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Arthur Rackham: A Painter of Fantasies

 

 

A L Baldry

"The Studio" (April: 1905)

 

One of the best and most interesting characteristics of the British Watercolour School has always been its wonderful variety. During the

century and a half which is approximately the period that has elapsed since watercolour painting began to be seriously studied in this

country there has been an astonishing development in this form of art practice. The first attempts of the early watercolourists were, it can

be admitted, purely tentative technical essays, and aimed at nothing more than the representation of commonplace facts in a timid and

conventional manner. But in a very short time, as the school increased the number of its adherents and acquired fuller authority, a broader

conception of the functions of the art was substituted for the earlier formalities and a much more vigorous type of effort was encouraged.

All kinds of subjects quickly came to be regarded as permissible in watercolour, and the widest varieties of treatment were allowed to the

men who had the strength and originality necessary for marked departures from the beaten track. Conventions gave way to freedom o

action and to the legitimate experiments which led to substantial and valuable progress. Fortunately, this love of experiment has not

diminished with the lapse of years. The present day watercolour painters are as ready as their predecessors to seek for new ways of

expressing themselves, and consequently there has been no slackening in the progress of the school, and no decrease in the vitality of

the art itself. New men who have something fresh to say are constantly making their appearance and are adding steadily something of

value to the sum total of England's artistic achievement. There is evidence of continuous movement, of that vigorous expansion which

better than anything else proves the sincerity of the workers to whose efforts it is due, and, as well, the thoroughness of their recognition

of their professional responsibilities. Among these workers, neither enthusiasm nor capacity is wanting; they are amply fulfilling their

mission in the art world, and are doing complete credit to the school to which they belong.

 

There is most certainly no apology necessary for assigning to Mr. Arthur Rackham a prominent place among the most distinguished of

these modern watercolourists.

 

We have no one who can quite be compared with him, no one who uses his particular executive method with a tithe of his ability or

approaches him in fanciful originality. Nor is there any of his predecessors who can be said to have shown him the way to work the

unusual pictorial vein that is providing him with such ample material. Mr. Rackham has found for himself the field in which he is now

labouring with conspicuous success, and has developed with delightful ingenuity an absolutely personal style. He owes his position to

his special endowment of quaint imagination, and to a rare understanding of the executive devices by which his fancies can be made

properly credible.

 

He had, indeed, no peculiar advantages in his youth which were calculated to develop in him an extraordinary inventiveness, and his

art training was neither exceptionally complete nor marked by unaccustomed features. It is true that from his earliest childhood he

loved to amuse himself with a pencil and paintbox; and that, like many other boys, who have in later life excelled as artists, he was

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constantly sketching and scribbling, and trying to give form to the ideas with which even then his mind was filled; but he had no systematic art education during his boyhood.

His childish essays were mostly fantastic creations, or drawings of animals; but as a lad in his teens he began to take himself seriously and to have convictions about the

need for careful study of nature. So at this period he started landscape painting assiduously, seeking in all sincerity to master the problems which nature presented for

solution, and searching out unaided the facts which he felt would provide him with a useful foundation on which to build much later achievement.

 

As he grew towards manhood the opportunity came to him to acquire a more disciplined type of training, something in which he could be guided by the experience of men

who had a skilled knowledge of the matters with which he was experimenting. Even then the best he could do was to attend the evening classes at the Lambeth School of

Art where, however, he had the advantage of being taught by a very able master, Mr. W. Llewellyn and to devote a portion of his time to the work in which he desired to

excel. That this mixture of self-education and school training was of value to him, and that it really helped him to progress in the right direction, may be judged from the fact

that he was able at this period to figure as an exhibitor at the Academy, the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours, and other galleries, and to rank himself among the

abler craftsmen at a comparatively early stage of his career. It was not until 1892 that he finally gave himself up to art work and made painting his sole profession.

 

He was born in 1867, so that by this time he had reached the age of five-and-twenty, and was in a position to judge with a mature

mind what were his chances of success. His confidence in his powers was certainly not misplaced, for he found immediately that

there was a demand for his work, and that there was a place in the art world for him to fill. At first he was chiefly occupied with

drawings for reproduction, with journalistic illustrations for the "Pall Mall" and "Westminster" Budgets, the "Graphic," the "Sketch,"

"Black and White," and other weeklies of the same order, and with more imaginative work for books and magazines. He illustrated

the "Ingoldsby Legends," "Grimm's Fairy Tales," and a number of his drawings were published in the children's magazine, " Little

Folks." All kinds of subjects engaged him, fairy tales and fantasies, realistic modern life, dramatic motives drawn from fiction, and

others which offered him scope for invention and imaginative expression; and the variety, it may well be assumed, was helpful in the

development of his art and in the widening of his professional outlook.

