In my last post, I looked briefly at Walter Crane’s interest in Antiquity. Here, I want to pick out details in the illustrations that point toward Crane’s involvement in the Arts and Crafts movement and his interest in design in general. The watercolours, created around 1873/74, predate the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society founded in 1887. Crane was the first President of the society, from which the Arts and Crafts movement was born. Despite the early date of the watercolours some of the general principles of the Arts and Crafts movement are already apparent in the illustrations. The furnishings and decorative arts manufacturer William Morris & Co. had formed in 1861 and schools of thought that would culminate in the movement were already in motion.
Most artists associated with the Arts and Crafts movement believed in the design of a “total” interior. This meant that every element within the interior was crafted with the whole in mind. Often architects would design a building and then work on the interiors as well. Crane took this approach with the design of his books. As well as the illustrations, he designed the cover, endnotes, bindings - even his signature was designed to integrate with the book.
In the illustrations that feature interior views (images 2, 3 and 4) Crane pays homage to craftsmen, design through the ages and to his own skill and knowledge in these areas. The interiors are given as much attention as the action within those illustrations. They teem with detail and each element has been carefully considered. The fabric that features throughout is testament to Crane’s skill as fabric and wallpaper designer. I’m sure it was no mistake that the material hung around the Princess’s bed echoes the composition of 'Trellis', the first wallpaper that his good friend William Morris designed in 1862. You can see an example of 'Trellis' on the V&A Museum’s website here:
Image 4: The Frog turns into a Prince
Another influence evident in these illustrations is the art of the Japanese woodcut or Ukiyo-e. Crane often signed his books using an image of a crane, for obvious reasons, but it was a happy coincidence that the crane is a common motif in Japanese prints. The front cover for this book and many others featured this design enshrined in a scroll-like form – a first nod to his admiration of Japanese art.
Crane’s early career was spent working for the printer Edmund Evans. It was here that he honed his skills in colour woodblock printing, a technique which became popular in the 1860s and aided the expansion of the book market. Sharp and deep perspective, clearly delineated forms in dark lines, areas of bright flat colour, patterning and an alternative sense of depth, all feature in this book and point toward Japanese influences. Crane uses tiling in images 2 and 4 to create sharp perspective. In image 2 he has created a sense of depth by using the patterning to lead the eye into different planes within the image. This was a technique that he used regularly and can be seen in many of his illustrations. It's particularly evident in Aladdin Secures the Lamp in the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
Image 2: The Frog asks to be allowed to enter the Castle
The Frog Prince Shares the Princess’s Meal (image 3) further demonstrates Crane’s obsession with design and his admiration for craftsmen. Crane creates an interior worthy of a royal family, dressing it with beautifully-crafted furniture and ornamentation. There is a display of Chinese blue and white ceramics on an elaborate dresser, an amphora jar sits to the right of the princess who wears a peacock feather in her hair. The goblets and glasses are intricately crafted and the King presides on a Greek inspired chair, a design that appears in Crane’s The Bases of Design.
Image 3: The Frog shares the Princess' Meal
Greek Chair from ”The Bases of Design” by Walter Crane, George Bell and Sons, 1902, chapter 1 “Of the Architectural Basis”
Oranges and pomegranates were popular motifs in Arts and Crafts wallpaper and fabric designs and they feature heavily here; on the table, in the classical fruit bowl, within the story illustrated on the tablecloth, even on the servant's uniform. In fact, oranges were used on the front cover of this series of books and they reoccur in many of Crane’s illustrations.
There is humour in this illustration, as there is throughout the book, and it is embedded in the details. Crane’s intricate compositions reveal something entertaining or interesting each time you revisit them, and I think it is this that made them so successful as children’s books.
Here the King is flanked by two equally regal animals both of whom mimic his posture. The raised leg of the bird of prey joins the King in admonishing the Princess for not honouring her promise to the frog. The greyhound’s pointed muzzle echoes the point of the King’s beard, his golden, crown-like collar confirming his status in the household. Three sets of feet point in the one direction below the table, the whippet’s, the golden paw of the Grecian chair and the golden boot of the King. Moving around the table the expression of disgust of the lady to the left of the Princess and the tittering servants in the background add further amusing details. The robes of one of the guests boldly state just how rich he is.
In 'The Princess meets the Frog by the Fountain' (image 1) Crane employed a “picture within a picture” by including the stone relief. Here he uses the technique again in the form of the tablecloth. It seems that Crane is suggesting another theory on the origins of ‘The Frog Prince’. The scene is from an ancient nursery rhyme which tells of a frog that tried to court a ‘Lady Mouse’. The rhyme went by many titles and differing versions, amongst them ‘There was a Frog that Lived in a Well’ and ‘A Frog he would a wooing go.’
Image 1: The Princess meets the Frog by the Fountain
William Morris’s famous tenet “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”, perfectly sums up Crane’s approach to the contents of his books. There are so many layers of reference within them, art history, design, mythology, folklore. Take those things away and we are left with illustrations that are simply beautiful.
For a closer look at Walter Crane’s illustrations visit the collection online:
Blog by Emily Goalen, Loans Officer