Illustrator Arthur Rackham was born in London, England, on September 19, 1867. He was the fourth of twelve children of a middle-class family. Rackham began drawing at a very young age; he would smuggle art supplies to his bedroom and practiced sketching illustrations when he was supposed to be sleeping. When he was eventually caught, he used his pillowcase as a canvas! His large family and the constant commotion helped him understand the personality of different characters in his art. In 1884, when Rackham was sixteen, he took a trip to Australia which gave him many drawing opportunities, and he returned with watercolors paints and paintings he made while viewing different lands.
Rackham worked in an insurance office during the daytime (since his father wanted him to go to college for business) and studied at the Lambeth School of Art at night. He got his start in the art world when his watercolor painting of a town in Australia was accepted by the Royal Academy of Art and later sold. He began selling his illustrations to papers/magazines in 1891 and in 1892, he became a full-time graphic journalist. He gained popularity through illustrations featured in a weekly London paper, the Westminster Budget, and also through illustrations featured in To the Other Side (1893), The Ingoldsby Legends (1898), and Tales from Shakespeare (1899).
In the year 1900, Rackham experienced a breakthrough of success with his illustrations in The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, a book that featured ninety-nine of Rackham’s black-and-white drawings and a cover in color. Some of Rackham’s other well-known work includes:
- An illustrated version Rip Van Winkle in 1905 (which established him as the leading illustrator of the Edwardian period)
- An illustrated first edition of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens in 1906 (author J.M. Barrie asked him to illustrate his book because he loved Rackham’s Rip Van Winkle illustrations)
- Illustrations in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1907)
- Illustrating A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1908), A Christmas Carol (1915), Cinderella (1919), and much more
Rackham also met Edyth Starkie in the year 1900, a portrait painter and neighbor who encouraged him and his artistic efforts. The two married in 1903.
In the early 1920s, Rackham’s popularity grew in the United States (and declined in England because of effects of World War I), and he was paid to make paintings for the New York Public Library. Rackham’s health began declining in the 1930s, but he still made illustrations for deluxe editions of classic books. By the mid-1930s, his work was displayed all over the world.
Rackham’s last illustrations, illustrations for The Wind in the Willows, was a very sentimental project. Almost thirty years earlier, some children wrote him a letter asking him to illustrate this story, but he never did because he had a deadline for another book. When he received the opportunity again, he worked long and hard to make every picture perfect, and it took him three years to finally finish.
Arthur Rackham died from cancer on September 6, 1939. The work he created throughout his lifetime greatly influenced future illustrators (one of them being Walt Disney and his depiction of Snow White, which featured scenes inspired by Rackham’s art style of more muted hues and a clear sense of lines), and his obituary in The Times (a London paper) recounted him having “a special place in the hearts of children.” Like many artists today, Rackham was inspired by the artists who came before him, and at the same time, his own work was recognizably unique.