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Walter Crane and the Rhetoric of Art

RHETORIC means of course persuasive eloquence, and in the case of Walter Crane the eloquence consorts with, is compact of his gift, that of graphic artist, and above all his sense of design, of form, of line. His use of line, that is, formal pattern - loosely described as decorative art - is matchless. More important, into his constructions whether as book illustration, painting, textiles and ceramics, wallpapers or posters, his art is instinct with more than manual skill. It includes qualities we might describe as sincerity, devotion; that is, an underlying moral sensibility. As he once declared: 'Constructive lines - simple ones which the eye can follow are as a rule beautiful lines'.1 His art is always, it would seem inescapably, constructive in the service of some principle, hence he speaks the language not only of line or form but of virtue, conviction. Therein lies the heart of the matter. Both technically and philosophically, for Walter Crane, the power, one could even say the sanctity, of art lies in the fundamental craft of drawing. To quote him once again: 'The basis of all art ... might be described as different kinds of drawing. Each artistic craft ... is a method of drawing, each is actually based on a drawing as a preliminary stage of its existence'.2 That is his essential creed succinctly defined. It defines his genius. Any account of his life and the messages he sought to express, either in graphic art or in words, must emphasise that faculty as Crane's peculiar contribution to the heritage of British art. Informing each branch of the arts in which he worked is an inspired draughtsmanship.

Crane's life (1845-1915) spans a period of reawakening in British art, when revaluation and questioning of its social purpose were being proposed by Ruskin in theory, and by his disciple, William Morris, in theory and practice. For the first time in our history, an overt struggle was breaking out between the influence of inert convention and the disturbing force of new individual visions. The power of the Academies, first established in France, and then in London, their control over ideology and practice had been supreme in the century preceded Crane's birth and by the time of Victoria's accession had grown moribund. The ultimate illustration of a national distemper in the arts was the debased eclecticism of the Great Exhibition of 1851 just six years after Crane's birth. Designed as a showcase for the triumphs of the industrial and imperialist expansion of Britain, it betrayed the weaknesses of early Victorion taste: a chaotic display of conflicting and convulsive styles in the ornament and design of domestic objects and interiors. Ostentation, not true function, ruled since status was associated with vulgar display. It was at this point that Ruskin thundered his gospel of naturalism and Morris began designing furniture of utility, not showiness. Ironically, in an age of unprecedented technical advance, in architecture and fine art contemporary orthodoxies looked backwards. But new techniques were appearing. Two years before the Great Exhibition, and just four years after Crane's birth, the first picture to bear the initials 'P. R. B.' (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) was exhibited at the Free Exhibition in Hyde Park, Rossetti's Girlhood of Mary Virgin, brilliant in dazzling new colour, rhythmic in concept, a new departure in oil painting, and although the subject was in a sense conventionally literary, it was a shock to traditional ways of seeing. Thus during Walter Crane's boyhood the lines were being drawn (in all senses) in a new campaign against a tradition on the point of expiry; to a receptive young mind the future had exciting potential. He was born at a turning point in the history of arts and crafts and had the requisite intelligence, imagination and the benefit of an ideal apprenticeship which would lay the foundations for the full expression of his innate gifts.

His domestic environment was itself sufficient encouragement since his father Thomas Crane was a competent artist recognising early his son's ready eye and verisatile hand with a pencil. Visits to galleries, walks in the countryside around London, and delight in the household pets or the animals in the Zoological Gardens nourished his talent. Significantly, he was fascinated by prints, the rendering of subjects in black and white; an art at its zenith in the mid-ninteenth county, nd while only twelve years of age he produced pen and ink drawings for Cowper's Task, Scott's Ballads, and a series of delicate selected designs for The Lady of Shallot, which were shown to Ruskin The flowers, trees and crops that form the borders of the illustrations have a fresh immediacy which proved the boy's distinction, and he was straightway apprenticed in the workshop of the Chartist, W. J. Linton (1812 - 97), one of the premier engravers in the country. During the same year his father died. Thus he moved by an effectuate transition from one artistic ambience to another; the conversation and socialising with practitioners and centre he experienced at home would now continue in a thoroughly professional environment, Linton's studio, He was from boyhood immersed in the fine arts and made his acquaintance with modern graphic vision through the emerging Pre-Raphaelite paintings, one of which by Millais 'impressed him beyond words'. We hear of him viewng prints at Colnaghi's, Turners at Marlborough House and animal pictures of Landseer, Richard Ansdell and J. F. Herring. This saw the milieu from which the mature craftsman graduated. The vernacular, the idiom of his art, was absorbed from his earliest years: the language of line and form. He had no need of formal schooling in the academic sense; like all romances touched with genius, he responded to influence but matured by virtue of his own intelligence.

The period from 1859, when he began his apprenticeship, until 1862 when it ended, was crucial to his development Strictly as an artist; as he testified it his pocket book it was 'one of the most important events of my life'. At 33 Essex Street, seated at a long green baize-topped table by the windows, he joined six skilled engravers; and six apprentices; to learn the mysteries of the craft, to become a 'woodpecker', as they were known in the trade. Primarily, his task was to draw on the block the subject for the engraver's tool, a discipline which taught him the values of precision and clarity, the strength of a line. The concentration demanded by both these processes explains much about the peculiar qualities of his art, his absorption in the creation of patterns, of outline; an exquisite drawing he made of an engraver at work (18 60) pays graphic tribute to the craft. Responsive as he was to influences from the world of fine arts, he was now open to other ideas.

