In his 1967 publication 'The Art Nouveau Book in Britain', John Russell Taylor described Walter Crane as “too big and unmanageable … to be fitted neatly into any single pigeon-hole". Crane (1845-1915) was typical of a Victorian polymath - artist, designer, craftsman, theorist, political activist but, most of us know him for his children's book illustrations. Crane was one of the most sought-after illustrators of his day because he understood what appealed to children visually. “Children, like the ancient Egyptians, appear to see most things in profile, and like definite statements in design. They prefer well-defined forms and bright, frank colour.’
Susan E. Meyer, 'A Treasury of the Great Children’s Book Illustrators' (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987), 88.
His illustrations certainly are “statements in design”. They are steeped in detail and it is this I am interested in. They tell us so much about the man himself: his other artistic interests, the movements he associated with and influences on his career. Apparently, Crane wasn’t keen on his reputation as a child’s illustrator and often included details in his illustrations that hinted at other areas of his expertise.
Aberdeen Archives, Gallery & Museums have five illustrations from 'The Frog Prince', illustrated by Walter Crane in its collection. Each one, created around 1874, reveals something about the artist. 'The Frog Prince' is a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm and first published in 1812 in 'Grimm's Fairy Tales'.
The first scene in the book, 'The Princess meets the Frog by the Fountain' (image 1), takes place just after the Princess has dropped her golden ball into the fountain. The Frog appears and offers to retrieve it but only if she’ll allow him to “....sit at thy table, eat from thy little golden plate......and sleep in thy little bed.”
Image 1: The Princess meets the Frog by the Fountain
As we already know from the quote above Crane favoured a strong profile for his characters. Here, the Princess’s pose almost renders her an extension of the stone frieze she is seated upon. It's interesting that Crane has included a stone relief here. There are classical elements throughout the book; the elaborate fountain, a columned interior (image 2), what looks like the city gates (image 5) and even the design of the tablecloth in the dining room scene (image 3). Like many artists of that period, he was fascinated by antiquity, it represented an idyllic time, disengaged from Victorian industrialisation.
Image 2: The Frog asks to be allowed to enter the Castle
Image 3: The Frog shares the Princess' Meal
Image 5: The Wedding Procession
Crane’s inclusion of the stone relief in this image doesn’t just serve aesthetic purposes. The scene is the Judgement of Paris from Greek mythology. The seated character of Paris is distinguishable from his Phrygian cap and shepherd’s crook. He is seen presenting Venus, goddess of love, with a golden apple declaring her fairer than Minerva and Juno. Venus promised Paris the love of any woman if he chooses her as the fairest. By inserting this into the picture Crane echoes the scene unfolding next to it – a promise in exchange for a golden orb. The appearance of the goddess of love, hints at the conclusion of 'The Frog Prince'.
Here, Crane is not only showcasing his knowledge of the antiquities but also making reference to his belief that the origin of fairy tales lay in ancient mythology. In 'The Bases of Design' written by Crane in 1902 he includes a relief of Paris and Venus from Wilton House in Somerset with a similar composition and states;
“We know that many of our old fairy tales have a symbolical origin in ancient mythology, and have taken new and varied forms and local colours as they have travelled from their southern and eastern homes, and become naturalized in the art and literatures of different countries.”
The Bases of Design Walter Crane : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive Smaller details in the illustration also allude to the love that will grow between the frog and the Princess. The Princess wears a chatelaine, a clasp or hook worn on a belt that often held useful household items such as scissors, thimbles or keys. Crane adds a heart shaped purse, perhaps suggesting that she has yet to give her heart to a suitor. In the scene where the frog transforms into a man (image 4) a similar purse with a heart detail appears around his waist, as if, during his transformation, he has stolen her heart.
Image 4: The Frog turns into a Prince
The abundance of detail in these illustrations is, to repeat the words of John Russell Taylor, “too big and unmanageable” to cover in one blog alone. Stay tuned and I’ll delve deeper into the rest of the story in the next post.
Blog by Emily Goalen, Loans Officer