Art has always been part of Walter Crane’s world until, through his active contribution to the British arts and crafts, art eventually became his only universe. Crane was born in 1845 in Liverpool, but his family soon left the city to live in the country side. Crane was fascinated by his father, Thomas Crane, who was a multitalented artist and illustrator. The young Crane had no formal education but instead loved to work with his father in his workshop where he began to sketch his first images.
William James Linton was a London wood engraver who noticed Crane’s artistic sensitivity and skill quite early through some childish drawings of Victorian poetic themes. Thus, the 13 year-old artist had the great opportunity to learn directly by working actively with a talented and influent figure in the printing industry. After this period, Crane worked for several publishers until 1862 when he illustrated his first book entitled “The New Forest: Its History and Its Scenery”. Following this achievement, the Royal Academy also accepted one of Crane’s water colors entitled “The Lady of Shalott”.
Crane’s name is generally associated with children books. This life-long status is due to his remarkable work as an illustrator of the best known popular tales published by Routledge during the 1860’s. As a child, Crane particularly enjoyed drawing animals and admired the Pre-Raphaelites’ fantasy as well as their expressive use of detail. Therefore, the imaginary potential of Crane’s vision was close to the children’s and his artistic toy books brought him great fame. During that same period, after his marriage, the artist moved to Italy where he discovered the beauty of Renaissance art. The toy book designs he kept sending from abroad had an obvious Quatrocento touch.
In spite of his success as a designer, Crane confessed that his greatest love was painting. Indeed, while working constantly as a designer for wallpaper, ceramics and other crafts, Crane was also a talented painter. The watercolor “A Diver”, earned him a silver medal at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1889 and he produced some of the most powerful imaginary oil paintings of his time. In 1888, the artist became the president of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. This alliance between various kinds of artists represented Crane’s desire to blur the limits separating commercial and fine art. In 1893, he accepted the post of director of design at the Manchester School of Art and published several of his lectures among other personal theoretical works. Crane’ dream of artistic cooperation also had a political equivalent. Under the influence of William Morris, he became a fervent socialist.
In 1915, the artist was devastated after the death of his beloved wife and followed her only a few months later. Although Crane never accepted the Art Nouveau style his artistic legacy had such an impact on the young designers of that time that they considered him as the greatest British precursor of the movement.
- Andreea Barghoveanu (Art History / McGill University)