The products of Linton's workshop were designed for commercial purposes - illustrations in Heal's catalogue, a pictorial work for the new penny press, for the growing market in illustrated weeklies, sumptuously printed annuals, a wide variety of material to feed the appetite for facts and current affairs coincident with the growth of a reading public. Crane, both inside and outside his place of work, was in daily contact with new developments in industry, art and intellectual life. Linton was a Chartist, as Crane later said of him, 'a true socialist at heart, with an ardent love of liberty and with much of the revolutionary feeling of '48 about him'.3 Linton must in a sense have replaced young Walter's father, who died a few months after the apprenticeship began; into the receptive, eager mind of the youth, the generous and enthusiastic master engraver poured his experience, and along with technical expertise there must have been discussion of social and political issues. Both the visible world and the world of ideas were in harness, and Crane was fast maturing. The stimulus to his imagination was evident in his output, which now reaches a wider audience.

After his apprenticeship, a youth with his professional career in mind would need to market his own work, seek commissions, show his portfolio, make contact with publishers, and this Crane did. The mid-Victorian period was characterised by two national ideals, the notion of the 'gentleman' and of 'self-help'; Crane embodies both of these; his demeanour was always that of the gentle man, and his industry and independence would have won Samuel Smiles' approval. The aim was to be not simply skilled, but to bring virtue to one's work as an inherent quality. Giles Gilbert
Scott was uttering a commonplace when he said 'a noble and elevated mind' was necessary in a good designer. Inspired by Linton's example and encouraged by an early and rewarding commission to provide eighty-three drawings for an elegant
gift book, The New Forest by J. R. Wise, Crane was ready to absorb new techniques - the art of sketching on the spot - and the conversation of a cultivated traveller, scholar and agnostic. The conventional youth exposed to 'socialistic' ideas
from his patron Linton was now to be introduced to a wider circle of philosophy and ideology. Wise was personally acquainted with the advanced thinkers of the day, and soon Crane was reading John Stuart Mill, Darwin, and Herbert Spencer, and as food for his imagination, Shelley, which made him decide for Free Thought, contrary to his upbringing. Although not yet interested in specific political or social
questions, he was an apprentice in the world of progressive thought. As he wrote, reading Emerson 'helped to clear my mind from superstitious shadows and theological bogies' .4
And his professional prospects improved when The New Forest was reviewed in the Cornhill: Cranes' vignettes, naturalistic and even impressionistic, were picked out for special attention by G. H. Lewes. The young artist was beginning to be noticed.
In 1863 a new collaboration began which was to establish him in the eyes of another audience far removed from those who attended the lectures of Herbert Spencer or the meetings organised by Auguste Comte's Positivist Group, both of which were patronised by Crane. He was introduced to Edmund Evans, a pioneer of colour printing who had appreciated the potential demand for children's reading matter. The acceleration of interest in this market was prompted by recent imaginative work, Hans Andersen's Tales and Edward Lear's first Book of Nonsense which would eventually lead to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Boys were being catered for by Captain Marryat and R. M. Ballantyne, and Crane himself illustrated books by Mrs Molesworth. Children of all ages were being served by authors of high quality, and the youngest were not neglected; demand was growing in response to improved educational provision, and technical processes were keeping pace with publishers' requirements. Crane met Edmund Evans at a significant stage in the evolution of children's literature.

Nursery rhymes and fairy tales, which had hitherto been printed on cheap, crudely illustrated black-and-white chapbooks, now appeared as carefully designed, subtly coloured, brilliantly evocative picture books, the slim volumes called 'toy books'. Crane's skill in the drawing of animals and the depiction of nature is here visible, as well as his instinctive sympathy and sense of the comic which proved irresistible to child readers - Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, The Sleeping Beauty, at once classic and commercial, The Fairy Ship, and This Little Pig for the youngest, all testify to the artist's intuitive hold on the mind of the child. Routledge published twenty-nine picture books in the sixpenny toy range, and the whole field of children's book production exercised Crane's talent as an imaginative and decorative designer to the full. His characteristic openness to fresh ideas and examples is revealed yet again later in the 1860s and early 1870s -strong outlines and plain backgrounds, with rich black and white objects - the influence from Japan. 'No-one has drawn lovelier pictures of childhood and youth than Crane in his songbooks', the painter William Rothenstein wrote in his autobiography, adding, 'Nowhere is the peculiar character of the mid-Victorian aesthetic movement better interpreted than in the children's picture books'. 5 That certainly was the field in which Crane made his posthumous reputation. But his legacy was richer, more abundant than that.

