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Arthur Rackham: his life and work in illustration

Arthur Rackham: Undine

Arthur Rackham: Undine

Was Arthur Rackham really the best illustrator of 20th century?

Illustrations of Arthur Rackham portray the world of dwarfs and giants, witches and ogres, griffins and mermaids, heroes and traitors, dragons and fairies, battles and feasts, lights and shadows, joy and sorrow.

It is also a world of superb illustrating technique and non stop search for new, original approaches. Arthur Rackham's illustrations are sensual yet powerful, his colors distinctive yet soft, his lines determined, yet without edges.

If you enjoy good pictures, you are in the wrong place. If you want to see great ones, made by a man, who have set new standards in illustration, especially in illustrations for children, you are welcome to enjoy the travel into the land of enchantments. Let's meet classic fairy tales and famous fables through the eyes of one of the greatest illustrators of all times!

(Illustration from Undine, all graphics in this article are in Public Domain)

Scene from Childhood, one of Irish Fairy Tales, illustrated by Rackham

Scene from Childhood, one of Irish Fairy Tales, illustrated by Rackham

Short biography

Arthur Rackham was born on September 19, 1867 as the fourth (third surviving) kid to father Alfred Thomas Rackham and mother Anne (born Stevenson). There were twelve children in family altogether but five of them died as infants.

Arthur loved to draw from earliest age and was even bringing pencils and paper in bed. When parents banned his drawing equipment from bedroom, he still smuggled it and continued to draw on pillows. Who knows, maybe soft surface helped him to develop his own now so widely recognizable technique?

He won several awards for his drawings in school, he received special training by school drawing master and just knew he will become an artist. Yet path to his success wasn't straight neither easy.

Please note his signature melting of figures with background

Arthur Rackham: Irish Fairy Tales

Arthur Rackham: Irish Fairy Tales

Arthur's health was weak and doctors advised him to travel to Australia just to change environment when he was sixteen. He made a travel with some friends and relatives and spent about half of year Down Under. He was painting landscapes and this voyage made lasting impact on his creative mind.

Did you notice?

He did many vintage vignettes too

He did many vintage vignettes too

Office worker by day, artist by night

When Rackham returned from Australia he enrolled in Lambeth School of Art. His father insisted to get a 'real job', so he applied for a position of the clerk in Westminster Fire Office. When he passed the exam (1885) he earned about 40 pounds a year what helped paying the tuition at Lambeth's which he visited by evenings.

It was still 1884 when Arthur Rackham got his first illustrations published in Scraps Magazine where he continued to publish for next years. In 1888 his first painting was exhibited in public at Royal Academy. He landed quite a few occasional jobs at newspapers and magazines like Scraps or Chums or Pall Mall Budget and his work was heavily reprinted in cheaper papers.

He was skilled, he had connections but it took him seven years to resign from the regular job in insurance office and seek for uncertain glory in the field of illustration.

After all it was Victorian era, time where Dickens' novels took place and it seems everybody wanted to work in offices where you could earn decent money for not too much trouble.

They really look like clerks, don't they? - Illustration from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Humorously portrayed scene from Peter Pan

Humorously portrayed scene from Peter Pan

This scene with a dragon from Fantasy World Wonder Book is classical Rackham

This scene with a dragon from Fantasy World Wonder Book is classical Rackham

Rackham as a graphic journalist

From newspaper journalist to illustrator

Arthur Rackham became full time artist in 1892. He wasn't a risk taker by nature, term 'hard worker' suited him much better. He very fast landed at three jobs at the time.

Pall Mall Budget (this one had children's section), Westminster Budget and the Westminster Gazette gave him a lot of opportunities to brush up his skills but the newspaper tempo with tight deadlines wasn't perfect for him.

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His works were good yet not exceptional. But they probably gave him some confidence, even boldness, characteristic more for journalists than fine artists.

If nothing else, his eye for details probably fully developed in years at the newspapers. We don't have to forget one more important thing. Photography was progressing with huge steps and Rackham believed graphic journalism will be sooner or later replaced with photo reporting.

