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Ruthless Rhymes
The Victorian House Book
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Frog Prince

Walter Crane (1845-1915)

Walter Crane was born in Liverpool on 15th August 1845. His prolific career reached its zenith with his brightly coloured toy books, created for children but prized by connoisseurs of design. The popularity of these books was hardly surprising, given the care that went into their production and the colours which glowed from every page.

Walter Crane began a three-year apprenticeship with William James Linton in 1859 where he learned the techniques of wood-cutting by reproducing images from Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and John Tenniel. He established his name as an illustrator through his collaboration with the printer Edmund Evans, a pioneer of colour printing, who was later to work with Kate Greenaway. In 1863, at the start of their partnership, Evans’ cost-cutting aim was to print children’s books using just three or four colours. Crane set to work, and from 1864 he and Evans produced inexpensive nursery-rhyme and fairy-tale books priced at around 6d. Over the next twenty years, Crane had 50 toy books published, all engraved and printed by Evans. These sealed his reputation as England’s foremost illustrator. Crane usually transferred his designs to wood and made the prints himself, but while he was abroad, from 1871 to 1873, he posted his designs to Evans.

By 1874 Crane’s pictures had become more elaborate and Evans was forced to revise his thinking about colour printing. The first of Crane’s new-look toy books was The Frog Prince, characterized by areas of flat, intense colour outlined in black, a style that reflected Crane’s homage to Japanese woodblock printing, known as ukiyo-e, and the restrained classicism of Greek art. An illustration from The Frog Prince is shown above.

The process of creating a book of this quality was laborious. It began with Crane sending, say, a nursery-rhyme illustration to Evans who traced the image and transferred it to wood, drawing around the picture with a metal tool. Sometimes he photographed the image on to a key block. That complete, he chiselled away the wood until only the outline of the drawing was left. Then he inked the surface of the block using a roller, placed a sheet of paper on the wood and used a hand-press to transfer the ink. The proof was peeled carefully away from the block and despatched to Crane. At this stage the picture was in black and white only so that Crane could apply colour. The artist’s palette was fairly extensive, so when Evans received the painted drawing, he would make a note of the parts of the illustration which were green, for example, then fashion a woodblock to print green only. Such selected areas would be left in relief when Evans chiselled the rest away. He repeated the process for each colour until he had up to twelve blocks ready for printing. He could achieve even more colours by overlaying one on another. Finally, when all the colours were laid down, he used the original block to print the black outline on top. The end result was an intricate, stunning example of true craftsmanship. The mid- to late-19th century saw a surge in demand for elaborate toy books of this kind, and well-to-do Victorians were prepared to lavish as much as five shillings on them, equivalent to £25 today.

Crane became one of the best-loved children’s illustrators, ranked alongside Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott, but of the three, he had the most varied output, producing not only toy books, drawings and paintings but also ceramics, textiles, carpets and wallpaper designs.

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