 

 

 

On the right, we show Arthur Rackham's "The Fish King and the Dog Fish" -

an illustration originally published in ''Little Folks'' magazine

Arthur Rackham - ''The Fish King and the Dog Fish''

 

Meanwhile he was steadily advancing in his command over the practical details of his art. He was becoming a draughtsman of remarkable power and an eminently

accomplished watercolourist, a painter, indeed, with much more than ordinary skill. So satisfactory was his development that in 1902 he was able to secure admission

to the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours on the first occasion that he offered himself. This prompt recognition of his claims deserves to be recorded, because it

is no uncommon thing for artists of distinction to have to make a succession of attempts to satisfy the Society of their fitness for election. That the doors should have

been opened to him at once is evidence enough that he was regarded then as a specially desirable Associate, and that the members thought his contributions likely to

increase appreciably the attractiveness and interest of the Society's exhibitions. No one who has seen the drawings by which he has since been represented in the

gallery in Pall Mall would feel disposed to question the correctness of this opinion. He has given to the shows some very novel features, and he has taken in the Society

an absolutely unique position; there is certainly no one else among the supporters of this catholic and energetic association who approaches him in that form of pictorial

expression which he has made so emphatically his own, and there are few who can be said to rival him in thoroughness and completeness of craftsmanship. Indeed,

there is no harm in repeating what has already been stated, that neither among present-day artists nor among those who have passed away is there anyone who is quite

comparable with him.

 

Perhaps the nearest to him was Richard Doyle, but Mr. Rackham surpasses even that master of fanciful contrivance in the richness and strength of his work, He has

undeniably an extraordinary imagination, extraordinary in its intricacy, in its unfailing resource, and its endless variety. Mere grotesque extravagance does not by any

means satisfy him; there is much more in his art than simple twisting of facts into absurdities, or than the travestying of serious things in a broadly humorous manner.

Such an example of it as The Rescue, is really an intensely dramatic story cast in a definitely comic mould, a drama in which all the actors are playing their parts in

deadly earnest, and with the most serious conviction.

 

Arthur Rackham - ''The Rescue''

Above, we show Arthur Rackham's "The Rescue"

 

 

The humour of it is grim not so grim, perhaps, as that which distinguishes that other amazing creation, the Langham sketch Alone but in the grimness there is a charming

hint  of tenderness and of sympathy with the weaker things that suffer under nature's inflexible code of laws. In this drawing Mr. Rackham appears as a moralist, and as a commentator on the tragedies of existence; in Cupid's Alley, with its wonderful insight into character, he is quite as convincingly a satirist, and in Alone he tells a complete

and tragic story in which there is a plain and intelligible symbolical intention. In all these fantasies of his, with their quaint and grotesque presentation, there is an underlying

meaning that is well worth seeking out; to treat them simply as clever fooling would  be a serious mistake. But when he ceases to deal with these problems and turns to ideas

which are essentially dainty and delicate in sentiment he loses none of his attractiveness as an artist.

 

Arthur Rackham - ''The Dance in Cupid's Alley

Above, we show Arthur Rackham's "The Dance in Cupid's Alley"

 

 

His illustrations to "Grimm's Fairy Tales " (London : Constable & Co.), The Old Man, Snowdrop, The Cat, and The Young Count; his exquisite water colours, Playmates

and Queen Mab; even his water colour landscape The Lakeside, show a sensitive understanding of artistic refinements which is heartily to be commended. There is in

them all an amount of thought, and a degree of ingenuity in design, far beyond what is to be found in the work of the average illustrator, and there is a sympathetic touch

which is a clear reflection of his own kindly temperament. Obviously he feels the beauty of nature quite as keenly as her strength, and is as responsive to her charms as

to her sternness and inflexibility. To the executive side of his work, nothing but praise can be given. Whether he is expressing himself in colour, in black-and-white line,

inbroad masses as in the silhouette, The Wren and the Bear, or in that combination of pen-line and tinting in colour-washes which he particularly affects, he is always a

complete master of technical method. His practice, indeed, is as intricate and searching as his imagination and as complex as his invention. Everything he does is

finished like a miniature and yet is broad, decisive, and confident.

