Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 16 Sep 2015

Arthur Rackham : A Life With Illustration by James Hamilton

Arthur Rackham is an illustrator I grew up with - without knowing who he was. As a child in the 50s and 60s, I spent a lot of time with Rackham's illustrations which were frequently reproduced in the school books in my classrooms and school libraries. They seemed to me at the time both fascinating and old-fashioned; fascinating because of the detail and the grotesques that peopled the woods and forests of his drawings but old-fashioned because other, newer books seemed full of bold, simple drawings with vibrant primary colours.

Even now, when books like that written by James Hamilton about Rackham have contextualised his work and sketched in his extraordinary back-story, I still find it hard not to think of his drawings as belonging to a past time and to a world I had only limited access to. Critically, you have to spend time with Rackham's drawings - if you pass on too quickly you simply miss the detail and the subversive nature of his work. The innocence of the child is constantly under threat from a world which is perhaps invisible to adults - a world as potentially corrupt as the child's is innocent. Dwarves, elves and water spirits people the pages, malevolent trees loom and contort and the landscape is alive.


Rackham is most frequently associated with taking  traditional fairy tales and reinterpreting them and, to the delight of children if not always their parents, being prepared to frighten them. His is not a world of sugary or syrupy romance and the spirit of his work is something that would have been familiar to the Brothers Grimm and must have impressed those like Maurice Sendak who came along later.

Rackham's work has become expensive and collectible and I have a suspicion his appeal now lies as much with adults as children. These drawings are in many way a sophisticated, adult artistic experience and Hamilton shows in his book that Rackham was a complex man with a complex life - his illustrations reflect that inner turmoil. Maybe the best art comes from a troubled spirit?



Terry Potter

September 2015