Crane thought of himself primarily as a painter; his studies of everyday objects capture their actuality - animals, the rooftops of London, a child playing - yet his pictures, whether designed for reading books, toy book primers, or his large canvases, depict a world of the imagination far from street scenes - a land of enchantment, grace, legendary elegance and refinement, at a remove from the experience of the majority. Though Crane was impressed by Ford Madox Ford's painting Work for its verisimilitude, and was keenly aware of social evils, conscious of current events, supporting Garibaldi's movement for the liberation of Italy or the progressive North in the American Civil War, nevertheless he was fixedly in a romantic tradition, the illusory world of Keats and Tennyson, based on fable, the language of sensuousness, an almost religiose high art, rhetorical in the bad sense, the art of posture, of richly ornamented unreality, idylls of escape invested with a strong tincture of Victorian morality. At the same time he was reading Ruskin's Pre-Raphaelitism and Modern Painters, which urged artists to tell us about Nature, to possess us with memories of her quietness and of living creatures. The new school of Pre-Raphaelites, the Brotherhood, was carrying out these precepts, minutely depicting bud and leaf, exercises in scientific naturalism, a recasting of the Victorian spirit. Thus Crane, though moved to operate in obedience to Ruskin's dictates in order to convey the feel of the landscape or the inner spiritual essence of a personality by painting the scene with fresh immediacy, yet was as stimulated by the obvious pictorial suggestiveness of Keats or Tennyson, which caught and catered for the escapist impulses of the middle class nurtured on such dream worlds and who constituted the viewers in the art galleries. Crane had to contend with contrary purposes at work within himself.

His earliest paintings betray their all too literary sources: The Lady of Shalott (1862), The Lady of Shalott at Camelot (1863), The Eve of St Agnes (1864) and LaBelle Dame Sans Merci (1865), titles and subjects drawn directly from the Romantic convention associated with Scott and Keats. His pictures embody the two strains characteristic of contemporary practice: the subject matter deriving from the fantasy world of 'poesy', the details from accurately observed 'nature'. His scrupulous eye rendered leaf and bud exactly, the clothing, armour and dress were the result of minute study of originals in museums and so inevitably they remain effigies. That he satisfied bourgeois taste is evident from the fact that the pictures were bought by a wealthy clothing manufacturer. Along with other young artists - Ford Madox Brown, Holman Hunt, Frederick Leighton - Crane shared like aims, steeped in the nineteenth century nostalgia for a mythical past while in harmony with the Ruskinian revulsion from the mechanised industrialism of the age. He candidly explains his state of mind in his autobiography, An Artist's Reminiscences: 'My real world was a dream world, a cloister, a quiet, green garden'.6 By the 1870s he was acquiring prestige as a painter, and his subjects betray an ambition to depict large allegorical and mythological themes imbued with a classical spirit encouraged by a visit to Italy in 1871 where he saw the pictures of the Italian masters from the best period. Ancient and modern influences are apparent in his extensive oil paintings: Burne-Jones and Edward Poynter, as well as Bellini and Botticelli. The Renaissance of Venus, The Triumph of Spring, and Zephyrus Bringing Psyche to Cupid's House disclose the degree to which he had absorbed the medium as a means to transmit the spirit of a classical revival, and the elevation of subject matter to a plane where symbolic representation can induce some nobler aspirations in the viewer. An early picture from this central period of Crane's artistic life best summarises his design and his weaknesses: Ormuzd and Ahriman, the two opposing forces of Good and Evil as personified in Zoroastrian thought. The two figures on horseback face each other as in combat - but there is no hint of bloody conflict or energy; all is calm, as if components of a frieze. Behind them is a delicate landscape straight out of Mantegna, through which flows a broad and winding river - the river of time on whose banks are scattered relics of the vanity of human wishes, a skeleton with crown and sceptre. The effect is curiously lifeless, complacent, that of a charming decorative background to give the spectators the illusion of having comfortably imbibed an elevating lesson. Nothing disturbs, and everything contributes to flatter that Victorian complacency when faced with a painting, which art for them was another name for feeling, transitory and reassuring. The year when this painting was completed, 1870, proved to be a turning point in the political education of the artist when shortly afterwards he met William Morris.

That same year witnessed a convulsion in Paris when the revolutionary Commune was established for a brief period. Referring to this in later life, Crane expressed his sympathies with progressive politics when, in his autobiography, he wrote: 'Other distinguished artists came to London after the downfall of the brilliant Commune, and it is noteworthy to recall that such artists as Courbet were associated with this great effort to establish a true collective civic Government in the interests of the workers both of hands and brain rather than the money lords'.7

The meeting was portentous, for it developed from a concern with the status of the arts of design and decoration into a debate about their relation to society, and from that point into a recognition of the need to transform society from a capitalist (concern for profit) basis to a socialist concern for function combined with beauty. It was a rapid and major step in Crane's evolution as a thinker. Morris and his 'Firm' were already producing objects of individual distinction in the furnishing and decoration of houses, a policy demonstrating the unity of all the arts, intended to exhibit a harmony of effect both domestically and publicly. Co-operation and practice were the keynote whether in architecture, printing, pottery, textiles or interior decoration; art was seen as educative, formative, redemptive, not surplus to everyday life. Crane's introduction to William Morris ushered in his Socialist period, productive of some of his best work, a powerful stimulus to the emerging Labour movement, giving him a new crusading zeal expressed not only in fine art but in poems, essays and lectures, though poetry and lectures were not his forte; as Bernard Shaw put it, 'his verse was neither good enough nor bad enough to be memorable', and his lecturing only became tolerable 'when he seized a piece of chalk and drew on the backboard in illustration of his theme' .8 Art and politics were to blend in Crane's life from the 18 8 0s until he died - he was an activist in the fullest sense of the word, his beliefs consonant with those of the most advanced thinkers and artists of the late nineteenth century.

