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Senate House Library

Painting Books: The Magical Art of Walter Crane


Written by
Karen Attar, Curator of Rare Books and University Art

Explore the illustration of Victorian Artist Walter Crane in the painting books he made to educate his children...

If you have come across picture books for late-Victorian children, you will have come across Walter Crane. Associated with Randolph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway as a pioneer of early mass-produced colour illustrations, he was one of the first illustrators of Victorian picture books, one of the most popular, and one of the most influential. ‘Walter Crane transformed the illustration of children’s books with his bold outlines, jewelled colours and vivid characters’, wrote Jenny Uglow in her 2019 book Walter Crane; and: ‘He brought magic to the page’ (p. 6).

Beatrice's Painting Book 30 January 1881 by Walter Crane

Beatrice’s Painting Book

Senate House Library has several examples of Walter Crane’s published illustrations, both black-and-white and colour. Crane was silent about the black books in his autobiography, An Artist’s Reminiscences. We know about them from their survival, mostly at Yale and Harvard (29 books), with three in the Sterling Library at Senate House Library, one for Lancelot and two, from April 1880 and 30 January 1881, for Beatrice. Featured here is Beatrice’s Painting Book, written just over 140 years ago on 30 January 1881. It is showcased in the SHL150 online gallery displaying 150 unique and treasured items, charting the growth of the Library’s collections since the arrival of its founding collections in 1871.

Beatrice’s Painting Book starts with the five fairies who keep the house in order, inducing appreciation of servants. A combination of celestial geography and Classical mythology follows, with the planets personified. Each flaunts a particular possession: for example, Mr Mercury his thermometer, which extends from his shoulder to below his waist, and Juno her peacock’s tail, ‘with eyes enough to see by’. Crane embraces further mythological deities such as Vesta, Rhea, and Europa. Next he turns his attention to terrestrial geography and different Eurasian nationalities, portraying a man and a woman for each nationality: English (arm in arm, with a bulldog in the background), French (the man, moustached, lifts his hat to the lady), German, Italian, Spanish, Russian (against a winter background), Turkish, Greek, and Swiss (with an alpenstock, and a backdrop of mountains). 

Was each picture a mnemonic, the starting point for a good-night story, an improving lesson, or some sort of mixture? The final picture is of numerous tiny figures entitled: ‘Besides a great many more than this book will hold’. This attractive way of saying ‘The End’ points to continuation and more beginnings, a little like the famed ‘But that’s (or that is) another story (and shall be told another time)’.

Pages from Beatrice's Painting Book 30 January 1881 by Walter Crane

Family ties: painting a legacy of love

Walter Crane and his wife had three children: Beatrice (born 1873), Lionel (born 1876), and Lancelot (born 1880). He was close to them, recording in his autobiography (1907) how when Beatrice was at boarding school they chose one at Tunbridge Wells for easy proximity to her, and then how they took up their abode at Tunbridge Wells itself in order to be yet closer to her. 

Crane’s black books are a manifestation of his love for his offspring. These are blank notebooks with black shiny covers which Crane bought with the express purpose of drawing bedtime stories for his sons and daughter. The work was, he recorded, ‘tossed off at odd moments. They were fun to make and were done just for the children. They gave me as much pleasure as they gave them’. Yet even if, as he also wrote, they were the results of ‘the odd half hours of winter evenings’, ‘there is not much in his work that is finer than the visual wit and tenderness of these books’ (ODNB). 

The black books started off as pencil and water-colour wash (1879-1882) and moved to ink and water colour from Beatrice’s Bearings (1883) onwards. The early ones are considered the most vivid. Each book was tailored to the specific child for which it was intended, such that fairies and flowers featured in the books for Beatrice and adventure and art in those for Lionel, while Lancelot’s were mostly pure fun. 

On the whole the content was a fusion of education and entertainment. The books began with one for Beatrice’s sixth birthday in February 1879. In the book, Beatrice and her good fairy explored the heavenly bodies before Beatrice climbed the ladder of learning, fell into the malignant clutches of mis-spelling, was rescued by friendly letters of the alphabet, and sailed on a sea of ink to the kingdom of sums. 

Other children’s literature in Senate House Library

Discover more children’s literature in Senate House Library with printed works such as Mary De Morgan’s The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde and Other Stories (1880); Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince (1888); and a fairly recent acquisition of songs with music, Pan-Pipes (1883). In our e-resources, you’ll find the Adam Matthew database Children’s Literature and Culture providing access to more works from the nineteenth and early twentieth century.