Anniversary of the illustrator of ironic books

ETHEREAL landscapes of the fantastic featuring fairies, goblins, witches and anthropomorphic trees were the signature style of Arthur Rackham, a book illustrator who influenced authors C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien.

Widely regarded as one of the leading illustrators in Britain’s Golden Age of book illustration, his pen, ink and watercolour illustrations graced the pages of many fairy tales and fables including Peter Pan, Gulliver’s Travels, Alice in Wonderland, Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm and Wind in the Willows.

He also illustrated Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, a tale Kipling based on Bateman’s, his house and gardens in Burwash, in 1906.
This month marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), and to celebrate, 10 of the illustrator’s Sussex illustrations and landscapes, with a particular focus on his work for Puck of Pook’s Hill, will be exhibited at Bateman’s by the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy. They will feature alongside modern research-led responses to them by Fine Art MA student Emma Martin and a concert by PhD student Victoria Leslie in collaboration with the University of Chichester’s Music Department.

Bateman’s © National Trust Images/John Miller

Bateman’s was not Rackham’s only link to Sussex. In his late teens, and his family went to Lancing, where he made sketches of Lancing and the view from there of Worthing Pier, he and his father sitting on cliffs drawing boats and the sea. Aged 18, he also painted watercolours of the churches at Winchelsea and Rye, and just three years later, in 1888, his watercolour ‘Winchelsea from the Marsh’ was exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer exhibition.
His painting ‘Cottages at Pett, Sussex’ was shown at the RA Summer Exhibition the following year.
Arthur Rackham, who was born in Lewisham, was one of 12 children and at the age of 17 was sent to Australia to improve his health. He returned and at 18 was working as a clerk at the Westminster Fire Office, studying part-time at the Lambeth School of Art.
His first book illustrations were published in 1893 and by the turn of the century had established a reputation for his pen and ink fantasy illustrations ideally suited for the new techniques of reproducing illustrations as photographic plates rather than engravings.
Public recognition came when he produced full colour plates for Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle in 1905.

During the 1920s, he lived in Houghton House, near, Amberley, a rambling old house with barns and outhouses, and nearby the winding Arun, the wooded hills and the Amberley quarry, with knobbly, twisted beech and elm trees and Elizabethan cottages facing his garden wall. They all appear in his paintings created during this time – and by now he had become so popular he had to turn down Eleanor Farjeon’s request for him to illustrate Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard (based in Amberley) because he was too busy doing advertisements for Colgate toothpaste!
“In imagination, draftsmanship and colur-blending, his work stands alone,” wrote Sarah Briggs Latimore and Grace Clark Haskell in the 1936 book Arthur Packham: a Bibliography. “His deep understanding of the spirit of myth, fable and folklore affords him a transcendent range of expression.”
Arthur Rackham in Sussex: A 150th Birthday Celebration is at Bateman’s, Burwash, from Friday September 8 until Sunday October 29. Free, normal admission applies. There will also be a research symposium, talks and workshops and a concert, with times and venues to be confirmed.
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Main picture: ‘There’s where you meet hunters, and trappers for the Circuses, prodding along chained bears and muzzled wolves.’ Arthur Rackham’s illustration from the novella ‘On the Great Wall’ (plate facing page 152), which tells of the defence of Hadrian’s Wall. Parnesius, a Roman centurion, tells the children what it was like guarding Hadrian’s Wall. The hunters and trappers are in the north of England, on the way to the wall.

The River Arun at Amberley, Sussex, by Arthur Rackham. The garden at Houghton House offered wide views over the Downs and the Arun valley, and gave on to fields sloping to the river Arun. Picture: Chris Beetles Gallery, St James’s, London