This thinking wasn't necessary bad. Arthur Rackham was very interested in developing of photography and printing process and when the process of printing changed for good he was already prepared for further steps.

And there is my little speculation: if he believed illustration will be replaced by superior photography, this was maybe part of his raising interest of drawing scenes which could not be photographed: fantastic worlds and creatures!

He still painted landscapes in watercolors. He expanded his works in the field of children's magazines, he illustrated for magazines specialized in gardening, bird watching, fishing, golf and cricket and he tried to get as much full length books to illustrate.

Arthur Rackham in books

Illustration from Undine

Undine by Arthur Rackham

Undine by Arthur Rackham

The Rhinegold and The Valkyrie

The Rhinegold and The Valkyrie by Arthur Rackham

The Rhinegold and The Valkyrie by Arthur Rackham

Rackham's unique technique

Originality stands out!

Arthur Rackham's technique was a technique of hard working man who was willing to learn and experiment to the very end of his life. He typically drawn the composition in pencil, than add shadows and details.

After the sketch in pencil was finished he continued with ink. When ink dried out, he removed pencil marks and applied colors. He used transparent colors to achieve effect of depth and this ethereal feeling is one of trademarks of his fantasy worlds.

Rackham carefully studied the process of printing with all technical details, from quality of paper to the process of separating primary colors. He loved soft nuances of blue and green colors and he drawn his illustrations in twice size of printed versions.

Drawing in bigger format than end product is old trick which is still used by many illustrators who draw on paper (without computer) because in this case they have more space to draw what means more chances for tiny but sweet details.

Rackham sold most of his originals on exhibitions and after big success of his books he started drawing even bigger illustrations. The reason was simple. Bigger painting reaches higher price.

Rackham: Undine

Rackham: Undine

Illustration from Grimms' Fairy Tales

Illustration from Grimms' Fairy Tales

1900 was turning point in Rackham's life

He illustrated first of 'major' books and met his future wife!

Arthur Rackham illustrated Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm in 1900. It was a success and it gave him the position of illustrator in top demand. Although this book is now not considered as one of his best works ever he wrote on one occasion this is the edition he is most fond of.

Illustrations from 1900 were all black and white with only cover in colors.

In 1900 Arthur Rackham met Edyth Starkie, portraitist and his future wife. They got engaged in 1901 and married in 1903 in Hampsted. In 1904 they gave birth to stillborn child and got their first and only daughter Barbara in 1908.

Edyth and Arthur had separate studios in their house so they could both work at the same time. When Barbara grew up a little she often posed to her father, who needed positions of bodies of his characters.

Hansel and Gretel from The Fairy Tales of Brothers Grimm - This illustration is from later edition and it was an addition to originals from 1900 edition

Arthur Rackham: Hansel and Gretel

Arthur Rackham: Hansel and Gretel

The success of Fairy Tales by Brothers Grimm and marketing skills of his publisher Heinemann guaranteed a lot of interesting projects for Arthur Rackham. He got contracts for Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, books considered almost as sacred and many other classics like Aesop's Fables, English Fairy Tales, Irish Fairy Tales and Gulliver's Travels.

He also illustrated books for adults like Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and de la Motte Fouque's Undine. If anybody needed fantasy art, Rackham was the man for the next 25 years!

Illustration from Rip Van Winkle - This book is one of Rackham's masterpieces for sure

Rip Van Winkle illustrations were his first major success

Rip Van Winkle illustrations were his first major success

What R.W.S. stands for?

Sometimes we can see RWS or R.W.S written at Arthur Rackham's name.

He was elected member and for some time vice president of Royal Watercolor Society, prestigious group of british painters and illustrrators.

R.W.S is just one more proof of quality of his work.

Brunnhilde may served as a model for Sleeping Beauty

Brunnhilde may served as a model for Sleeping Beauty


Arthur Rackham owes his success to combination of several circumstances.