Crane's first political awareness was due to his mentor, W. J. Linton, the Chartist; from it grew a sympathy with the aims of reformist movements like the Reform League, at whose demonstration at Hyde Park in 1866 Crane was present, a demonstration which grew into a riot. Did that event give him his first glimpse of trade union banners, on view that day? There is little reference to these earlier political interests in his autobiography - An Artist's Reminiscences but clearly he was receptive of any positive thought which offered new solutions to the contradictions in society and policies for the rescue of the exploited classes. The respect Crane earned in painterly circles led to his introduction into the group which included Burne-Jones, William Morris, Sir Edward Poynter and Sidney Colvin, through the patronage of George Howard, the cultured Earl of Carlisle. Personal intimacy with Morris came gradually, after reading Morris's pamphlets denouncing the ugliness of urban living, especially the essay Art and Socialism (1884) - When Morris explicitly entered politics in 1876, Crane was ready to follow and to put his considerable powers to work in support of the vision outlined by agitators like Morris and H. M. Hyndman. Morris the craftsman and artist, working with assistants in the course of his business, was face to face with the conditions of labour and so forced to think about the relations between art and economics. Crane said in his later tribute, 'William Morris & his work': 'From the dream world of romance and from the sequestered garden of design he plunged into the thick of the fight for human freedom in which, he held, was involved the very existence of art'.9 That equally describes Crane's commitment.

Actual collaboration may be said to have dated from 1881 when he prepared a cartoon for the Goose Girl tapestry woven at the Morris workshop at Merton Abbey. Meanwhile the continuing patronage of George Howard, President of the Royal Society from 1878-83, brought commissions to design ceramics, textiles, stained glass, wallpapers, friezes, and the interior decoration of London and rural stately homes. His maturing art and maturing political ideas were converging. Morris's pamphlets, 'The revival of handicrafts', 'The lesser arts, progressed to 'The deeper meaning of the struggle' and 'How I became a Socialist', and reflect Crane's own growth as artist and thinker. From now on the rhetoric implicit in his art, though still in the service of art, would be turned outwards also to serve explicitly propaganda purposes. In the second half of his life Crane was a celebrity, esteemed at home and abroad for his artistry as a designer of books and objects familiar in the house, as well as for his paintings which were appreciated more in France and Germany than in his own country. Much of his production strikes us today as conventional, a mirror of contemporary modes, but his socialist inspiration is manifest in the propaganda, the cartoons, the posters and the designs for banners. Otherwise his urge to reform, to extend opportunity for his fellow artists, led to his encouraging new outlets for exhibiting all categories of art outside the restrictive institutions of the art establishment. Hence this earnest, progressive spirit was an effective instrument of change within the exclusive world of art and its connoisseurs, and without in the rowdy world of political unrest and agitation. It could be said that during the years when he enjoyed fame Crane was at his most productive because those years afforded him opportunity to employ a variety of talents - and his prodigious energy. In painting, design, in lectures and essays, even in the writing of derivative, prettily conventional verses, and later in the administration of art schools, his vigour rivalled that of his master, Morris, though he was no mere follower. Two causes were to secure his allegiance: Socialism and the liberation of art from the grip of establishment institutions like the Royal Academy. At the same time, he was to become the most influential art teacher in Britain by virtue of his appointments in the field of art education. 'Every new and sincere movement in art has been in direct protest and conflict with the prevailing conditions.... The remarkable revival of the handicrafts or arts and crafts movements of late years may be quoted as an instance'.10 To be inoculated against the environment is the ideal, and in Gillian Naylor's words; 'Arts and Crafts ideals, or so it seemed, were consolidated in the 1880s'.11 Thus two causes coalesced; coincident but consonant with this was the transformation of the working class movements from fragmented, politically impotent combinations of idealists and orators into a nationally organised body of labour in the trade unions, leading eventually to a voice in Parliament. Crane found a congenial home in both operations and assisted them with formidable force of conviction. His creative talents were to find fulfilment as a servant of two masters.

That dominant figure in the early days of British Labour, H. M. Hyndman, said of Crane: 'This great artist and charming man.... From the first he has done his very utmost to help us in every possible way ... he has put his best services freely at the disposal of Socialism without the slightest reward beyond the sincere thanks and high appreciation of his comrades and friends'. Hyndman continues: 'Certainly no more valuable recruit ever came to see us ... than when Crane too enlisted in the Socialist army in 1884... I cannot doubt that the fact that Crane is a Socialist is one of the reasons why, keenly appreciated on the continent of Europe, his genius has never been fully recognised in his own country'.12

For Morris, art and its place in society were central to progress, his Socialism was Socialism seen through the eyes of an artist, and Crane literally shared that view. The struggles of both these men to achieve a just and at the same time an aesthetically alert society were coeval with the emergence of decisive bodies of artists advocating, by precept and practice, the virtue of good design. Inspired by Ruskin's personal ideals and values, various groups of individual artists collaborated to form Guilds and Associations with explicit aims. The designer A. H. Mackmurdo founded his Century Guild in 1882 in response to Ruskin's theories and Morris's practice, but was not hostile to the machine. In 1884 the Art Workers' Guild (which still exists) was founded by a group of young architects to bring together artists and craftsmen in all branches to facilitate the exchange of ideas and prove their principles of the unity of art in practice; and more significantly, to organise workshops in new relationships which altered the old 'class' divisions of labour. Walter Crane was Master 1888/9 and William Morris in 1892. What the Guild lacked was a policy of exhibitions, since it was not concerned with public extension activity but rather with the education of its own members, and so a breakaway group formed and split off from the parent, calling itself the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society - its aim advertised in its very title - today still in existence as the Society of DesignerCraftsmen.

