The turn of the twentieth century was the Golden Age of Illustration in the U.S. and the U.K., when, thanks to advances in print technology, a vigorous public appetite for finely illustrated books was met with works by illustrators such as Arthur Rackham (English, 1867-1939).
On the pages of lavishly produced, limited-edition volumes published by George G. Harrap & Co. and William Heinemann, Rackham reimagined Alice and what she encountered in Wonderland, filled Kensington Gardens with fairies, and frightened children with his visions of fairytale goblins and anthropomorphized trees.
Photo-mechanically created printing plates and further advances in color-print technology enabled a new level of production, and, beginning in 1905 with Rip Van Winkle (London: William Heinemann), publishers filled vellum-bound, signed and numbered copies with Rackham’s tipped-in color illustrations, black-and-white prints, and decorated endpapers.
Less-expensive illustrated trade versions were as popular as the deluxe editions. Rackham’s fanciful, intricately detailed images delighted readers, and each year newly released editions became sought-after Christmas gifts, remaining popular even after World War I changed the market.
Rackham also exhibited and sold his original illustrations in London galleries, a move that increased interest in his work and generated even more excitement for his illustrated books. The original works, like the books, found an enthusiastic audience. But purchasing an original at Leicester Galleries was not the only way to acquire a unique Rackham work of art.
In a number of copies of his deluxe editions, Rackham annotated the flyleaf or title page with an original, one-of-a-kind sketch or watercolor. In the Ransom Center’s large collection of Rackham-illustrated books, there are forty-four such sketches.
In some, such as The Arthur Rackham Fairy Book (London: G.G. Harrap & Co., 1933), the artist depicts himself. Rackham frequently presented himself in caricature in his illustrations—he is the model for the Mad Hatter in his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland illustrations, and appears as a railway station clerk in Wind in the Willows, for example. In his sketch in the Fairy Book, however, Rackham is depicted not as a character but the artist himself, ceremoniously handing a copy of the book to a young queen.
Rackham hated an edition of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens put out by Hodder and Stoughton, and he used his title-page sketches to make these feelings known. The publisher illustrated the book with plates that had been cut-down, eliminating portions of Rackham’s work.
In the three copies held by the Ransom Center, Rackham depicts himself with limbs severed in one, collapsed in a coffin with ink spilled before him in another, and turned away in disgust in a third. On all he bitterly annotated his illustrator credit line to indicate that his works were not reproduced in their entirety.
Often the sketches depict characters or scenes from the story, but the Ransom Center holds two deluxe copies of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination (London: George G. Harrap & Co., 1935) in which the added sketches depict a man frightened from reading the tales themselves.
Some of these sketches are simple ink outlines, others are more elaborate watercolor productions. In all, one admires the energy of the beloved illustrator—whose schedule was already full with commissions—taking the time to customize individual copies. Because the inclusion of these unique works was not consistent and not necessarily well-known, readers must have been delighted to find these additions when they received the already-special publication.
Readers today can view these original sketches and explore Rackham’s illustrated books, his original drawings and designs for Tales of Mystery and Imagination, and more by requesting the Arthur Rackham Art Collection and Rackham’s illustrated books to view in our Reading and Viewing Room. Original works in the Ransom Center’s collection by other Golden Age illustrators include Kate Greenaway, Ernest Shephard, and Walter Crane.
Cover image: Watercolor and ink sketch by Arthur Rackham on title page of Cinderella (London: William Heinemann, 1919), PR 6009 V339 C56 1919.