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G.F. Watts. Walter Crane. Painting, 1891. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Walter Crane

(1845 – 1915)


For his contemporaries, Walter Crane’s artistic practice embodied the ethos of Arts and Crafts eclecticism. As the painter William Rothenstein (1872-1945) recalled in 1931, Crane “was illustrator, painter, designer, craftsman, and sculptor by turn; he poured out designs for books, tapestries, stained glass, wall-papers, damask, and cotton fabrics . . . he could do anything he wanted, or anyone else wanted” (292). H. M. Hyndman, founder of the Social Democratic Party, named Crane “the Artist of Socialism” (351) for his seminal contributions to the visual culture of the movement. He was a painter, decorative artist, illustrator, art theorist, and active Socialist.

Born in Liverpool in 1845, Crane studied oil and watercolour painting from an early age with his father Thomas Crane (1808-1859), who trained as a painter at the Royal Academy schools. The family relocated to London in 1857 and, the following year, Crane began an apprenticeship with the politically radical engraver William James Linton (1812-1897). He trained as an engraver’s draughtsman, whose responsibility it was to draw an artist’s sketch onto the engraver’s end grain wood blocks. Later in life, he would hail Linton as both a political and artistic mentor.

Upon the completion of his apprenticeship in 1862, Crane advanced his artistic training while supporting himself, his widowed mother, brother Thomas and sister Lucy as a freelance illustrator. He continued this work as an illustrator for book publishers and periodicals throughout his long career, although he sometimes expressed misgivings at the volume of work. His success as an illustrator led to a commission and subsequent vocation as a designer of wallpaper. These designs garnered praise for their graceful patterns and rich colouring. Likewise, Crane’s illustrations of children’s books revolutionized the genre in treatment and technique, especially in his innovative use of colour printing through his work with the entrepreneurial printer Edmund Evans (1826-1905). Their collaboration on the “Toy Books,” printed by George Routledge and Sons, infused traditional tales with a new elegance and introduced the young reader to the Aesthetic movement. For example, in the centerfold illustration to The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood (1876), Crane furthers the identification of the sleeping maiden (“Beauty”) with the category of “Art” through the inclusion of a peacock in the illustration, perched above the hound. The peacock—in particular, the tail feathers—came to symbolize the Aesthetic movement. Yet this icon of the exotic made famous (or infamous) by J. A. M. Whistler’s Peacock Room was also a traditional symbol of eternal life and, in early Christian tradition, resurrection. Like the other slumbering creatures in the illustration, the peacock will awake alongside the princess.

The image is an illustration of a scene in The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood.                  The image is set in a Romanesque setting, with heavy green foliage, and a potted                  poppy plant, which is symbolic of the sleeping characters. The image is of the                  prince entering on the left side, while three human figures, a cat, and a dog are                  all sleeping in the foreground. There are two sleeping figures in the centre                  background. The Sleeping Beauty is on the right side of the image in the                  background, and behind her are two sleeping watchers. The image is displayed                  horizontally. Transcription: But said, that in the future years the Princess young                  should die, | By pricking of a spindle-point-ah, woeful prophecy! | But now, a                  kind young Fairy, who had waited to the last, [are past; | Stepped forth, and                  said, “No, she shall sleep till a hundred years | “And then she shall be wakened                  by a King’s son--truth I tell- -| “And he will take her for his wife, and all will                  yet be well.” | In vain in all her father’s Court the spinning-wheel’s forbid | In                  vain in all the country-side the spindles sharp are hid; | For in a lonely turret                  high, and up a winding stair, | There lives an ancient woman who still turns her                  wheel with care | The Princess found her out one day, and tried to learn to spin;                  | Alas ! the spindle pricked her hand--the charm had entered in ! | And down she                  falls in death-like sleep; they lay her on her bed, | And all around her sink to                  rest--a palace of the dead! | A hundred years pass-still they sleep, and all                  around the place | A wood of thorns has risen up--no path a man can trace. | At                  last, a King’s son, in the hunt, asked how long it had stood. | And what old                  towers were those he saw above the ancient wood.
Walter Crane. Centerfold illustration to The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood , (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1876), Beinecke Library, Yale University. Print.