The steps towards Crane's position at this time are prefigured in his autobiography which reveals the confluence of two streams of thought, art and politics. 'In 1886 I was considerably engaged in an agitation for a really representative National Exhibition of Art distinct from the Royal Academy including a better representation of decorative design and handicrafts'.13 In the same year, the New English Art Club organised by Sickert asked Crane if he would help start a programme of exhibitions which would be open to all artists. A breath of fresh air was blowing through the corridors of orthodoxy. Meanwhile, Crane's underlying convictions prompted his comment that: 'Painting becomes more and more a matter of individual expression, and modern economic and commercial conditions favour this individualism. Only the growth of a new social ideal can lead to any fundamental change in our view of the functions of art'.14 The allusion to individualism in art is surely a reference to the increasing influence of Impressionism from across the Channel. His view was reinforced by more emphatic statements grounded in his beliefs: 'The competitive and wasteful struggle for existence under capitalism is illustrated in the lives of artists as it is everywhere else. Human life becomes a vast handicap race and so it must until economic necessity again changes the system under which we now live ... or perish'.15 A heady mixture here of Marx and Morris! But the determining factor for Crane the artist was Morris's conviction, his very approach, which was from the art standpoint that no real improvement in design or handicraft was possible in a system geared to produce blindly for mass consumption and hence degradation of standards. This was of the essence for Crane - 'the question which swallowed all other questions'.16 And he was not content to theorise; someone as active with his hand and crayon would look for results in practice, and in 1888 he joined with Holman Hunt in promoting the idea of a National Exhibition of both fine and decorative art, to be organised by a committee chosen from among the artists themselves. The group emerged independent -of the Art Workers' Guild, calling themselves initially The Combined Arts and then the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. It was a success from its first exhibition in 1888, its impact the greater since the display of work was accompanied by a catalogue and, in support, a series of talks and published essays amplifying the aims of the new initiative. Crane's article in the Fortnightly Review summed up its achievement: 'The main objective was to demonstrate, by means of a representative public exhibition, the actual state of decorative art in all its kinds ... to assert ... the claims of the decorative designer and craftsman to the position of artist'. They also desired to bring the worker and the public together. The novelty of the idea, he claimed, was welcomed by a ready public response, and there is little doubt that 1888 can be seen as the high point of the Arts and Crafts movement. Crane could feel satisfied that through his and others' exertions a convincing statement had been made asserting the claims of decorative design and handicrafts to their true position in relation to the arts commonly called 'Fine'.

At first, Crane's reading of Shelley and of Liberal thinkers like J. S. Mill had aroused his creative, his artist's enthusiasm for the liberation of the imaginative potential in every person, and this led him to ponder the nature of a society in which such potential could be given full expression. It must surely be a society based on equality and freedom from poverty and exploitation. Henceforth his fondness for allegory and symbolism would be transferred from the past to the present, translated into political messages: winged figures in flowing costume, once derived from myths, would be turned into powerful emblems of the struggle, designed to encourage not only revolutionary change but a new consciousness that art can transform life. Crane and Morris had confidence in the worker's capacity to appreciate art, given the opportunity, a view expressed even by so austere a thinker as F. R. Leavis when he prefixed to his book of essays, Nor Shall my Sword, Morris's comment, 'People living under the conditions of life and labour ... having manual skill, technical and general education and leisure to use those advantages are quite sure to develop a love of art', relating it directly to his beloved arts and crafts: 'The influence of the Arts and Crafts movement has certainly been socialistic in increasing the respect for workmanship and in awakening the sense of the public to the need of humane and healthful conditions for the workers over and above the inculcation of the desire for beauty'.17 That is as clear a signal as he could send that an aesthetic response could co-exist in intimate association with decent standards of living for those who create the wealth.

By the mid 1880s Crane was fully committed to the Socialist cause, devoting his graphic rhetoric explicitly to its realisation. He was never by instinct a realist, not a Courbet or a pictorial Zola, but a fabulist enforcing truths as he saw them through the medium of figurative symbolism, the gift which made him the key name in the iconography of Socialism. He was the evangelist in graphic art, equipped as he was in C. R. Ashbee's phrase 'with a sort of linear memory'. Thus he virtually invented the stereotypes blazoned on the banners or decorating the posters and literature of the Labour movement, typified by the cover of Fabian Essays (1889) depicting a corpulent capitalist at the top of a ladder supported below by the two manly figures of workmen, one in the bonnet of the French Revolution, the other in a hat suggestive of Robin Hood, each looking up at the capitalist as he plucks the fruits from the tree.

