Crane was a very gifted and versatile artist, who put
his hand to several different medium. But his fame for socialists revolves
around his genius in illustration of books and propagandising. His first
illustrated book was "The New Forest" in 1862.
The son of a moderately successful artist, Walter
Crane was born in Liverpool, and brought up on the south coast of England,
and in London. He was apprenticed to W. J. Linton, the engraver.
It was Litton who first probably politicised Crane. Linton had been an
old Chartist. Linton introduced him to the literary and artistic
aesthetics of John Ruskin and the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Crane later paid homage to Shelley in his 1873 painting – made on his honeymoon
entitled" Shelley's Tomb in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome". (See at:
Crane’s Early Fine Art Period
His career began as a conventional "fine" artist. He
was attracted by romanticism - a movement that tends to dwell on
historical paintings of sometimes alarming sentimentality. He was linked
in this to a group called the Etruscan School:
"George Howard, the disciple of the Italian painter Giovanni Costa….
was the mainstay, with Frederick Leighton of the group of English Italianate
painters, the so-called Etruscan School which included Matthew Ridley
Corbet, George Heming Mason, Henry Holiday, William Blake Richmond and
Crane's first exhibit at the Royal Academy, was "The
White Knight" illustrating the poem by Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson – "The
Lady of Shalott", in 1862.
Despite a very active socialist involvement (see below),
he was considered so well as a ‘pure artist’, that he was invited to become
in 1898, the head of the Royal College of Art.
It is worth putting Crane into an overall artistic context,
as we will term him as a romantic - who overcame an "idealism" only
within the socialist movement. However his style was certainly very much
part of his time, being influenced by the school of the Pre-Raphaelite
Brotherhood, formed in England in 1848. They re a reaction to "academicism
in art" and trivial genres - common in European art at that time. They
wished to "Have genuine ideas to express, to study Nature attentively..
to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt". In this,
they did turn back to pseudo-medieval sentimentality however.
Fiona MacCarthy "William Morris"; London 1994; p.337-8.
Although Crane later moved well away from his early
content materials, he retained a definite romantic style. At times this
was remained over-powering as to militate against any sense of "realism"
in art. There was a sense of yearning for an age-old English chivalric
past – where as in the mystical Land of Plenty ("Cockayne") there
"rost stones, plum puddings, houses thatched with pancakes, and little
pigs running about with knives and forks stuck in their backs crying "God
save the king".
The term Romanticism in art, means something
beyond the general usage of the term? It includes not a style - but an
"attitude of mind". This attitude depicts a "nobility, grandeur, virtue,
and superiority. It is linked to classicism in art - but in
contrast to classicism, offers an "ideal" imagery that is "unattainable".
The Oxford Dictionary of Art has this (admittedly rather long) definition:
A.L.Morton "The English Utopia"; Berlin; 7 Seas Publishers; 1968; p.
"Romanticism. Movement in the arts flourishing in the late 18th
and early 19th cents. Romanticism is so varied in its manifestations that
a single definition is impossible, but its keynote was a belief in the
value of individual experience. in this it marked a reaction from the rationalism
of the Enlightenment and the order of the Neoclassical style.
The Romantic artist explored the values of intuition and instinct, exchanging
the public discourse of Neoclassicism, the forms of which had a common
currency, for a more private kind of expression. The German philosopher
G. W. F. Hegel in his Lectures on Aesthetics (1818) wrote 'in Romantic
art the form is determined by the inner idea of the content of substance
that this art is called upon to represent'."
Even late on, Crane used mystic terminology to describe
painting. He was a great admirer of Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98).
In his autobiography he recalled what Burne-Jones' effects on him:
….. the exponents of both Romanticism and classicism share a concern
with the ideal rather than the real, ….Both Romanticism and classicism
embrace concepts of nobility, grandeur, virtue, and superiority.
But where the classical seems a possible ideal which will adapt man to
his society and mould that society into an orderly setting for him, the
Romantic envisages the unattainable, beyond the limits of society and human
adaptability. The classical hero accepts the fate over which he has no
control and triumphs nobly in this acquiescence, otherwise he would not
be a hero. The Romantic hero pits himself against a hostile environment
and at no time comes to terms with it even if he reaches his goal, otherwise
he would not be Romantic.
