Walter Crane's Children's Illustrations for the Cause

bookplateThe integrated aesthetic of labor, nature, and international history was, for Morris and his colleagues, the path to a more enlightened future.
In fact, Crane’s social commentary became increasingly sophisticated as he sought new platforms in fiction illustration, working not only on children’s books but also on illustrated books for adults – another move that brought together previously separate media. Like Morris, Crane saw daily life as an opportunity for beauty and justice and, most importantly, the aesthetic and practical connection between those two lofty principles. Crane also shared Morris’s fascination with folk tradition and medieval epic. The English and Icelandic stories that served as sources for many of the books published by Morris’s Kelmscott Press came to represent an idyllic time unlike the one in which liberal Victorians found themselves living. Images of shepherds, farmers, craftsmen, and other figures whose work connected them to the earth while providing them with a livelihood contrasted harshly with the chimney-sweeps and factory toilers whose wretched employment robbed them of their youth and never earned them enough. The socialist cause was, at this time, popular and multi-faceted; Crane himself bounced from one subgroup to another, joining the Social Democratic Federation in 1884, then the Socialist League later that same year, and settling finally on Morris’s Hammersmith Socialist Society in 1890.

Crane recognized the over-arching value of an aesthetic that pervades literary and artistic spheres as well as political ones – and one that collapses children’s and adult book design. In 1894, he collaborated with Morris on the self-consciously old-fashioned illustrated book for adults, The Story of the Glittering Plain. The narrative of a young man on a fantastical and harrowing journey in search of his abducted love, Glittering Plain is written in flowery text by Morris and boasts large and lavishly designed pages and illustrations by Crane. The whole production is reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts and the medieval countryside – a kinder, pre-industrial Britain. Indeed, Crane’ nostalgic illustrations for Glittering Plain, with their classically beautiful characters in natural settings, are not unlike socialist illustrations that he created under more explicitly political auspices. His illustrated edition of Spenser’s Shepheard’s Calender (1898) uses images from classical mythology and the countryside to similar effect.

Crane also published explicitly socialist illustrated materials. Throughout the 1890s, he contributed cartoons to various socialist or socialist-friendly periodicals. One of these, The Clarion, published Crane cartoons for May Day over several consecutive years. “The Workers’ May-Pole,” from 1894, depicts sweet-faced workers prancing about a naturalistic maypole whose ribbons bear such words and phrases as “Socialization-Solidarity-Humanity,” “A Life Worth Living,” “Eight Hours,” and “Neither Riches Nor Poverty.” The 1895 installment, “A Garland for May Day,” adopts a more austere aesthetic, featuring a strong yet gentle female in a vaguely Grecian smock and bare feet, holding up an enormous flower wreath with a ribbon motif of similar effect to the 1894 ribbons. One ribbon, for example, reads “The Plough is a Better Backbone than the Factory.” That message rings loud and clear throughout Crane’s later illustration work.

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