The Magical Illustration of Arthur Rackham

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Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, illustration by Arthur Rackham

Arthur Rackham was an illustrator in the late 19th and early 20th century. He was born in London in 1867. He began studying at the Lambeth School of Art at the age of 18, and soon found his passion and calling. The first of Rackham’s illustrations to be published in a book were in 1893, in The Dolly Dialogues. Rackham never looked back. From that first publication, illustration was his career until the day he died at age 72, of cancer.

In 1905, when Rackham was 38 years old, he created 51 color pieces to accompany Washington Irving’s Rip Van WinkleThe technological advancements necessary to produce color-separated printing was new, and Rackham’s vibrant, lavish style of sumptuous illustration helped propel the edition to the status of instant classic, while simultaneously bringing attention to Rackham and his work, and making a name for him.

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A Wonder Book, illustration by Arthur Rackham

Rackham’s pieces were known for their luxurious use of color and keen attention to detail. His styles ranged easily from vivid, bright splashes of color to more muted, subtle tones. He became a member of the Royal Watercolour Society and mastered the watercolor method of painting, seen in many of his works. Many of the books Rackham illustrated include both his black and white, and color plates. Some, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Wonder Book, include Rackham’s experimentation with partially colored prints, similar to the effect seen with Japanese woodblock art.

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Peer Gynt, illustration by Arthur Rackham

Much of Rackham’s work depicts gnomes, fairies, goblins or other creatures from mythology, folklore or fable. His work has been an inspiration to many, including film director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and modern illustrator Brian Froud. Beyond the fantastical natural world, Rackham also found inspiration in unusual places, creating his own artistic interpretations of pieces from music and theater, such as Wagner’s operas, or Shakespeare plays.

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Self Portrait, illustration by Arthur Rackham

Whether illustrating whimsical books for children or darker matter for adults, Rackham’s imaginative, brilliant illustration style was highly sought after and enhanced any text it accompanied. Rackham died in 1939, and now, more than 70 years after his death, his work is collectible and beloved. Children and adults alike take pleasure in the unique, beautiful art he provided for some of the world’s greatest stories.

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