Walter Crane's Children's Illustrations for the Cause

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“The Worker’s May-Pole” (1894) and “A Garland for May-Day” (1895): From Cartoons for the Cause

For several years during the fin de siècle, Crane produced annual cartoons to commemorate May Day; they ran in the socialist magazine The Clarion and were eventually reproduced in the large publication Cartoons for the Cause with other Crane’s cartoons from The Clarion, Black and White, and other periodicals.

These two cartoons, “The Workers’ May-Pole” (1894) and “A Garland for May-Day” (1895) make use of classic socialist aesthetic concepts. The 1894 cartoon depicts laborers frolicking, bare-footed, in an idyllic countryside, dressed in classicized tunics and shifts and apparently ready for work that is challenging and rewarding without being demoralizing or exhausting. They hold the ends of ribbons that flutter down from a personified May-Pole, a tall and wispy woman. The 1895 cartoon also tells its explicit story in words on ribbons, this time woven into a larger-than-life floral wreath held up by a solitary female worker in the natural landscape. The ribbons – a convention of political cartoons – declare the ideals of a socialist lifestyle: “Eight Hours,” “Leisure For All,” and “No Starving Children in the Board Schools” in 1894; “The Plough is a Better Backbone than the Factory,” “The Land for the People,” and “Merrie England” in 1895.

Crane’s work on these socialist cartoons distinguishes itself by its elegance of style and its relation to his children’s books. The allegorical figure of the woman in “A Garland for May-Day,” for example, stands in delicate contraposto, offering the beauty of nature to, ostensibly, the down-and-out factory laborers from whose lives nature has been forcibly taken. It is an image meant to incite political action, but also to evoke a peaceful, playful, motherly figure – not unlike a benign fairy or guardian in a children’s tale or classical story. In “The Workers’ May-Pole,” the May-Pole is both an allegorical figure symbolizing the socialist movement and a referent to the children’s game. Dancing around the May-Pole, an image symbolic of socialist belief, is in Crane’s joyful rendition a children’s game with political connotations. Whereas in his later children’s illustrations Crane adopts socialist aesthetics, here his signature children’s illustration style merges with his explicitly political subject matter. These politicized artistic elements are thematically relevant to his children’s illustrations and political cartoons alike. In all these later projects, Crane uses old-fashioned and classicized allegorical and anthropomorphic figures to evoke a utopian society.

Of foremost importance to the socialist cause was the abundance of “Child-Toilers” and “Starving Children” that the industrial revolution had left in its wake. British cities Garland for May Dayhad long known the problem of struggling children, orphaned or forced into labor by their families’ poverty. Chimney-sweepers and child prostitutes had roamed the streets for centuries. The factories that dominated the Victorian economy employed small children for long hours in unsafe environments. Without regulations on these practices, the futures of these children looked bleak. The socialist “Cause,” as it aimed to ameliorate labor conditions for parents and children, focused attention on a cohesive strategy for bettering family life and, by extension, children and the England of the future. William Morris’s system for running his suburban studio, Merton Abbey, exemplified this strategy: the landscape and wholesome materials were used to create objects of beauty that dignified their creators as artist-craftsmen, instead of as cogs in an industrial machine.

No wonder that Walter Crane, the famous writer of high-brow children’s books, would see this political cause as his duty. These images, which are among his most blatantly political, are also among his most fanciful and lively. In symbolic meaning as well as in visual properties, they adopt a story-book aesthetic to relay a political message. As if to give back to the tradition of children’s books that brought him his initial celebrity in the 1860s, Crane’s work for the socialist cause in the 1890s offered a youthful reading of socialist ideals – in much the same way that his children’s books adopt socialistic elements.

 

 

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