Walter Crane's Children's Illustrations for the Cause

Glittering Plain

The Story of the Glittering Plain or the Land of Living Men (1894): Title Page

On May 8, 1891, William Morris’s Kelmscott Press published its first book. The Story of the Glittering Plain tells the journey of Hallblithe, a young man on an epic quest to rescue his love, called The Hostage. Morris had initially discussed with Walter Crane the possibility of the artist illustrating the 1891 edition of Glittering Plain, but Crane’s schedule kept him from completing illustrations in a manner timely enough for Morris, who was impatient to get his first book out. It was published with decorated borders and capitals by Morris, but no illustrations. In 1894, Glittering Plain became the first and only Kelmscott title to be published twice – this time with 23 woodcut illustrations by Crane. The book was bigger and more elaborate than the first, and, though Crane’s illustrations were met with only tepid critical acclaim, the book was popular and well-received.

Crane was best known for his work as a writer and illustrator of children’s books, but Morris rejected the notion that illustrated materials – and, indeed, folk tales and fantasy – were unsuitable for adults. Though avidly interested in children and himself a dedicated father, Morris did not produce materials geared specifically to youngsters. For both Morris and Crane, the 1894 edition of Glittering Plain – an illustrated book for adults – was an opportunity to embrace a more integrated philosophy of audience, authorship, and art. They would not show ambivalence toward design just because Glittering Plain was meant for older readers; they would celebrate the intrinsically artistic nature of the book by providing illustrations and ornamental capital letters. These statements of artistic textuality exemplify the same remarkable emphasis on the power of the written letter that inspired Crane’s title page for Household Stories. The edition was a handsome volume available either printed on paper and bound in cloth, or, for some collectors, printed on and bound in vellum. It combined elements of fantasy and legend.

Its design is a feat of integrated text and image, as well as both collaborators’ socialistic artistic philosophies. They achieve this politicized artistic statement by incorporating elements of old English country life – in their minds, a more humanistic approach to labor and survival – into the design and illustration of Glittering Plain. In the title page and first page of Chapter One, shown here, Morris’s naturalistic borders and elaborate lettering evoke medieval manuscript illumination properties in composition and form, but he uses modern printing technologies to create that effect, extolling the value of the aesthetics of the past and, to the extent that it promotes art, the machinery of the future. Crane’s illustration, like Morris’s text, adopts an idealized, medieval effect, hearkening back to what was commonly thought to be a simpler time. Perhaps symbolic of printers and artisans before the industrial revolution, Hallblithe is represented here at the moment just before he learns that he must leave his calm life of whittling arrows and chopping wood to embark on a dangerous journey to rescue his love. 

Although the illustration itself does not provide explicit commentary on the text, it is essential to the reading of it. This two-page spread is rich in illustrative detail, incorporating not only naturalistic ornamental elements but also actual letters into all areas of the page – the outer border, the inner border, and the actual text window. Word and image – embodying thought and body, respectively, on the page – are combined in the book’s design.

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