Wa1ter Crane (1845 – 1915)
Crane was one of the most popular Victorian illustrators of children’s books, and one of the earliest exponents of the colored picture book, which he designed in collaboration with Edmund Evans. Historically, the special significance of the Crane-Evans collaboration was the production of a series of charming books, each one a complete unit, designed from cover to cover, which could be bought cheaply. In 1863, Crane did covers for ‘yellow back’ cheap novels for Evans, and then, from about 1865, children’s picture books, in the series of “Toy Books” Evans was producing for the publishers Warne and Routledge. The books usually measured 10 1/2″ x 9″ and were made up of six pages of text and six of illustrations printed in color on one side of the page (though usually there was very little reading matter). Toy books needed huge print orders to keep their price low; George Routledge alleged that he would only begin to make a profit on a title if he sold more than 50,000, and a first print order of 10,000 was common. These series were immensely successful, and they were still being issued in bound collections twenty-five years after their first appearance. Although they were mass-produced, they still maintained a high level of craftsmanship. In all Crane designed some fifty of these books, which were the most popular children’s books of the day.
Crane’s style was a mixture of influences: he shared with the Pre-Raphaelites affection for medieval design and subject matter as well as Renaissance art – especially furniture and interior decoration. Crane was also influenced by Japanese prints and endeavored to bring their definite block outlines and flat, brilliant, as well as delicate colors to children’s books. Crane devoted a great deal of thought to the kind of designs that he believed would appeal to children, and his particular style is consistent with these theories. He wrote: “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 color. They don’t want to bother about three dimensions. They can accept symbolic representations. They themselves employ drawing… as a kind of picture-writing, and eagerly follow a pictured story (Meyer, 88).” He believed that during the first years of life, the child’s imagination must be continually and freshly stimulated with bright color, sensitive line, and symbolic imagery.
Not only the content, but also the very way in which the books were presented – from covers to cover – were a matter of consequence to Crane. Nothing was left to accident. Crane regarded each volume as a designed work, in which every element – text, ornaments, and pictures – was subordinate to the whole concept. He compared the picture book to architecture, to a house with a porch and a welcome hallway, and from there taking his reader on a pleasant journey from room to room and “weaving dreams in the changing lights and shadows to forget life’s rough way and the tempestuous world outside (Meyer, 89).” He disliked the sketchy impressionistic style employed by Caldecott (see below), preferring the completely outlined contour drawing, framed with figures, and placed within an artfully defined setting. Because of this overwhelming emphasis on static design, reviewers described him as the “Academician of the Nursery.” But Crane had a wonderful sense of humor and Evans correctly identified him as the “father of the illustrated children’s book.” Under the guidance of Edmund Evans, Crane raised the public’s awareness of the need for good design, craftsmanship, and standards of taste in the Victorian children’s book. The Toy Books were his lasting contribution to children’s literature, and through them the first breakthrough of color into the cheap bookmarket was made.