The Fairies, Elves & Anthropomorphic Trees of Arthur Rackham

19th February 2015

Self Portrait, Arthur Rackham

Born and raised in London, Arthur Rackham began his career selling drawings to newspapers and periodicals. He quickly established himself as an illustrator of boy’s adventure stories, for which he produced fairly uninspiring black and white drawings.

In 1905 William Heinemann published an elaborate edition of Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle, for which Rackham had provided fifty-one watercolours, one serves as the frontispiece and the other fifty illustrations are grouped at the rear of the volume following the text. 

The book, aimed to appeal to the the Christmas gift market, was produced in two formats. A standard (trade) edition in green cloth blocked with gilt designs and titles was issued in a dustwrapper and priced at 15/- net.

(First trade edition of Rip Van Winkle in original dustwrapper)

(Rip Van Winkle trade edition binding of green cloth)

In addition there was a sumptuous Edition de Luxe, comprising 250 copies bound in full creamy vellum, printed on hand-made paper with each copy numbered and signed by Arthur Rackham.  

The launch of this book was accompanied by an exhibition of the original watercolours at the Leicester Galleries, London. Reviews spoke of the paintings in glowing terms: 

“It does not need the voice of a prophet to predict the publication of his new ‘Rip van Winkle’ in book form an almost unprecedented success, for here we have an illustrator who combines the most accomplished craftsmanship with an absolutely unique power of quaint invention, which, moreover, is equally strong in its appeal to child and adult. He has created a whole world of quaint, grotesque, and even gruesome witches, gnomes, and goblins, the horror of whose appearance is, however, counteracted by an irresistible vein of humour. Of his technical accomplishments it would indeed be  difficult to speak in exaggerated terms of praise. With all their wealth of minute and intricate detail, there is never a line in these drawings that is not perfect in its certainty and purity, or is not exactly in the right place.’ (Daily Mail, Mar. 14. 1905)

Sales of the book and paintings were brisk and Rackham found his skills to be much in demand. A new era of book illustration had dawned and Rackham's drawings were to be among the most sought after for the following four decades. In the wake of the success of Rip Van Winkle Arthur Rackham's career moved onto a totally different plane, he worked at an astounding rate, producing his distinctive illustrations to books ranging from children's fairy tales to Shakespeare and Ibsen.

Rackham's tour de force is generally considered to have come only one year later, when in 1906 he illustrated the first edition of J.M. Barrie's masterpiece Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. Here Rackham's elfin creatures, his sylphlike fairies and anthropomorphic trees worked to wonderful advantage alongside Barrie's tale of lost babies and the fairies living in Kensington Gardens.

Following a similar format to Rip Van Winkle, Peter Pan was issued in both a cloth bound trade edition and an Edition de Luxe, this time with a print run of 500 signed copies. Writing to an admirer in 1913 Rackham noted that demand for the deluxe copies of this book “so greatly exceeded the 500 that had been agreed to that the publishers would gladly have doubled the number had they not been bound by their announcement. Of course, the consequence is that the copies of that edition went up in value much beyond the original four guineas.” 

(1906, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, Edition de Luxe)

Again reviews of the book were rapturous, “Mr Barrie has done what no one else has done since the inventor of “Alice”, he has invented a new legend, a modern folk story which comprehends all the innermost secrets of the modern child, be he four or forty. Mr Rackham, for his part, has been bewitched in his cradle: he does not dream of fairies or hobgoblins, he knows them.”  (The World) 

Commissions rolled in, often working simultaneously on two books in a year Rackham cast his spell on classic children's tales such as Alice in Wonderland (1907),  Gulliver's Travels (1909) and the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (1909) and Hans Andersen (1932).

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party, Alice in Wonderland

Rackham's Trees

From English Fairy Tales

Whenever we read about Rackham's work we hear mention of his trademark trees. Rackham's style of illustration is immediately recognisable and has inspired many followers, but his personification of trees is almost unique. At first glance his rugged trunks appear to be merely well crafted representations of gnarled trees blowing in the breeze, but on closer inspection one spots faces disguised in the knots of the bark; branches replicate human movement, outstretched fingers with clawing nails; among the tree roots dwell entire families of gnomes, fairies and elves making their homes within the hollows. This illustration from Grimm's Fairy Tales, published by Constable in 1909 is a wonderful example of one of Rackhams' anthropomorphic trees.

