remembering Walter Crane

Walter Crane, The Triumph of Labour (1891) ©The Trustees of the British Museum

It was May Day a couple of days ago, an occasion that puts me immediately in mind of this wonderful image . . .

Walter Crane, A Garland for May Day (1895) ©The Trustees of the British Museum

. . . which was created to celebrate International Workers Day in 1895 by the illustrator, artisan, and socialist activist, Walter Crane. I first came across Crane’s work a couple of decades ago, when some lefty friends sent me, their fellow lefty, a memorable Christmas card.

Walter Crane, The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World (1894) ©The Trustees of the British Museum

I liked the card so much I kept it, and was prompted to learn more about the artist who’d originally produced it. The card comes out every year when Tom and I unpack the decorations, and each time I think about how I much love the work of Walter Crane.

Walter Crane, Self Portrait (1905) ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Born in Liverpool in 1845, Crane was the son of an artist member of the local Liverpool Academy, who supported his family through the portraits, silhouettes and lithograph engravings, which he often produced at home on his own printing press. Surrounded by an energetic and highly creative extended family circle, Crane later described himself as being born with “pencil and paper in hand,” experiencing the urge to draw as a kind of “primal necessity.”

Illustration from Walter Crane, The Golden Primer (1884)

When he was 12, Crane’s family moved to Shepherd’s Bush in London. From his window, Walter looked out over brickfields, and drew sketches of the men and horses working to produce the materials that would go to build the new terraces of Notting Hill. At 14, Crane was apprenticed to the popular London engraver, William James Linton, a “kindly generous” man, according to Crane, “a true socialist at heart, with an ardent love of liberty.”

William James Linton

Crane spent three years working with and learning from Linton before taking on commercial commissions as a book and magazine illustrator and beginning to exhibit his own work as an artist. Crane loved the work of his Pre-Raphaelite contemporaries – particularly Burne-Jones – but cited William Blake as his major source of inspiration. Blake, wrote Crane, “is distinct and stands alone. A poet and a seer as well as a designer.” Like Crane’s father, Blake had operated his own printing press: he supported himself with commercial work, but he was also an artist of extraordinary originality. Blake’s distinctive combination of the practical and the creative, the artisanal and the artistic, the maker and the visionary, undoubtedly appealed to Crane. William Blake’s respect for childhood and children, his hatred of social injustice, and his commitment to radical politics also clearly chimed with Crane in a deeply personal way.

Walter Crane, Christmas card, no date. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The 1860s was a good time to start out as an illustrator. Popular magazines were continually springing up, and demand for creative work was keen. Crane began to explore his style, and quickly developed a name for himself, particularly in his work on books for children, such as reissues of titles by eighteenth-century radical educators, Anna Laetitia Barbauld and John Aikin (which had been originally illustrated years before by his predecessor, William Blake).

Walter Crane, cover of Puss in Boots (1870) ©The Trustees of the British Museum

By the mid 1860s, Crane was working regularly with publisher-printer Edmund Evans, who pioneered the development of the innovative nineteenth-century children’s genre which came to be known as the Toy Book. Toy books prioritised the use of imagery in young-reader storytelling, and the creative work of the illustrator became absolutely key. In a Toy Book, the pictures no longer simply accompanied a narrative, but effectively produced it for the reader on the page. Crane quickly adapted his style to create complex – yet immediately legible – visual narratives through simple outline drawings (like that shown for Puss in Boots below) which Evans then brought to life with cost-effective methods of block printing and typesetting (areas on each page were left blank for text)

Walter Crane, preparatory line drawing for Puss in Boots (1870) ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Working in this simple two-dimensional style, Crane became brilliant at using physical gesture to create lines of vertical as well as horizontal movement across a page . . .

Illustration from Walter Crane, The Golden Primer (1884)

. . . and his work for even the very youngest of readers is always extremely visually creative, produced with real wit and lightness of heart.

Illustration from Walter Crane, The Golden Primer (1884)

Crane rapidly became a prolific and extraordinarily popular illustrator of works for children, designing over forty books in total, which were printed and reprinted many times. “The best of designing for children,” he wrote, “is that the imagination and fancy may be let loose and roam freely, and there is always room for humour and even pathos, sure of being followed by that ever-living sense of wonder and romance in the child heart – a heart which in some cases, happily never grows up or grows old.”

Walter Crane, endpapers for An Alphabet of Old Friends (1900) ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Crane also pioneered some really inventive ways of encouraging different kinds of creativity in young readers . . .

Illustration from Walter Crane’s Painting Book (1889)

. . . producing a beautiful and influential colouring book . . .

