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Last updated:26 May 2015

Walter Crane

Walter CraneWalter Crane was one of the most prominent artists supporting the young socialist movements at the turn of the 19th to 20th Century. He wrote prose and poetry as well, was a pioneer in art education and is famed for his childrens' book illustrations.

The texts below are taken from a critical biography by David Gerard, a late Friend of the WCML, entitled Walter Crane and the rhetoric of art. A longer version of the biography is here.



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.

William Morris to WhistlerCrane'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'.

Art and politics were to blend in Crane's life from the 1880s 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.

Sketch of William Morris by Walter Crane

Sketch by Walter Crane: William Morris speaking at a meeting of the Hammersmith Socialist Society

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.

International School 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'.

The new era

Frontispiece drawing by Walter Crane for the 1895 book The New Party

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'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.

Walter Crane illustrated leaflet promoting a poem by William Morris commemorating the death of Alfred Linnell at a Trafalgar Square demonstration in 1887He 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 education: 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'

Cover of book Moot Points by Walter Crane and Lewis P Day

Cover of book Moot Points by Walter Crane and Lewis P Day

'. . . 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'   

Bernard Shaw neatly summarised the man and his achievement in his own paradoxical way, in his tribute to Crane:

Illustration by Walter Crane entitled England to her own rescue

Illustration by Walter Crane entitled England to her own rescue

'[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'. 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'.


Resources by and about Walter Crane in the library collection

By Walter Crane

An artist's reminiscences (1907) - Shelfmark: E70

Cartoons for the cause 1886-1896: a souvenir of the International Socialist Workers and Trade Union Congress, 1896 (1896) - Shelfmark: BS0

Moot points: friendly disputes on art and industry between Walter Crane and Lewis F. Day (1903) - Shelfmark: E70

Of the decorative illustration of books old and new (1896) - Shelfmark: E70

William Morris to Whistler: papers and addresses on art and craft and the commonweal (1911) - Shelfmark: E70

About Walter Crane

Greg Smith and Sarah Hyde (eds.), Walter Crane, 1845-1915: artist, designer and socialist (1989) - Shelfmark: E70

Morna O'Neill, Art and labour's cause is one: Walter Crane and Manchester, 1880-1915 (2008) - Shelfmark: R05

Helen Stalker, From toy books to Bloody Sunday: tales from the Walter Crane archive (2009) - Shelfmark: E70

Isobel Spencer, Walter Crane (1975) - Shelfmark: R05

The library also has a number of framed prints of Walter Crane's illustrations

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