Romanticism represents an attitude of mind rather than a set of
particular stylistic traits and involves the expression of an idea
that tends to have a verbal rather than a visual origin. In this context
a ruined temple is more significant than a new one because it is more suggestive
of the passage of time and human frailty. What is broken or partial can
never be archetypally classical because the classical object is whole and
coherent, not fragmentary. A view that finds a ruined temple beautiful
is a Romantic view, though the temple may once have been a classical masterpiece.
…..movement of which they were a part died out in the mid-19th cent., but
in a broader sense the Romantic spirit has lived on, representing a revolt
against conservatism, moderation, and insincerity and an insistence on
the primacy of the imagination in artistic expression."
Eds: Chilvers I, Osborne H, Farr D: "The Oxford Dictionary of Art";
Oxford; 1997; p.484.
'The curtain had been lifted, and we had a glimpse into a magic world
of romance and pictured poetry, peopled with ghosts of "ladies dead and
lovely knights" - a twilight world of dark mysterious woodlands, haunted
streams, meads of deep green starred with burning flowers, veiled in a
dim and mystic light, and stained with low-toned crimson and gold..'
This accorded with Burne-Jones' own views:
[An Artist's Reminiscences, 1907]; cited: http://www.artmagick.com/artists/crane.aspx
"I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream, of something that
never was, never will be-in a light better than any ever shone - in a a
land no once can define or remember - only desire- and the forms divinely
beautiful". Eds: Chilvers I, Osborne H, Farr D: "The Oxford Dictionary
of Art"; Oxford; 1997; p.91.
As one web-site put it, he never left his ‘mythic sense’ behind:
In this he was like his great fellow-socialist and friend
- William Morris (1834-1896). Both men however, overcame the worst
of a "backward longing", and fully embraced the socialist movement, and
gave it all their tremendous talents.
Crane’s undoubted greatest strength was in illustration
and design. By the time of the Paris Commune in 1870, he was well known
as an illustrator of children's books and as a ceramic designer for Wedgwood,
soon he was designing wallpapers and tiles.
"Crane's later water-colours of slightly menacing wooded landscapes
and vague but sinister mythical events represent a world which the artist
has dreamt of rather than visited. In 'Diana' the huntress seems to be
leading her male followers through a primeval forest, perhaps to their
Perhaps his most famous and influential book was
"Of the Decorative Illustrations of Books Old and New", first published
in 1896. This profusely illustrated text, is frequently re-published. It
is a comprehensive history of the development of design in books - from
the Illuminations of the Middle Ages onwards – of book illustration. He
used William Morris’s personal collection of early printed books to complete
this. In it, he has this to say:
"All forms of art are so closely connected with life and thought, so
bound up with human conditions, habits, and customs; so intimately and
vividly do they reflect every phase and change of that unceasing movement
– the ebb and flow of human progress amid the forces of nature we call
history – that it is hardly possible… not to be led insensibly to speculate
on their hidden sources….. If painting is the looking-glass of nations
and periods, pictured-books may be called the hand-glass which still more
intimately reflects the life of different centuries and peoples, in all
their minute and homely detail and quaint domesticity as well as their
playful fancies their dreams, and aspirations";
Like John Ruskin before him, and with William Morris,
he attacked the capitalist appropriation of what - elsewhere he called
Walter Crane; "Of the Decorative Illustrations of Books Old and New",
London 1984; p.15-16.
"Steam machinery, intended for the service of man and for the saving
of human labour had under our economic system enslaved humanity instead,
and become an engine for the production of profits, an express train in
the race for wealth, only checked by the brake of what is called over-production.
We want a vernacular in art. No mere verbal or formal agreement, or dead
level of uniformity but that comprehensive and harmonizing unity with individual
variety which can be developed among people politically and socially free."
Accordingly, as President, he brought workers-craftsmen,
into the College of Art. His association with William Morris was doubly
Walter Crane, The Architecture of Art (18 February, 1887).
