Walter Crane's Children's Illustrations for the Cause

Shepheards Calendar title page

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

In a vein related to the one that inspired and saw to completion the Story of the Glittering Plain, Crane’s Shepheard’s Calender was an illustrated book for progressive, cosmopolitan adults who, like Crane and his circle, idealized the rural and pastoral.  Crane’s 1898 publication of the Renaissance English poem by Spenser, one of England’s patron poets, offers a late Victorian socialist visual interpretation.

The two-page spread, richly illustrated in the borders and featuring elegant type, presents a progression from the first page, with classically mythological sylvan figures, to the second, with figures representative of the English countryside ideal. Crane incorporates the classical figures onto the side of the spread in which he introduces the title of the book; The Shepheard’s Calender: Twelve Aelogues Proportionable to the Twelve Monethes suggesting that crucial to this artistic undertaking is not only the text by England’s own Edmund Spenser, but also, more importantly, the classical tradition of art and science that inspired it. As a musical fawn, a nude nymph, and a pair of goats lounge among moss and shrubs in the thick lower border, branches and leaves twist around representations of Pisces, Aries, Taurus, Gemini, and the other signs of the Zodiac. Crane asks his readers to recall these classical archetypes and, as they move on to the next page, associate them with the analogous figures of the English pastoral.

Those figures decorate the border that surrounds the information referring specifically to the edition’s English author, illustrator, and publisher. By including them here, Crane glorifies his own home landscape just as he does that of the ancient world, referring both to the position of Spenser in the canon of great world literatures and to the integrity of the English shepherd’s contemplative and musical life in the meadows. This specifically English page depicts a different, less twisted variety of foliage than that on the classical side. The shepherd plays his pipe, a shepherdess lounges close by among sheep and a handsome dog. Above, puffy clouds and a delicate moon hang in a darkening sky. As we read across the spread, we are transported from ancient Greece to the countryside of early modern – perhaps even late Victorian – England. Like the foliage in his border, Crane’s authorial identity is intertwined with that of his predecessors.’ Crane’s contemporaries must have found this idealized natural scene both comforting and unsettling in its lack of resemblance to their own lives. By the fin de siècle, the carefree shepherd, whose labor connected him to the earth and its creatures, was all but gone. Crane uses the nostalgia generated by that realization to emphasize the socialist ideals of joy in nature, labor, and creation.

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