A founding member of both the Art Workers’ Guild (1884) and the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society (1888), Crane was a principal theorist of that movement and a close friend and colleague of William Morris (1834-1896) and C. R. Ashbee (1863-1942), espousing the union of art and design in simple construction, the creation of handmade objects, and attention to materials. Through this work, Crane maintained a public profile as an influential teacher, author, and theorist. His roles as Director of Design at the Manchester School of Art (1892-95) and as President of the Royal College of Art (1899-1900) led to the popular and widely translated design primers Bases of Design (1898) and Line and Form (1900).

These decorative practices allowed Crane to explore the relationship between narrative and decoration, an interest that also emerged in his paintings. Crane exhibited a number of works at the Dudley Gallery in London, and critics considered him a member of the so-called “Poetry without Grammar” school along with other latter day Pre-Raphaelites such as John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908) and Simeon Solomon (1840-1905). The appellation “Poetry without Grammar,” which comes from the 1869 review “Contemporary Literature: Art,” summarizes two essential aspects of Crane’s paintings: an interest in the Aesthetic movement’s concern with “art for art’s sake,” especially the experiential relationship between art and poetry, and the rejection of academic convention, or academic “grammar,” in their work. Crane continued these interests and achieved his greatest success with the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery in London in 1877 where, for the next 10 years, he exhibited works drawn from mythological subjects.

This approach is evident in his only contribution to The Yellow Book : a photograph of his painting The Renaissance of Venus (Vol. 2). Since Crane’s innovative use of outline and his incorporation of forms drawn from Japanese art invigorated book illustration in the 1860s and 1870s and influenced Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) and other designers, it seems strange that Beardsley selected a painting for inclusion in The Yellow Book. Crane recalled that the young designer came to visit him in 1893 to solicit a contribution to the journal, and he selected a photograph of Crane’s earlier painting for that “short-lived but remarkable quarterly” ( Artist’s Reminiscences, 416). Crane would later praise Beardsley in his history of book illustration entitled Of the Decorative Illustration of Books Old and New(1896), a revised and expanded version of his Cantor Lectures to the Society of the Arts given in 1889. Although Crane disagreed with Beardsley’s use of line as a way to delineate large areas of black and white on the page, he nevertheless called him a “very remarkable designer” (Of the Decorative Illustration, 218).

The Renaissance of Venus was first exhibited at the Grosvenor in 1877 and later purchased by the artist G. F. Watts (1817-1904) and given by his widow Mary Seton Watts (1849-1938) to the Tate Gallery. Against the crimson damask of the gallery’s walls, The Renaissance of Venus must have exuded the cool, chalky blue hues of a Renaissance fresco. Venus stands at the edge of a rocky inlet shore, ankle deep in clear water. Her pose is contemplative, recalling that of the ancient Venus Esquilina (rediscovered in 1874), while her flowing blonde hair and prominent position bring to mind Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (c. 1485; Florence, Uffizi Gallery). The Renaissance of Venus thus represents Crane’s continued engagement with themes drawn from classical subject matter. After his marriage to Mary Frances Andrews (1846-1914) in 1871, the couple took an extended honeymoon in Rome, which played a powerful role in Crane’s artistic development. Although this painting was not his first work to address a mythological narrative specifically, it is unusual as a story of his own devising. As the title suggests, this is not the birth of Venus, but the “renaissance” or rebirth of Venus. Crane’s depiction references Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), his collected meditations on the place of beauty in art that signaled the rebirth of Botticelli’s own Birth of Venus as a source of inspiration for British artists.