Grimm's Fairy Tales

Self Portaits

One of my favourite things about Rackham's illustrations is that they so frequently contain self portraits and caricatures of the artist. The frontispiece of Mother Goose The Old Nursery Rhymes is a great example, with Jack Sprat looking exactly like the artist, though what Edyth Rackham might have made of Jack's rotund wife is anyone's guess! See also the mad hatter from Alice in the drawing above, the list is endless, how many have you spotted?

Jack Sprat, Frontispiece from Mother Goose 


Fairies and Goblins

Rackham's drawings of little people are almost enough to send us scurrying into the garden in search of these wonderful creatures which he surely must have observed. They number amongst their ranks every little girl's ideal of pretty, gossamer winged fairies, but extend to more colourful and characterful imaginings of elfin folk, each full of fun and mischief. Frequently small line drawings of Rackham's mischievous imps will sneak onto the page, many bearing the cheeky grin of the artist, reminding us of his great sense of humour. 

From Shakespeare's The Tempest, 1926


Title Page Vignette Peer Gynt, 1936

The Final Commission

Over a thirty year period Rackham produced illustrations for almost forty gift books, but there was one story which stuck in his mind as a missed opportunity. Back in 1908 Kenneth Grahame's publisher Methuen had approached Rackham asking him to provide illustrations for Grahame's new book, The Wind in the Willows. At the time Rackham had just signed a contract to work on a book for another publisher and was unable to take up the chance to work with Grahame. After Grahame's death the idea of producing his own version of The Wind in the Willows played on Rackham's mind. He arranged a meeting with Grahame's widow and together they visited some of the sites along the banks of the Thames which had inspired Grahame's tale of the riverbank. By this time in the late 1930's Rackham's health was frail and progress on the paintings was slow. Nonetheless, he worked with dedication and produced a group of 14 watercolour paintings and numerous line drawings to accompany the tale. Sadly he did not live long enough to see the book come to fruition, so it was the only one of his books to be published posthumously. Rackham's illustrations to The Wind in the Willows perfectly capture the atmosphere of the tale and transport us to shady picnic sites along the banks of the Thames, forming a wonderful legacy to both author and artist.



Browse all books and paintings by Rackham 

A List of the Major Gift Books Illustrated by Arthur Rackham

1905   Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving

1906   Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie

1907   Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll        

1907   Ingoldsby Legends by Thomas Ingoldsby

1908   A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

1909   Grimm’s Fairy Tales

1909   Undine by De La Motte Fouqué

1909   Tales From Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb

1909   Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

1910   The Rhinegold and the Valkyrie by Richard Wagner

1911   Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods by Richard Wagner

1911   Aesop’s Fables

1912   Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens with reworked format and images

1912   Peter Pan Portfolio

1913   Arthur Rackham Book of Pictures

1913   Mother Goose. The Old Nursery Rhymes

1915   A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

1916   The Allies’ Fairy Book ed. Edmund Gosse

1917   Little Brother and Little Sister by Grimm

1917   The Romance of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table

1918   English Fairy Tales told by Flora Annie Steel

1918   The Springtide of Life Poems of Childhood by Algernon Swinburne

1918   Some British Ballads

1919   Cinderella told by C.S. Evans

1920   The Sleeping Beauty told by C.S. Evans

1920   Snowdrop and Other Tales from Grimm

1920   Hansel and Gretel and Other Tales from Grimm

1920   Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens

1921   Comus by John Milton

1921   A Dish of Apples by Eden Philpotts

1922   A Wonder Book by Nathaniel Hawthorne

1925   Where the Blue Begins by Christopher Morley

1925   Poor Cecco by Margery Williams

1926   The Tempest by William Shakespeare

1928   The Lonesomest Doll by Abbie Farwell Brown

1928   The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

1929   The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

1931   The Chimes by Charles Dickens

1931   The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore

1931   The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton

1932   Fairy Tales by Hans Andersen

1932   The King of the Golden River by John Ruskin

1933   The Arthur Rackham Fairy Book

1933   Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti

1934   The Pied Piper of Hamlin by Robert Browning

1935   Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe

1936   Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen

1940   The Wind in the Willows (US edition)

1951   The Wind in the Willows (UK edition)

Links: The Arthur Rackham Society publishes newletters and hosts events celbrating the artist's life and work

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