Crane's political allegiance was confirmed in 1884 when he joined Hyndman's Social Democratic Federation, and in 1885 the breakaway party, the Socialist League led by William Morris. The left was already showing its fissiparous tendencies and Crane the natural conciliator was present in all the Socialist camps, including the Fabians. Print was the principal medium of expression, and he lent his talents to its productions however humble, designing leaflets, pamphlets, membership cards and magazine covers (for Commonweal, Morris's paper), thus lending distinction to every aspect of the various campaigns of the Social Democratic Federation, the Socialist League and the Fabian Society. He designed for Hyndman's journal, Today, and for Belfort Bax's Time and was a regular contributor to the SDF's journal, Justice. He was the willing servant of the enlightenment, untroubled by faction. In the stormy politics of the 1880s, Crane was able to employ with vivid effect his theory of line as a basic tool in visual eduction: a drawing for Justice in 1885 became a poster for a mass meeting in Hyde Park in 1886, and in 1887 he produced one of his most potent images, 'Mrs Grundy frightened at her Own Shadow', for Commonweal. 'He was present in Trafalgar Square on "Bloody Sunday" (13 November 1887) when police and Life Guards charged the crowd and John Burns, Hyndman and Cunninghame Graham were arrested, Crane himself narrowly escaping from a mounted policeman. Crane designed a memorial for the Death Song which Morris wrote after the death of Alfred Linnell. who had been injured in another riot a week later'.18 By now Crane was an activist on platform and poster, investing his designing genius with full force for a mass audience - the 'mass' being within the terms of Marx's definition - a market far wider than that which bought his children's books. His social awakening into political awareness brought art and re-education into a single focus combining beauty and utility (incidentally rejecting Leonardo da Vinci's typically renaissance contention that 'ye cannot have beauty and utility'). For Crane, life itself would be enhanced by the broadest possible practice of art, by the creation of objects of artistic merit made by a community freed from the obligation to work for the profit of others.

His images persisted well into the twentieth century, an incisively visualising message in the years before the medium was to be revolutionised by electronics, images which impressed themselves on the minds of those involved in the mass movements of the time, a form of persuasive eloquence as effective as verbal utterance. His cartoons identified the movement as no others did and were soon collected in a souvenir book) Cartoons for the Cause, 1886-1896, issued to commemorate the International Socialist Workers and the Trade Union Congress, 1896. His own book, The Claims of Decorative Art (1892) emphasised the equation between art and the just society, and in the essay quoted he again emphasised the position of the artist in a commercial world: '. . . the economic position of the modern artist can hardly be considered as at all satisfactory, dependent as he is upon the caprice of the rich or the control of the dealer, and upon the surplus value and unearned increment it might be in the power of individuals to spend upon art'.19

Such thinking involved precept as well as practice, instruction and demonstration. Crane had long experience of the world of art students and their teachers and had addressed many such gatherings; he had witnessed the emergence of successive generations of young practitioners seeking new ways of seeing, and by the 1890s he was publishing his views on the correct approach to teaching, explaining and promoting his ideas in the major journals of the day. Inevitably - and together with his work for the Socialist cause he was drawn into the academic world of art education. Given his pre-eminence as an artist and promoter of the arts and crafts, and his systematic analysis of both theory and practice in essays and lectures, he was a natural choice for appointment in an influential capacity when plans for the expansion of public education in technical fields were laid at the end of the century. Just as the Technical Instruction Act (1889) provided for new technical colleges in the applied sciences, so the National Association for the Advancement of Art and its Application advised on new policies for training in art and design. Crane was president of the Applied Art section, in which capacity he uttered his famous dictum, 'We must turn our artists into craftsmen and our craftsmen into artists'. However, for this free spirit, official posts were a, restraint, diverting his creative energy into administration, hence none of the posts he occupied lasted long. As if instinctively recognising this he at first refused the post of Headmaster of the Manchester School of Art, finally agreeing to be Director of Design there in 1893, resigning in 1897. This was followed by a short spell as Director of the Art Department at the new university college at Reading, where duties were light, and eventually he accepted the post of Principal of the Royal College of Art, the ultimate accolade in the sphere of art education. No doubt he felt he could inaugurate good new practice where the most talented young artists germinated, but again the experience was uncongenial and he resigned after only one year.

The growth of local and national schools of art was evidence of a serious attitude to applied art in an expanding industrial nation geared for mass production, a policy in reaction against the traditionalism and elitism of the claustrophobic Royal Academy; it was a move towards modernity and stress on the contemporary, the validity of artistic inspiration arising out of the conditions of the time. Crane seized his opportunity while in the groves of academe to refashion and revitalise the syllabus by introducing memory drawing, instant impressions of the human figure in motion, modelling, and direct replication of plant and animal forms and their translation into pattern. He was opposed to the passive copying of plaster casts, intent on the linear expression of growth and movement. It was as if his instinct for political freedom found its expression in his programme for the new colleges of art. At the same time, he was frustrated when confined within the formal structure of an institution, and out of sympathy when they seemed more interested in applying art by an assembly-line process. He had to acknowledge that it was a new age when careers would depend on qualifications, but he wanted the joy of creation to be paramount and feared that the curriculum would discourage experiment and inhibit the search for novel methods; it was characteristic that he liked best those students who came from workshops.