The freedom with which Crane can reinterpret and, quite literally, reformulate this myth raises important questions about the relationship between narrative and meaning, questions that were a leading preoccupation of this moment. As William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) observed, “we suppose [the title] to signify substantially ‘The Re-Birth of Beauty;’ Venus, as the symbol of beauty, re-born at the period of art and culture” (Rossetti 390). Thus The Renaissance of Venus is not simply an Aesthetic movement painting; it is a painting about the Aesthetic movement itself. It expresses the renewal of beauty and points toward the renewal of society, and the concomitant rebirth of art envisioned by Crane. In this sense, he acknowledges the possibility that the work of art could have meaning beyond itself. In the following decade, the Aesthetic “renaissance” would crystallize, for Crane and others, into the hope for society promised by socialism.

The artist became a socialist in 1884, after more than a decade of active interest in radical politics. This socialism evolved from the visual and the aesthetic; William Morris and John Ruskin (1819-1900) provided the political vocabulary for what Crane was already painting. For the artist, his paintings represented the “search for a new harmony, a higher sense of beauty” that would elevate humanity ( An Artists’ Reminiscences, 390).

Even as he became more outspoken in his political views, Crane’s interest in mythology and legend led to his renewed prominence in Symbolist artistic circles, where he was already held in high regard as an illustrator. He participated in numerous international exhibitions, and awards and accolades followed, such as a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, honorary memberships in the Munich and Dresden Academies of Fine Art, and an Italian knighthood. In 1911, he received the prestigious invitation from the Uffizi to submit a self-portrait to their gallery of foreign artists. He died at Horsham Cottage Hospital on 14 March 1915.

Morna O’Neill is Assistant Professor of Art History in the Department of Art at Wake Forest University. She is the author of Walter Crane: The Arts and Crafts, Painting, and Politics (Yale UP, 2011) and “Art and Labour’s Cause is One:” Walter Crane and Manchester, 1880-1915 (Whitworth Art Gallery, 2008). She is the co-editor, with Michael Hatt, of The Edwardian Sense: Art, Design, and Performance in Britain, 1901-1910 (Yale UP, 2010).

Selected Publications with Illustrations by Walter Crane

  • For major works on books written or illustrated by Crane, see Isobel Spencer, Walter Crane, Appendix A-E, pp. 200-04; Rodney Engen, Walter Crane as a Book Illustrator (London: Academy Editions, 1975); and Gertude Massé, A Bibliography of First Editions of Books Illustrated by Walter Crane, etc. (London: Chelsea, 1923).
  • The Absurd ABC. London: John Lane, c1874.
  • The Baby’s Bouquet: A Fresh Bunch of Old Rhymes & Tunes. Tunes collected and arranged by L.C. [Lucy Crane]. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1878.
  • The Baby’s Opera: A Book of Old Rhymes with New Dresses . London: George Routledge and Sons, 1877.
  • The Baby’s Own Æsop:Being the Fables Condensed in Rhyme with Portable Morals . London: George Routledge and Sons,1887.
  • Beauty and the Beast. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1874.
  • The Bluebeard Picture Book. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1875.
  • Cinderella. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1875.
  • A Floral Fantasy in an Old English Garden. London: Harper and Bros., 1899.
  • The Frog Prince. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1874.
  • Household Stories, From the Collection of the Bros. Grimm. Trans. Lucy Crane. London: Macmillan, 1882.
  • Jack and the Beanstalk. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1875.
  • King Luckieboy’s Picture Book. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1870.
  • Little Red Riding Hood. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1875.
  • The Marquis Of Carabas: His Picture Book. London: Routledge, 1874.
  • Molesworth, Mary Louisa. “Carrots:” Just a Little Boy . London: Macmillan, 1876.
  • Molesworth, Mary Louisa. Four Winds Farm. London: Macmillan, 1887.
  • The Old Garden and Other Verses by Margaret Deland. Decorated throughout in colours by Walter Crane . London: Osgood McIlvaine, 1893.
  • Puss in Boots. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1874.
  • Queen Summer: or, The Tourney of the Lily and the Rose . London: Cassell, 1891.
  • Sleeping Beauty in the Wood. London: George Routledge and Sons,1876.
  • Wise, John R. The New Forest: Its History and Its Scenery . London: Smith, Elder, 1863.