For Morris was like Crane, not just a socialist but
also a fervent and multi-talented artist. They both thought that the Arts
and Crafts Movement ,was an essential part of the nobility of the working
They insisted upon the primacy of beauty in everyday life
and fought a battle against the philistinism of the capitalists. As artists
– they linked the brutality of capital and its factory system, to its effects
on craftsmanship and design. Morris's pamphlet "Art and Socialism",
inspired Crane to become involved in the Art Workers' Guild and the Arts
and Crafts Society.
In 1888 Crane was instrumental in forming the Art
and Crafts Exhibition Society, with William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones,
Lewis F. Day, Heywood Sumner, Philip Webb and Onslow Ford. He became its
first President. aimed to assist in the revival of arts and handicrafts
- highlighting the craftsmen.
Direct Socialist Activity
By the 1860s Crane’s latent political views were becoming
activated. He placed himself on the radical wing of the Liberal Party –
which included those such as John Bright, Henry Fawcett and William
Gladstone. On their behalf he campaigned for the 1867 Reform Act.
But he moved beyond reformism quickly, and by the
time of the Paris Commune of 1870, he was openly supporting the Communards.
Two memorable cartoons are those in defence of the Commune (See gallery
Cartoons at Trotskyist site: http://www.marxists.org/subject/art/visual_arts/satire/crane/index.htm
In January 1884 they both joined the Social Democratic
Federation (SDF). Crane drew for the party journal Justice (Editor
Henry Hyde Champion). Both had difficulties (like many of the left
including Marx and Engels) with the sectarian and opportunist SDF
leader - H. H. Hyndman.
So in December, 1884, Walter Crane joined the Socialist
League formed by William Morris, Belford Bax, Eleanor Marx and Edward
Aveling. Crane drew for the party's journal, Commonweal (editor
William Morris). He and Morris established the Coach House lectures for
"Almost every important Socialist thinker of the period spoke in the
Coach House. ... Stepniak, Kropotkin, Lawrence Gronlund, Graham Wallas,
Annie Besant, Beatrice & Sidney Webb, later Ramsay MacDonald and Keir
Hardie……Walter Crane gave memorable illustrated lectures using a blackboard
and chalk. The most regular performers were George Bernard Shaw and William
However Crane retained reformist illusions and also
joined the Fabian Society of George Bernard Shaw and Sydney Webb.
However, in 1900 Crane together with Ramsay MacDonald and Emmeline
Pankhurst, resigned from the Fabian Society over its chauvinist support
of the Boer War. Crane attacked the British Empire.
McCarthy F; Ibid; p.522.
By the late 1880s Crane was Britain's leading socialist
artist. Many important commissions came to him including: "Chants of Labour"
by Edward Carpenter, "The Triumph of Labour", for May Day in 1891; "Cartoons
for the Cause" for the 1896 London International and Trade Union Congress.
Crane's socialist iconography became internationally known, in Europe,
and in Italy and Germany.
When in December 1914 his
wife Mary was killed by a train, this ended a marriage of forty-four years.
Crane immediately declined and died three months later on 14th March, 1915.
His art has had an enormous, positive and
long-lasting impact on the emotions of workers and toilers the world over.
Walter Crane, The New Era (1895)
"Oh! men and women true, once more take hands,
Join hearts and head, and clear the crooked maze;
Set Love and Justice up over these our land:
Let Truth be honoured, honest work have praise.
And bring joy back to human days again:
Lift from Life's daily around in sordid cloak;
Draw Beauty near, nor common Use disdain;
Unite in one great cause the struggling folk."
Walter Crane, On the Death of William Morris (1896)
"How can it be! that strong and fruitful life
Hath ceased - that strenuous but joyful heart,
Skilled craftesman in the loom of song and art,
Whose voice by beating seas of hope and strife,
Would lift the soul of labour from the knife,
And strive against greed of factory and mart -
Ah! ere the morning, must he, too, depart
While yet with battle cries the air is rife?
Blazon the name in England's Book of Gold
Who loved her, and who wrought her legends fair,
Woven in song and written in design,
The wonders of the press and loom - a shrine,
Beyond the touch of death, that shall enfold
In life's House Beautiful, a spirit rare".