He finally severed connection with formal education, but not before he had devised a reforming syllabus for primary schools and evening classes, so that decorative art was 'reasserted', a syllabus he claimed was later suppressed. Instead he continued to exert his influence through public lectures the most popular and effective medium of public instruction before radio - and through his published work, both of which went hand-in-hand with the steady dissemination of socialist principles. Two books, The Basis of Design (1898) and Line and Form (1900), came out of his lectures and remained fundamental textbooks until new design and theory from Europe began to influence British practice in the 1930s. He made clear his position with characteristic simplicity in a paper delivered before the Manchester Art School Committee, 'On the study and practice of art': 'There are two systems of methods or principles of education in art: a. The Academic or Absolute. 2. The experimental or relative and adaptive. The one teaching art or design in the abstract on certain cut-and-dried principles, fixed canons and standards, passing every mind through the same mill without reference to particular conditions or craftsmanship or individual preference'.20 There is no doubt which of the two approaches he cherished, and though he approved the new art schools and their ambitions, he constantly re-emphasised his conviction that artists and craftsmen need more than technique, but 'leisure for reflection and enjoyment, the gathering of fresh ideas from no poor, mean, stinted life ... not deprived of the stimulating emulation and co-operation of fellowship instead of cut-throat competition'.21

Crane survived until the First World War, and although both as a citizen and practising artist he was in close touch with the political scene and alert to the work of his contemporaries in France and Germany - he travelled widely in his later years - he seemed nevertheless at a loss what to make of advances in the technique of painting. His essay, 'A Short Survey of the Art of the 19th Century', collected in his book William Morris to Whistler (1911), alludes to the two directions which painting is taking, firstly Impressionism on which he offers no comment. and then what he calls 'the pursuit of decorative beauty tinged with poetic feeling and romance ... allied with ... the revival of design and the artistic handicrafts known as the Arts and Crafts movement,' 22 a hint, surely, of his prejudice. Later in the same essay he refers to 'the cult of the Ugly'23 meaning subjects of daily life including the smoke and grime of cities (possibly a rebuke to Whistler) and again, 'There has also been a decadent influence at work in our latter-day art, manifested in that strange decorative disease known as L'Art Nouveau.'24 But he applauds painters of the newer school (presumably the Post-Impressionists) who 'regard a picture as a pattern of colour which necessarily involves some sort of arrangement. This may be a return to sanity and a desire to restore the art of painting as an art of design'.25 There he nails his true colours to the mast.

Crane was something of a paradox. His political creed was revolutionary but he enjoyed the life of the country house set, association with the most privileged members of society, and the approval of royalty and the aristocracy at home and abroad. He championed the new technology, was excited by cinematography, designed the Electrical Trades Union banner and political pamphlets, yet he was spiritually part of the past. He campaigned on behalf of the working classes, depicting heroic, shirt-sleeved operatives in heavy industry, or agricultural labourers, and emblazoned them emblematically in cartoons like The Triumph of Labour, designed for International Labour Day, 1898. Yet it is as if he envisaged them as an idealised conception, a subject for imaginative fancy. He approved the new art of publicity for its technical ingenuity (though not its application to commercial ends) and he readily employed the latest colour processes in his last books for children. Yet he did not relinquish his taste for the past; he continued to exemplify in his illustrations the Victorian tendency to retreat into a land of faery, idyllic somnolence - even his poster denouncing the effects of alcohol reveals that proclivity in its knights and swooning damsels. His was the religion (it is not too strong a word) of art refinement of life, as individual vision, even if in escapist terms. Actuality for him was a form of debasement, a falling from the ideal. Across the years, this modest man's idealism led him not only to seek the reformation of art teaching but the drastic reformation of society, hence he welcomed the new technology - was unafraid of the future - but insisted that it serve and not dominate the masses; mechanical invention cannot replace art, which is not a conjuring trick but a growth of the mind as well as a facility of hand. Always we are reminded by Crane of the sanctity of individual expression, of art as a re-ordering of our universe.

His later years were loaded with honours in which he took a naive delight to judge by the complacent tone in which he describes the occasions and the detailed accounts of his introduction to the dignitaries who conferred those insignia upon him, especially abroad. His touring exhibitions in Europe extended his fame, and the variety and diversity of his art, its accessibility in domestic form, assured him of fame equalling that of William Morris. Yet Crane remains something of a contradiction. Bernard Shaw neatly summarised the man and his achievement in his own paradoxical way, in his tribute to Crane: '[He] was stamped as a harmless, kindly, beneficial, delightful artist. All his efforts to impress himself on the British mind as a revolutionary socialist at war with society were as vain as the attempts of his friends to make the public aware that he was a born master of design. Only when his figures were the materials and incidents of a decorative design did they become great.... He never knew his limitations because he could do as well as most people outside them and therefore he was never stopped by an incompetence which was only relative to his consummate mastery of ornamental design'.26 That points to the essential Crane. A revolutionary socialist - 'Crane had a demon of energy. Few other artists except Morris worked so incessantly, and this apparently without strain or ill health. This energy enabled him to translate his socialist sympathies into the works which he gave so freely to the cause'.27 He also had this eloquent gift of linear composition whose innate sense of significant form was as trenchant as any of those whom Roger Fry could cite.

