July 8, 2011

The Golden Age of Children's Book Illustrators

        Many people call the period between around 1850 to 1930 the Golden Age of children's books illustrators.  (There's a lot of variation in those dates, depending whose opinion you consult, but you get the general time frame.)  This was also a period of great technological change in the printing of illustrations, from hand coloring of wood block printing to full-color lithography.  The interesting thing (to me, anyway!) is how many of these books that truly began the modern era of children's literature were illustrated in a manner remarkably similar to that used for the previous four hundred years: artists drew black line pictures, carvers converted those designs into wood blocks, and printers produced the pages of the books.  Perhaps the only thing that had really changed radically from the time of the Nuremburg Chronicle was the insistence on originality, and the perception of the artist's equal importance in the making of a successful and beloved book.
        I say that originality was valued, but if one didn't have original talent, one could still happily steal it.  This was especially the case between the USA and Britain, where copyright laws didn't cross the ocean.  US publishers regularly printed knock-offs of British books gleefully and with impunity.  My mother has an 1881 book that calls itself "Under the Window after Kate Greenaway."  It has numerous small changes from the 1879 original -- and lower-quality printing.  The US had lower quality printing in general, and in 1865 the first edition of Alice in Wonderland, which illustrator Sir John Tenniel rejected as not up to his standards, was sold in the US, while a better version was quickly printed up for the British market.  (Here, a piece by Tenniel (1820-1914) shows Alice, the Gryphon, and the Mock Turtle.)
        There tended to be a lot of back-and-forth between the artists, the carvers, and the publishers, as the artists tried to make sure that their vision was being accurately reproduced in the wood blocks.  Apparently those artists like Walter Crane (1845-1915) who had some training in making woodcuts or wood engravings themselves, and who understood what the medium could do, were most successful in their designs.  Crane had a good relationship with his engraver and printer, Edmund Evans.  There's an interesting description of their process for color prints at the University
of Washington Digital Collections.  (Plus you can see lots more illustrations there, too.)
        Ernest Shepard (1879-1976) is best known for his illustrations of Winnie-the-Pooh and other books by A.A. Milne, and secondly for his illustrations of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows.  In both of these he does a lovely job of giving all his creatures an endearing blend of innocence and spunk.  But although some people classify those two great works as fantasy, I really don't, so for my example of Shepard's work I give you instead a real fantasy scene from Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon.
        Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) has a wonderfully dreamlike style and is best loved for his illustrations colored with a technique of transparent washes that he developed himself -- very far from the style of block printing!  These illustrations could not be reproduced with relief printing, although they are perfectly suited to fantasy.  (They appeared in books only after the invention of color lithography.)  Of course Rackham also did plenty of black-and-white illustrations, and I have to include one of his famous silhouette illustrations, which have such kinship with the plain
black and white of block prints.
        I feel in duty bound to include W.W. Denslow (1856-1915) for his fame as the illustrator of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but I have to admit I never cared much for his style.  I much prefer the work of his successor as Oz illustrator, John R. Neill (1877-1943.)  It is funny, though, that Neill's work was considered to be a trendy modernization over Denslow's!  Denslow seems much more modern (if not necessarily more attractive) now.
        It isn't for nothing that these illustrators remain beloved.  They have inspired generations of artists, fantasy-lovers, children, and of course, me!

[Pictures:  "Thus the Princess cometh forth," pen and ink by Howard Pyle, from The Wonder Clock by Howard Pyle, 1887;
     "Alice, the Gryphon, and the Mock Turtle," pen and ink by John Tenniel, from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865;
     "Rumpelstiltskin," pen and ink by Walter Crane, from Household Stories from the Collection of the Brothers Grimm translated by Lucy Crane, 1882;
     "Now you're tickling, George," pen and ink by Ernest Shepard, from The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame, 1939;
     "Cinderella working," silhouette (whether cut paper or pen and ink I don't know) by Arthur Rackham, from Cinderella retold by C.S. Evans, 1919;
     "The Wicked Witch of the West," pen and ink by W.W. Denslow, from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, 1900;
     "The copper man walked out of the rocky cavern (Dorothy, Tik-tok, and Billina)," pen and ink by John R. Neill, from Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum, 1907.]


Nan said...

I love this post. These illustrations are so wonderful, and, of course, there is that flood of memories from my childhood reading to enjoy.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

... Which just goes to show once again the power of children's books. The good ones never leave us!