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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