Walter Crane's Children's Illustrations for the Cause

Shepheards Calendar cover

The Shepheard’s Calender: Twelve Aeglogues Proportionable to the Twelve Monethes (1898): Cover

Crane’s cover design for Spenser’s Shepheard’s Calender is bold in its blatantly illustrative style. Whereas the cover of Household Stories is geometric and makes no attempt at narrative or characterization, this cover offers an illustration of a scene. It features a typical English shepherd – almost too typical in his old-fashioned sandals, ample blue cape, and musical pipe – standing in the breeze under a tree with two sheep, his loyal dog, and a pair of white birds gazing on from above. The shepherd is essentially identical to the one who will appear on the inside of the book, though here he is in color. The pictorial style evokes old-fashioned block printing practices in its simple outlines and lack of interior detail.

The image is so successful as an illustration that one almost forgets that all it has to illustrate is the book’s title and the author’s name. A small embossed box announces that information in elegant gold letters, but there is no border around the illustration, no other element of design to set the image apart from the green cloth background of the binding. By collapsing the style and functions of book structure, design, and illustration, Crane suggests that readership and authorship are continuous and conceptually intertwined, whether on the cover or within the pages of a book. The reader of The Shepheards’ Calender is involved in a character and setting by simply glancing at the cover. What is more, the resemblance of the cover design to a page of the book has a welcoming and evocative effect. Unlike Household Stories, whose cover announces the book as a closed volume, this design opens itself to the reader before he or she physically opens the book.

The image’s most evocative and distinctive elements are the shepherd’s solitude in the presence of so many beasts and no people, and the evidence, in his billowing cape, of a great gust of wind. The overwhelming presence of nature, coupled with the intensity of solitude and contemplation, are standard tropes of the pastoral, representative of the shepherd’s simple pleasure in music and nature. This cover illustration powerfully evokes the senses of sight, sound, and touch, senses heightened by solitude and awareness of one’s natural surroundings. These senses are of special importance to The Shepheards’ Calender, which is itself a meditation in verse on the sights, sounds, and feelings of the seasons. This emphasis on the senses, as well as the simplicity of the cover’s design and visual style, plays into Crane’s children’s book design. Whereas a child reads a book to be stimulated, an adult might read Crane’s illustrated Shepheards’ Calender to escape; on the other hand, a socially progressive late-Victorian Londoner might look at this book and find its transportive qualities politically inspiring. While Crane’s children books from this period instilled in young minds elements of the socialist aesthetic, this illustration uses those same elements to inspire latent nostalgia in the minds of adults.

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