 

The struggle to make himself intelligible, and to keep his mind and hand in proper relation, is never apparent in his drawings; though this struggle is one from which no

artist can escape. He has learned with rare completeness how to control the processes of the form of art which he has chosen, and he has acquired that air of spontaneity

which more than anything else implies exhaustiveness of preliminary study and long continued effort to acquire a sufficiency of mechanical experience, and in this he has

been especially wise ; nothing would have hampered more seriously a man of his peculiarly prolific imagination than technical imperfection. Really, it would be possible to

use the whole Series of his drawings to illustrate a long and elaborate argument about the importance of careful preparation to the artist who wishes to devote himself to

imaginative painting. The realist who is satisfied to present things as they are, to "hold the mirror up to nature" a cant phrase which is much misunderstood and often

misapplied does not require anything like the same amount of preliminary study, for he proposes to do nothing more throughout his life than he has been accustomed to

do at school. He can always sit down before his subject and reproduce it with all the exactness of which he is capable, and with the strictest attention to its trivialities. There

is no necessity for him to think, no need even for him to stock his memory with facts to draw upon in later years. As soon as he has acquired the manual dexterity which is

expected of every passable student who has gone through the ordinary art school course, he can blossom out as a producing artist, and can secure admission to the

exhibitions for his records of the things which are always about him. All that such a man has to concern himself with is the development of a capacity to see microscopically

 

If he ever had any power of viewing his material largely or of conceiving his subject as a whole, he is certain to grow more narrow in vision as he goes on. He loses his

larger perceptions and he gains in exchange a faculty which is easier to exercise and less likely to impose any strain upon what intellectual powers he may chance to

possess. His one and only ambition is to produce works of art which will be actual enough to be deceptive and which will excite the gaping wonder of the uneducated by

their imitative exactness. When he has painted a fly which some deluded observer tries to brush off with a handkerchief, or represented a bunch of grapes which is so like

the real thing that it will induce the street-Arab to flatten his nose in admiration against the shop-window in which the picture is exhibited, he feels that he has not lived in

vain. His triumph seems to him to be assured, his ambition to be completely satisfied.

 

The unfortunate thing, however, is that triumphs of this sort can be secured so early in the career of any artist who is blessed with sufficiently keen sight. His development

begins and ends with his school training, and all he can acquire in later life is merely a little more manual dexterity. Before he has reached middle age he has ceased to

be an artist and has become only a manufacturer of stock patterns, who can turn out in any number required things which are quite according to the samples he provided

many years before. He stops short on the threshold of art and goes no further because his blunted susceptibilities cannot perceive that there are any more worlds for him

to conquer. Possibly he is not unhappy, because, having no ideals he can have no disappointments and can never fall seriously short of what he intended: but his

happiness comes simply because he is too fossilised to experience any sensations.

 

With a worker of Mr. Rackham's type the case is very different. He could not remain a realist, for realism would destroy all the spirit and meaning of his art. He cannot

confine himself to the facts that are before him because plain actuality would never satisfy him and would never allow him the scope for expression that he so intensely

desires. But he has, all the same, to go through the drilling of the realist or else he would be incapable of expanding in the directions where he can justify his artistic

temperament most convincingly. If he had not the basis of sure knowledge he could never construct those delightful perversions of nature which evidently give him such

joy and show the rare richness of his imagination. For it must be remembered that his grotesques have to be made credible, and with all their extravagance have to be

so dramatically suggestive that they can attract and hold the attention of the people whose first inclination is to laugh at their absurdity. Directly he began to fumble, or to

hint at any uncertainty in his own mind, his power to persuade would be gone; he would seem to be attempting something beyond his reach, or to be deliberately poking

fun at his admirers.

 

Such a breach of faith would be inexcusable; for if he is not serious in his art, no matter how amusing or fantastic it may be, he stamps himself as a charlatan who is only

attitudinising to draw notice which his merits do not entitle him to claim. Only a consummate command over his craft would allow him to show that his amazing departures

from strict veracity are deliberate expressions of a very original aesthetic belief and perfectly sincere in their exaggeration. When he turns from grotesques to purely

poetic drawings, the value of his nature study is not less apparent. The course of landscape painting which he began in his boyhood, and has kept up to the present day,

has had a most valuable influence upon his art. It has guided him into exquisite suggestion of nature's subtleties, into a true appreciation of her sentiment and tender

beauty. The landscape settings of his grotesques are as decoratively appropriate as they are naturally charming, and have the fullest measure of the true poetic spirit. His

landscapes with incidental figures, and his pure landscapes of the Lakeside type, are sensitive, dainty, and well observed, distinguished by the happiest observation of

atmospheric qualities, and by that perfect refinement which comes solely from intimacy of understanding If he had not been so close a student, he could never have

grasped so firmly the elusive mysteries with which nature veils herself from the unsympathetic soul, and he could never have ranked himself so high as her faithful and

earnest interpreter.

 

 

 

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