Walter Crane’s Painting Book (1889)

. . . and, despite considerable opposition from the publishing and bookselling fraternity, collaborating with his talented sister Lucy in the creation of childrens song and rhyme books. . .

Walter Crane and Lucy Crane The Baby’s Opera (1877) ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Lucy (herself a well-respected writer) arranged the tunes, and Walter told their familiar stories in characteristically vivid and evocative style.

Walter Crane and Lucy Crane, from Baby’s Bouquet (1878) ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Booksellers rapidly changed their opinion of the Cranes’ new venture when The Baby’s Opera went on to sell over 50,000 copies.

Walter Crane and Lucy Crane The Baby’s Opera (1877) ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Note Crane’s depiction of himself on the cover as his avian namesake – in whose character he was wont to appear at fancy-dress parties hosted by his fun-loving family and friends.

Walter Crane, earthenware tile for Maw & Co (1878) ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Crane was a dedicated compatriot of William Morris: like Morris, a creative polymath, who was keen that his endeavours might promote the social utility of the so-called decorative arts.

Walter Crane, earthenware tile for Copeland and Co (1878) ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the late 1870s, he produced beautiful earthenware tiles for Maw & Co and Copeland & Co . . .

Walter Crane, design for a stencil, no date ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

. . . designs for stencils and embroidery . . .

Walter Crane, design for embroidered panel produced by William Whiteley ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

. . . commercial signage, such as this public house . . .

Walter Crane, design for a pub sign, no date ©The Trustees of the British Museum

. . . and created an enormously varied range of wallpaper patterns, especially the nursery wallpapers, then coming into vogue

Walter Crane, wallpaper for Jeffrey & Co (1884) ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Crane was a great admirer of Japanese art and aesthetics, and this influence is clearly apparent in his wallpapers.

Walter Crane, Almond blossom and swallows wallpaper for Jeffrey & Co (1878) ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Crane had always been interested in radical and reformist politics, but something about the anti-imperial tenor of the 1880s really chimed. In 1884, he wrote, “the socialist position became a universal solvent in my mind.”

Walter Crane, cover for Practical Socialist Magazine ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Crane drew much closer to William Morris, both personally and politically. He began to ally his creative and commercial work much more closely with his activism, took on a wide range of educative roles, and became a key member of of the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society.

Walter Crane, cover for Work Magazine ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Crane offered his services to many different progressive organisations – illustrating magazine covers, designing banners, posters, greetings cards.

Walter Crane, cover for Socialism Magazine ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

On a tour of the United States, he offended Boston polite society with his vigorous defence of the convicted Chicago anarchists, but his radical brand of socialism also further endeared him to fellow activists across the Atlantic. Commissioned to produce a commemorative book for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Crane’s images foregrounded the widespread social inequality that was engendered by the United States’ brand of capitalism, particularly that experienced by African-Americans. A keen promoter of women’s rights, he designed banners for suffrage demonstrations and garments for the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union, whose body-freeing principles had been adopted by his wife, Mary.

Walter Crane, A souvenir for May Day (1907) ©The Trustees of the British Museum

“We want a vernacular in art,” Crane argued “which can only be developed among a people politically and socially free.” Crane began to gesture towards the creation of such a vernacular in his commemorative cartoons.

Walter Crane, processional image celebrating the proposed unification of London, after the publication of the Royal Commission on the Amalgamation of the City and County of London in 1894. First printed for May Day 1894 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Created to celebrate International Workers Day annually on each first of May, a selection of Crane’s cartoons were published as a souvenir for the International Socialist Workers and Trade Union Congress of 1896.

Walter Crane, Cover of Cartoons for the Cause (1907 edn) ©The Trustees of the British Museum

I love all of Crane’s May Day images, but the sheer scale of his Triumph of Labour from 1891 surely makes it one of the most memorable.

Walter Crane, The Triumph of Labour (1891) ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Crane combines folk traditions like the Rushcart processions he may have seen growing up in the English North West with a vigorously prophetic and revolutionary style which is an obvious echo of that of William Blake. Just like his children’s illustrations, Crane’s visual polemic in these cartoons is fabulously energetic (and energising).

Walter Crane, A Garland for May Day (1895) ©The Trustees of the British Museum

The hopeful spirit of Crane’s May Day images always chimes with me, but perhaps particularly so this May.


Much of the information in this post was drawn from Jenny Uglow’s contribution to Thames & Hudson’s brilliant series The Illustrators: Walter Crane (2019)
Take a closer look at Crane’s innovative 1889 Painting Book in this great post from Public Domain Review
The majority of the images in this post are reproduced under the creative commons licenses of the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum (©The Trustees of the British Museum and ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London). I encourage you to explore Crane’s work further via these fantastic digitised collections.
British Museum
Victoria and Albert Museum