His last days were clouded with tragedy. 'In December 1914 he suffered a crushing blow with the death of his wife, who was killed by a train on the South Eastern and Chatham Railway. She had been suffering from nervous debility and had been having treatment in a nursing home.... At the inquest the verdict was suicide whilst of unsound mind. Crane told a friend that this disaster left him "only half alive". He died ... three months later, on 14 March 1915. ... Death saved him from what would have been a second crushing blow -his younger son Lancelot was killed in the war'.28

What finally encourages us to remember Crane with gratitude is his urge not to confine his inspiration within the frame of art alone. Art was for him a visible elevating symbol of the life he dreamed as the ultimate end, a disclosure of something beyond itself. As he put it in a late essay, 'From ideals of art we are led to ideals in life ... to the growing conception of the new age we are entering of a true co-operative commonwealth'.29


The titles listed are confined to his books and essays on the theory and practice of art. For a full bibliography of Crane's writings -picture books, toy books and books illustrated or designed by him - see Isobel Spencer, Walter Crane, Appendices A-E (1975)

1. An Artist's Reminiscences. Methuen, 1907. xvi, 520 pp. (Reprinted 1949)
2. Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. Arts and Crafts essays. Longmans, 1899.
Introduction by Crane, together with his essay 'Of decorative painting and design'.
3. The Bases of Design. Bell, 1898. xix, 365 pp.
4. Cartoons for the Cause 1886-1896. Journeyman and Marx Memorial Library, 1976. 34 pp
Foreword by John Betjeman.
(First published in 1896 as a souvenir of the International Socialist Workers and Trades Union Congress).
5. The Claims of Decorative Art. Lawrence and Bullen, 1892. vi, 191 pp.
6. Ideals in art: papers, theoretical, practical, critical. Bell, 1905. xiv, 287 PP
7. Line and Form. Bell, 1900. xxvi, 282 pp.
8. Moot Points: friendly disputes on art and industry between Walter Crane and L. F. Day. Batsford, 1903
9. Of the Decorative Illustration of Books Old and New. Bell, 1901. 3 3 7 pp..
10. William Morris to Whistler: papers and addresses on art and craft and the commonweal. Bell, 1911. x, 276 pp.


Art Journal.. Easter Art Annual 1898. The work of Walter Crane, with notes by the artist.

Bell, M. H., 'Walter Crane (184 5-19 15)', Dictionary occupational Biography 19 12-192 1, 0.U.P., new impression 1 980. pp. 133-135.

Crane, Anthony, 'My grandfather, Walter Crane', Yale University Gazette, XXXI, January 19 5 7.

Engen, R. K., Walter Crane as a Book Illustrator, Academy Editions, 197 5. iv, 105 PP.

Espinasse, M., 'Walter Crane (184 5-1915) Artist and Socialist,' Dictionary of Labour Biography. V. VI. 19 5 2. Macmillan. PP. 70-77.

Faith, R., 'Designs for living', Times Literary Supplement, 5 December 197 5, p. 1416.

Glasier, J. B., William Morris and the Early Days of the Socialist Movement, Longmans Green, 1921. 173 pp.

Hyndman, H. M., Further Reminiscences, Macmillan, 19 12. X, 54.5 pp.

Konody, P. G., The art of Walter Crane, Bell, 1902. xiv, 148 pp.

Massé G. C. E., -4 Bibliography of First Editions of Books Illustrated by Walter Crave, Chelsea Publishing Co., 1923. 60 pp.

Rothenstein, Sir W., Men and Memories ... recollections, 1872- 1900, Faber, 193 1 - viii, 390 pp.

Smith, F. B., Radical Artisan: William James Linton 1812-97, Manchester U.P., 1973. x, 2 54 pp.

Smith, G. & S. Hyde. eds., Walter Crane 1845-1915 Artist, designer and socialist, Lund Humphries in association with the Whitworth Gallery, University of Manchester, 1989. 15 1 pp. Exhibition at the Gallery, 20 January-1 8 March 1989. Collection of essays with catalogue of the exhibition. Spencer, I., Walter Crane, Studio Vista, 1975. 208 pp.


I. 'On the study and practice of art' William Morris to Whistler, p. 120.

2. Ibid., 'Art and the commonweal', P. 242.

3. An Artist's Reminiscences, p. 46.

4. Ibid., p. 106.

5. Men and Memories, P. 292.

6. An Artist's Reminiscences, p. 102.

7. Ibid., p. 106

8. Bernard Shaw, New Statesman, 20 March 191 5.

9. William Morris and his work, William Morris to Whistler, pp. 5-6.

10. Ibid., Modem aspects of life and the sense of beauty, P. 2 17.

11. Design, craft and industry. Cambridge History of Art V.7, P. 250.

12. H. M. Hyndman, Further Reminiscences. 1912, PP. 350, 354.

13. An Artist's Reminiscences, Pp. 297-8.p

14. Ibid., P. 298.

15. Ibid., P. 2 5 5.

16. The English revival in decorative art, William Morris to Whistler, P. 70.

17. Ibid., The socialist ideal as an inspiration in art, p. 96.

18. M. Espinasse, 'Walter Crane (1845-19 15)', PP. 70-77, Didionary of Labour Biography, V.6, 19 5 2.

19. The socialist ideal as an inspiration in art, William Morris to Whistler, p. 87.

20. Ibid., On the study and practice of art, p. I 14.

21. Ibid., p. 1 19.

22.Ibid., A short survey of the art of the 19th century, chiefly of England, with some notes on recent developments, P. 2 3 0.

23. Ibid., P. 232.

24. Ibid., P. 232.

25. Ibid., P. 235.

26. Bernard Shaw, New Statesman, 20 March 191 5.

27. M. Espinasse, 'Walter Crane (1845-1915)', P. 76, Dictionary of Labour Biography, V.6, 1952.

28. Ibid., V.6, p.75, 1952.

29. Art and the commonweal, William Morris to Whistler, P. 254.
© David Gerrard 2002