, Arthur (1867-1939)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Online edition, May 2005. Accessed on June 18, 2005.
2 Hudson, Arthur Rackham, 76.
3 Hamilton, Dictionary of National Biography.
4 Walter Starkie, Scholars and Gypsies: An Autobiography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 19.
5 Selma G. Lanes, "Rackham and Sendak: Childhood through Opposite Ends of the Telescope," in Down the Rabbit Hole: Adventures & Misadventures in the Realm of Children's Literature (New York: Atheneum, 1971), 73.
6 Starkie, Scholars and Gypsies, 18.
7 James Hamilton, Arthur Rackham: A Life with Illustration (London: Pavilion Books, 1995), 91.
8 Michael Patrick Hearn, Trinkett Clark, and Henry Nichols Blake Clark., Myth, Magic, and Mystery: One Hundred Years of American Children's Book Illustration (Norfolk, VA: Rinehart, 1996), 21.