I thought that I would kick off this book-art series with one of my favourite illustrators and indeed one of the best known and most talented artists from the golden age of book illustration – Arthur Rackham. Born in 1867, Rackham lived through a period of great change in the world, surviving the first world war only to die of cancer at the outbreak of the second in 1939. Rackham was a prolific artist and illustrated numerous famous childrens books (such as ‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘Peter Pan’, ‘Grimm’s Fairy tales’, ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and many other nursery rhymes and fairy stories), as well as a few of Shakespeare’s works (most notably ‘A Midsummer Night’s dream’) and classic fiction.
Rackham’s style is most distinctive and unusual; his use of wispy, flowing lines, dense scribbles, intense detail and muted colour palette lend all of his work a mysterious quality which suits very well the fairy stories that were his most common subject choice. His style really comes into it’s own when he depicts darker stories such as Grimm’s stories or the Norse legends, or when he depicts fairies and other such phantasms – the atmosphere in his work can be very creepy and thick with magic. The familiar water-colour and ink paintings were not Rackham’s only method of illustration; he often used simple black-and-white ink drawings to decorate pages or even complete silhouettes of entire scenes, which reproduced very well in print and were still instantly recognisable as his with those distinctive untidy lines.
I first came into contact with Rackham’s work when I found two volumes of Wagner’s ‘Ring of the Nibelung’ in a holiday cottage, this opera is based upon complex, ancient Norse folk-tales except German-ified by Wagner then translated to English into a two-volume book illustrated by Arthur Rackham throughout. The story itself is very interesting and epic in scale; it is in fact one of the major influences on Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, it even contains an all-powerful ring that renders the wearer invisible, as well as hordes of dwarfs and a treasure-hoarding dragon (in fact the word ‘influenced’ might not be strong enough in this case!). But it was not just the story that captivated me; it was the illustrations, both the delicate black-ink decorations and the full-page water-colour pieces were magnificent and unlike anything I had seen before. I believe that the work he did for these two volumes is among the best he ever did, perhaps because the source material is so inspirational and suitable for his style. I eventually managed to find one of the volumes ‘The Rhinegold & The Valkyrie’ in a bookshop and bought it at a good price – a beautiful thing!
I do own a few other books with illustrations by Rackham, but getting your hands on any of the older editions will set you back a pretty penny, however there are many available in newer prints or there is a good book entitled ‘Arthur Rackham – a life with illustration’ which is part biography and part portfolio. Rackham has left a long and significant legacy that I do not think has been equaled since; all of the books he illustrated are beautiful works of art that tick all the boxes a good book needs to be aesthetically pleasing.