Until the invention of photomechanical processing quality of prints was extremely dependent on wood engraving. No matter how skillful was Rackham as painter and illustrator his feeling for the line wouldn't be appreciated without equally skillful engraver. If engraver couldn't cut clear lines, the reproduction was not good.

At the end of 19 th century new printing technique with photographing pictures was applied and Rackham's work was faithfully reproduced.

His publisher Heinemann was very clever businessman who new how to make the most profit from the market who was impressed with new colored books and a chance to get a faithful reproduction of works of top artists.

There was huge interest in mythology with elves, gnomes, nymphs and other fantasy creatures. Interest in mythology rapidly declined with the beginning of World War (1914-1918) and Rackham had to adapt to new conditions too.

Being officially one of the top illustrators in the world he of course never ran out of projects. He was awarded with contracts most illustrators can only dream off.

He illustrated about 90 volumes in his lifetime with last (The Wind in the Willows) being published posthumously in 1940. In last months of his life he was so ill he could work only an hour a day or less, but he managed to finish this project which proved as one of his best works ever.

Arthur Rackham died of cancer on September 6, 1939. His daughter wrote his greatest wish was to do his job well and pleasure as many people as possible. His wish certainly came true.

Selection of best children books illustrated by Rackham

You can read all this beautiful stories on-line or download them for your desktop computer, lap top, mobile gadget, e-reader... in different formats, of course.

Selection of best books for adults illustrated by Rackham

All these books are in public domain on the base of author's life + 70 years, so they are free to use in most of the counties in the world. You can read them on-line or download them to the device of your choice. Although they are works for adults, with some guidance most of kids can enjoy in their fantasy settings too.

  • Undine, illustrated by Arthur Rackahm
    This is now considered more a romance than a fairy tale, although it was probably the most popular fairy tale in 19 th century. Title character, which could be a role model to Little Mermaid from Andersen's Fairy Tales is a water nymph in search for
  • Siegfried and The Twilight of the Gods illustrated by Rackham
    It seems in this masterpiece everything fits just perfectly. Richard Wagner's dark tones of the stories from Norse mythology are almost crying to be illustrated by Rackham.
  • The Rhinegold and the Valkyrie by Rackham
    Another long distance collaboration of Wagner and Rackham: Norse gods and monsters in the world of flames and shadows are living full life in this book of mystery and magic.
  • A Midsummer-Night Dream
    This is one of biggest masterpieces of Arthur Rackham. Shakespeare's world of love and magic has probably never been portrayed with so huge success without a theater stage.
Source:, PD licence

Source:, PD licence

Do you recognize the face of the wizard? - Scene from Adventures in Wizard-land (The Rainbow Book Tales of Fun & Fancy)

Source:, PD licence

Source:, PD licence

He had a wonderful sense of humor too - Rackham liked to include his own character in illustrations

Source: and, PD licence

Source: and, PD licence

The scene from Mother Goose (Old Nursery Rhymes) on the top left is probably best known of all. On the top right is Rackham's self portrait. In bottom line are scenes from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Gulliver's Travels. All illustrations are available at, Rackham's self-portrait is from and mix is my work for your pleasure:)

The intro from The Old Nursery Rhymes

Black and white vignette

Black and white vignette

Rackham loved new things or new uses of old things

In later years he experimented a lot with silhouettes.

Let's check his vision of Sleeping Beauty in shadows below!

Artur Rackham's Books

Arthur Rackham Book of Pictures

Did you enjoy Arthur Rackham's pictures?

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on August 03, 2014:

@tazzytamar: Indeed!

Anna from chichester on August 02, 2014:

These illustrations are stunning! What a great illustrator and talent

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on July 02, 2013:

@mcsburlea: He sure did!

mcsburlea on July 02, 2013:

gorgeous, the man had such talent

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on April 18, 2013:

@kathysart: He really is:)

kathysart on April 18, 2013:

I have always loved his work. One thing about it, it is very easy to identify.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on March 06, 2013: