Walter Crane's Children's Illustrations for the Cause

bookplateMeanwhile Crane’s political aspirations began to take form during the 1880s. He joined the Socialist League in 1884 and was a member until the end of his life. He also brought political activism to artistic circles, helping to found the Art Workers’ Guild in 1884 and the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1888. Of that latter group he served as the first president, and during his tenure he continued to develop his theory of the socialist ideal of the artist-craftsman, the man who is connected with dignity to the labor that supports him and his family. Ruth Livesey writes in Victorian Literature and Culture that this ideal of a good life for all was fundamental to late-Victorian socialists, and that Crane’s work specifically “gestures towards the dissolution of the boundary between art and activism in socialist thought” (Livesey 601-16).

Crane dabbled in explicitly socialist children’s illustrations late in life, contributing to The Child’s Socialist Reader (1907) and Pages for Young Socialists (1913), but his fin de siècle children’s book illustrations are more subtle testimonies to the way that his belief system permeated all aspects of his work (Fraser). Crane incorporated the socialist images and ideals of the artist-craftsman and fair labor into everything he did during this time, even the least explicitly political works. Such a socialistic approach to children’s illustration was not unlike that taken by Crane’s colleague William Morris in his sometimes fantastical approach to political work. This was best exemplified in Morris’ utopian dream vision, News from Nowhere, which promotes the political cause of socialism by describing a fantastical, childlike world that contrasts sharply with the overly industrialized England that Morris and Crane knew. A similar interdisciplinary approach to art and life brought to Crane’s design a competence and creativity that helped to define the aesthetic of the late Victorian period.

That aesthetic placed particular value on a lifestyle that organically combined elements of fine arts with the decorative. It was an era, for example, of furniture and other household objects known for their beautiful simplicity; William Morris’s famous Morris chair, for example, marketed a simple and comfortable design as the essence of elegance. Along with this integrated approach to the value of decorative arts came an acceptance of illustration and book design as high art as well. Perhaps it was this way of thinking that led Crane to accept his role as an illustrator, embracing its opportunity for self-expression in a more accessible, less “high” form. Crane’s later career saw the incorporation of Japanese, medieval English, and ancient Greek motifs into children’s illustrations that often verge on the didactic. These works incorporated exotic elements, such as Japanese design motifs or classical poses, into illustrations of contemporary English people. The art historian Percy Muir criticizes Crane for these lapses, calling them “fanciful and derivative”:

He was easily influenced […] He succumbed easily to temptations of this kind and as time went on he developed other tiresome mannerisms. He was a great one for ‘Golden Ages,’ whether medieval English or ancient Greek. (Muir 162)

Muir argues that Crane’s earlier toy books were more “gay, lively, imaginative and novel”; gay and lively they may have been, but Crane’s incorporation of “Golden Age” aesthetic concepts into children’s illustration was nothing if not novel and imaginative. In addition to creating an enriched visual vocabulary, Crane’s incorporation of these international or historical elements aligns him even more closely with the socialist cause, which focused on the importance of a combined aesthetic of labor and art, and of international workers’ solidarity. Of William Morris’ writings, Livesey writes,

Morris’s verse attempts to overcome the boundary between aesthetics and politics, leisure and labor, interweaving political cause into the texture of everyday objects and elevating those objects (books, songs, cups, plates, beds) to the status of craft goods; the repositories of a communal aesthetic tradition. After the revolution, Morris suggests, all goods would be the outcome of such “traditions of the past” producing new works “common to the whole people.” (Livesey 601-16) - more

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