Walter Crane (1845-1915)

Walter Crane was born in Liverpool on 15 August 1845. He spent his youth on the south coast and in London, and was apprenticed to W. J. Linton, the engraver.

Crane's first painting at the Royal Academy was The Lady of Shalott in 1862, but his strengths were in illustration and design, and by 1870 he was established as an illustrator of children's books and as a ceramic designer for Wedgwood. By the mid-1870s he was designing wallpapers (for Jeffrey & Co.) and tiles (Maw and Co.).

In 1888 Crane was instrumental in the establishment of the Art and Crafts Exhibition Society, of which he was the first President. The object of the body was to assist in the revival of arts and handicrafts currently occurring, and to draw attention to the craftsmen involved. William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Lewis F. Day, Heywood Sumner, Philip Webb and Onslow Ford were included in the founding members of the Society.

He was appointed part time Director of Design at the Manchester School of Art from 1893-6 and Principal of the Royal College of Art from 1897-8, continuing to be a member of the governing council of that body thereafter and a strong supporter of Government-sponsored art education. He wrote important books on decoration and design, including The Decorative Illustration of Books (1896) and Line and Form (1900). Crane defined design in terms of ornament, the aim being 'ideal beauty rather than literal fact'. Regarding book illustration, he had much to say on the integration of pictures with text. For example, he noted the difference between an easel painting, complete in itself, where the frame is a boundary isolating it from the surroundings, as compared to a decorative design, which must relate to its surroundings:

'In making a book illustration, the artist may think exclusively of the scene he has to represent, without reference to the architecture of the printed page. The result, however admirable and brilliant as an independent work, remains unrelated to its purpose and conditions. Or the artist may, availing himself of these conditions, produce not only an illustration, but also a decorative design, fitted to the mechanical conditions of the printing press, and adding to the beauty of the book.

Illustration from Spenser's Faerie Queen

Walter Crane is remembered today as one of the most important of all the children's book illustrators. His books are rather collectable but because of the huge print runs are still relatively easily available. His designs are also found in many periodicals of the day, and crop up in exhibitions of arts and crafts, for example in the William Morris Gallery. Regarding his paintings, many of his most important ones were bought by German collectors, and I believe these have ended up in public museums there. But the excellent At Home is in Leeds.

Coloured illustration, Danae at Sea

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