Selected Publications by Walter Crane

  • An Artist’s Reminiscences. New York: Macmillan, 1907.
  • The Bases of Design. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1898
  • Cartoons for the Cause, A Souvenir of the International Socialist Workers and Trade Union Congress, 1886-1896 . London: Twentieth Century, 1896.
  • The Claims of Decorative Art. London: Lawrence and Bullen, 1892.
  • Of the Decorative Illustration of Books, Old and New . London: G. Bell and Sons, 1896.
  • Ideals in Art. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1905
  • Line and Form. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1900.
  • Renascence: A Book of Verse. London: Elkin Matthews, 1891.
  • The Relation of Art to Education and Social Life. Leek: Leek, 1892.
  • The Sirens Three. London: Macmillan, 1886.
  • Triplets: comprising the Baby’s Opera, the Baby’s Bouquet, and the Baby’s Own Aesop with the original designs in colour by Walter Crane . London: George Routledge and Sons, 1899.
  • “Work of Walter Crane.” Easter Art Annual, Art Journal 1898 . London: J. S. Virtue, 1898.
  • “Why Socialism Appeals to Artists.” Atlantic Monthly 49/411 (January 1892): 110-115.
  • William Morris to Whistler: Papers and Addresses on Art and Craft and the Commonwealth. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1911

Selected Publications about Walter Crane

  • “Contemporary Literature: Art.” Westminster Review 91 (April 1869): 594-96.
  • Crane, Anthony. “My Grandfather Walter Crane,” The Yale University Library Gazette 31/3 (January 1957): 99.
  • Crane, Walter. “Work of Walter Crane.” Art Journal (Easter 1898).
  • Engen, Rodney. Walter Crane as Book Illustrator. London: Academy Editions, 1985.
  • Gerard, David. Walter Crane and the Rhetoric in Art. London: Nine Elms, 1999.
  • Hyndman, H. M. Further Reminiscences. London: Macmillan, 1912.
  • Konody, P.G. The Art of Walter Crane. London: George Bell and Sons, 1902.
  • Lundin, Anne H. Victorian Horizons: The Reception of the Picture Books of Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway. London: Scarecrow, 2001.
  • Massé, Gertrude. A Bibliography of First Editions of Books Illustrated by Walter Crane, etc . London: Chelsea, 1923.
  • “Mr. Walter Crane and his Picture-Books: An interview at Beaumont Lodge.” Pall Mall Budget, 25 June 1891: 6.
  • O’Neill, Morna. “Art and Labour’s Cause is One:” Walter Crane and Manchester, 1880-1915 . Manchester: Whitworth Art Gallery, 2008.
  • —. Walter Crane: The Arts and Crafts, Painting, and Politics, 1875-1890. New Haven: Yale UP, 2010.
  • Rossetti, William Michael. “The Grosvenor Gallery, First Notice. ” Academy 5 May 1877: 396.
  • Rothenstein, William. Men and Memories. New York: Coward-McGann, 1931.
  • Smith, Greg and Sarah Hyde, eds. Walter Crane, 1845-1915: Artist, Designer, Socialist . London: Lund Humphries in association with the Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester, 1989.
  • Spencer, Isobel. Walter Crane. London: Studio Vista, 1975.
  • Stalker, Helen. From Toy Books to Bloody Sunday: Tales from the Walter Crane Archive. Manchester: Whitworth Art Gallery, 2009.

MLA citation:

O’Neill, Morna. “Walter Crane,” Y90s Biographies , 2013. Yellow Nineties 2.0, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019,