Arthur Rackham (Fantastical Illustrator)

By Chrissie Masters of The Design Gallery

Sitting in the studio in his beautiful garden in Limpsfield, the famous artist Arthur Rackham envisaged a very different world to everyone else. It was a dreamlike, enchanted realm populated with witches and gnomes and filled with trees that were transmogrified with human faces and limbs. The pear tree and apple orchard behind the studio and herb garden near the elegant house that he commissioned in 1929, were a rich source of inspiration. Dragons still adorn the studio walls today.Born in Lewisham in 1867, Rackham was one of 12 children. His first job was as an insurance clerk at the Westminster Fire Office, which he combined with studies at the Lambeth School of Art. In 1892 he left the position and began working for The Westminster Budget. His first book illustrations were published the following year in To The Other Side by Thomas Rhodes, a travelogue about America.

Arthur Rackham lived at a time when society was preoccupied with exploring spiritualism and occultism. The complex, increasingly industrialised landscape prompted a desire to escape and literature and art expressed these interests and concerns. Two Yorkshire girls, for instance, produced photographs of themselves apparently playing with fairies in 1917, and the author Arthur Conan Doyle believed them to be proof that fairies truly existed.

During the course of his career, Rackham produced over 3,300 illustrations for fairy, folktale and fantasy books which included The Ingoldsby Legends of Richard Barham (1898), Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1907) and Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods (1911).

Rackham’s images can be charming and gentle or haunting and frightening. His watercolours employ spider-like trailing lines and faces that are full of character. “In imagination, draftsmanship and colour-blending, his work stands alone. His deep understanding of the spirit of myth, fable and folklore affords him a transcendent range of expression” commented Sarah Briggs Latimore and Grace Clark Haskell in Arthur Rackam, A Bibliography (1936).

Studying his prolific output, one can see in every image the passion that possessed Rackham. “The most fascinating form of illustration consists of the expression by the artist of an individual sense of delight or emotion aroused by the accompanying passage of literature” Rackham revealed.

In 1903, Rackham married Edyth Starkie and they had one daughter called Barbara. He died in 1939 in Limpsfield. The Wind in the Willows that he illustrated was published posthumously in 1940.

Deluxe limited editions of books illustrated by Arthur now sell for as much as £27,000, and his watercolour illustrations fetch similar sums. Prints of his works are widely available for just a few pounds, however.

If he was alive today, one feels certain that JK Rowling would have commissioned Rackham to illustrate the Harry Potter series. Further information can be found at www.angelfire.com/ar/ArthurRackhamSociety