Magazine article The Spectator

The Magic of Arthur Rackham

Magazine article The Spectator

The Magic of Arthur Rackham

Article excerpt

Laura Freeman celebrates the riotous imagination of tidy, thrifty, cautious Arthur Rackham

Arthur Rackham shouldn't have lived in anything as conventional as a house. It should have been a gingerbread cottage, like the one he drew for Grimms' Fairy Tales , with cakes for a roof and boiled sugar for windows. Or a Rapunzel turret, for letting down ropes of long, blonde hair, except he was so very goblin-bald. Or a Sleeping Beauty palace with a spinning-wheel in the topmost tower.

As it was, he lived in Chalcot Gardens, north of Primrose Hill and south of Hampstead Heath, with his wife Edyth Starkie, a portrait painter, and their daughter Barbara, at the end of an 1880s row set back from the road. It may not have been a fairy-tale castle (you don't get many of those in Belsize Park), but it was distinct from its neighbours: an odd, square Voysey house, the sort that children draw, with a high, steep roof like a witch's hat.

In the 15 prolific years Rackham lived there from 1905, strange things were summoned and conjured. Mad Hatters came to tea, mermaids found themselves beached on the studio floor, geese laid golden eggs, Gulliver surveyed the troops of Lilliput and the Pied Piper played his tune. Rackham marshalled them, not with a long trilling pipe, but with pencils, brushes and watercolours. In a portrait of 1924, when the illustrator was 57, he painted himself against the Thames, his spotted tie neatly knotted, and his pencil sharpened to a spinning-wheel's point.

Rackham, who celebrates the 150th anniversary of his 1867 birth this year, had to be tidy to keep his sprites and fiends, elves and fairies, giants and wolves, sacred crocodiles and stoned caterpillars, in order. The munchkins and mischiefs of his imagination -- more than 3,000 sheets of them over a lifetime, some with as many as 50 rioting hobgoblins to a scene -- would have run away with him if he'd let them. So he balanced rabbling goblin markets on the page with order in the studio and in life. He was tidy, thrifty and cautious. He recycled old newspapers into blotting paper, into wrapping paper, for keeping warm in bed, for drying damp shoes, into a tablecloth to catch the oil and flakes from sardines.

He did not smoke. His favourite meal was cold roast beef. He drank little, but in later life allowed himself a small nightly glass of Marsala. He was thin and had the same slim suit made and remade by a tailor each time it wore out. Not very bohemian, not very Beardsley.

He played golf and wore steel-rimmed spectacles. A pair for reading, a pair for tennis, a pair of bifocals for careful work. He always had a hot Thermos for a cold train. He did smash a few plates to get the detail right in his Alice in Wonderland (1907) illustrations. Doris Dommett, the little girl who modelled for Alice, asked of the Rackhams' cook: 'Will she throw plates?' 'Oh no,' said Rackham, 'they've already been thrown.'

When asked to celebrate his art -- his trade, too, for he took on more 'pot-boiling' hackwork to pay the bills than he would have liked -- for the Old Water-Colour Society's Club, he wrote this: 'From the first day when I was given, as all little boys are, a shilling paint box with the legend printed along the space for the brush -- "Waste not, want not" (so I was informed, for I couldn't read then) -- from that day, when I first put my water-colour brush in my mouth, and was told I mustn't, this craft we are celebrating has been my constant companion. …

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