On the night of Sep. 30, an exhibition honoring the centenary of Walter Crane’s death opened at Houghton Library. Glass cases displaying vibrant illustrations and lively sketches line either side of the Edison and Newman room to draw viewers into the “World of Walter Crane.”Houghton Library’s Walter Crane collection, though not very well known, is one of the two most important in the world, and the current exhibition seeks to showcase the work of this innovative and influential artist, who was famous during his lifetime but has now been largely forgotten.
Originally trained as an engraver, Crane created works consisting of black outlines filled in with bright colors and often depicts fantastical or fable-like scenes. “He came to prominence in the 1860s and ’70s as a designer of very colorful books for children called toy books that retell nursery rhymes,” says Hope Mayo, curator of printing and graphic arts in the Houghton Library. “He drew very dramatic, multicolored illustrations…. Those were printed in tens of thousands of copies in the second part of the 19th century.”
Justin G. Schiller, a book collector specializing in rare and vintage children’s literature, adds to Mayo’s sentiment about Crane’s work as an illustrator in introducing a genre of writing. “Up until the 1850s, the concept was only just developing to have books for children,” he says. “It was Walter Crane… who developed the idea of creating colored picture books for children [to elevate] their appreciation of art, and also having an attractive and well-written and composed text.” According to him, later children’s book illustrators, including Randolph Caldecott, Kate Greenaway, and Maurice Sendak, all drew inspiration from Crane’s work.
Walter Crane’s work was also influential in the Art-Nouveau movement of the later 19th and early 20th century, defined by intricate linear designs, often depicting floral or other natural themes. “If one thinks of the Art-Nouveau movement, all the roots…are to be found in Walter Crane’s art,” says Francesca Tancini, an art historian and a fellow of the Houghton Library. “Walter Crane’s books travelled much [more easily], and much wider than William Morris or Edward Burne-Jones’s works, which were more expensive and bigger. It was much more difficult for their items to travel abroad, while Crane usually produced work to be reproduced.”
According to Schiller, though the drawings look simple and straightforward at first, they contain many hidden details that can be found upon closer inspection. “[Crane’s work] takes aspects that eventually developed into the Art Nouveau movement but made it much more refreshing,” he says. “It’s reinterpreting the overall floral symbolisms that you get with Art Nouveau. Walter Crane has personified them into little men dancing like they are in the court of the queen, and he turned flowers into people. He was really the first person to do that on a level for young children.”
Walter Crane was involved with the socialist movement in England as well, and some of his illustrations for the cause are also on display at Houghton. “He was a friend of George Bernard Shaw, who was of the Fabian Society…the main socialist group in England at the time,” Schiller recounts, “Every good revolution needs an illustrator, so Crane often lent his efforts and support.”
Mayo believes that Crane’s work also offers viewers insight on the historical period in which he lived. “I find the way in which his utopian socialist beliefs were interwoven in his life and his work very interesting as examples of ways people were thinking in England at the time,” Mayo says. “I like the incredible range of it.”
In general, Crane’s drawings appeared in a multitude of contexts. “He illustrated many membership cards, banners, badges, coins or medals, and cartoons that were usually sold together with journals and magazines,” Tancini says. “[They] were usually detached from the journals and hung on the walls, so even poor people, the proletariat, had Walter Crane’s illustrations on their walls.”
By showcasing his various works, Houghton Library’s “World of Walter Crane” attempts to pay homage to the influential artist. Whether through displaying his contributions to children’s literature or his illustrations of a more political nature, the exhibit works to highlight his innovations as well as his spirit. “I believe he never lost his childish side, so he was able to understand children and their way of looking at things even before he had children of his own,” Tancini says. “We could say he invented the modern picture book.”
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