Walter Crane: Illustrator

GSA Library has received a rare, first edition of Walter Crane’s Flowers from Shakespeare’s Garden (1906) showing full-page colour illustrations designed by the artist, designer and political thinker. The 40 plates include an intricately-detailed title page with the collected excerpts from Shakespeare’s dramas – described as “a Posy from the Plays” – as each makes reference to the portrayal of the fantastical flower people around which the words are whimsically intertwined.

Published in 1906 by Cassell & Company (31 years after Crane produced his final illustrated book for the prodigious Toy Books series), this is a later example of one of Crane’s ‘flower books’ that appeared between 1889 and 1906 and arguably show him at his most politically accomplished. The garden, a visual allegory for Crane’s vision of a verdant society embracing socialism, is a recurring motif in the illustrations, the floral imagery laden with symbolism. Green floral endpapers line the decorative navy-blue boards, while the book, bound with green cloth, is dedicated “To the Countess of Warwick, whose delightful Old English Garden at Easton Lodge suggested this book of fancies, it is now inscribed”. Like Crane, the Countess was a bourgeois socialist who supported a number of philanthropic ventures as well as the politicised flower symbolism found in Crane’s work. She is depicted on the cover of the book and on the title page in the ‘Shakespeare Garden’ (which she had planted on her estate at Easton Lodge in Essex). Yet beneath the sentimentalism of this gesture is the elevation of beauty portraying the idealism of a better society for which Crane and his accomplices fervently campaigned.

title cover

The son of a portrait artist, Walter Crane (1845-1915) trained as an illustrator under W.J. Linton, going on to produce 37 children’s books, nursery rhymes and fairy tales between 1865 and 1875 as part of the Toy Books series and returning to his illustrative work in later life. Throughout his multifaceted career as a designer of wallpapers, printed textiles, embroideries, stained glass, tiles, even carpets for Templeton’s Carpet Factory, Crane wove together his political views and creative talents. His staunch socialist polemic and belief in fair, purposeful labour inevitably influence the moralistic aesthetic evident in the book’s illustrations. Crane had been partisan to the Aesthetic movement earlier in his career yet it is his integral part in the evolution of the Arts and Crafts movement that facilitated his most political work. Given the similitude in their views that decorative art be considered the equal of fine art, Crane collaborated with William Morris on the design of a tapestry for Morris & Co. Indeed, the Art and Crafts movement found an enthusiastic recruit in Crane who became a founding member of the Art Workers’ Guild and the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, serving as its President. Alongside Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott, Crane is arguably one of the most celebrated children’s book illustrators of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

first page back page

The Library has also received a number of critical texts authored by Walter Crane including Line and Form (London: George Bell and Sons,1900), The Claims of Decorative Art (London: Lawrence and Bullen, 1892), Ideals in Art: papers, theoretical, practical, critical (London: George Bell and Sons, 1905) and The Bases of Design (London: George Bell and Sons, 1909). These texts will start to appear on our catalogue in the weeks ahead.

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