In the first of a new series, Alison Padley-Woods invites John Shelley to tell us about the illustrator who has inspired him the most.

Tons of illustrators have inspired me at different times over the years, but if I had to select just one who made the greatest impact, it would unquestionably be Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

I first encountered Rackham's art in one of my mum's childhood books, a 1930's J M Dent compendium, which included some of his illustrations for Gulliver's Travels and Tales from Shakespeare. My mum’s books, though cheap editions and in bad condition, were guarded possessions, the only things she retained from her childhood, so it was a rare thing when she pulled them out for us grubby-fingered kids to look at (but not touch). I think the respect we had to show these books really helped to instil in me a veneration for pen & ink illustration, even though at that stage I’d no idea who the artists were.

My mum's battered copy of the Dent Children's Treasury, my first introduction to Rackham's art.

Some years later I picked up a couple of bookmarks in a gift shop. My holiday reading at the time was pretty bland, but the images on the bookmarks captivated me… they pulled me into their world - little windows into something magical. I discovered the same merchandise company Elgin Court were selling posters and greeting cards by the same artist. I realised this was the illustrator who's work I'd seen in my mum's old book - Arthur Rackham, and so a lifelong fascination began.

I knew I wanted to be an artist, but it was Rackham's work that really focused me on children's book illustration. With a Christmas book token that year, I bought Fred Gettings' 1975 biography on Rackham, still a key volume on my bookshelf, which revealed not only details of Rackham’s books and life story, but also his imagination and technique. Rackham’s work became a benchmark of excellence to aim for. I would read of Arthur's progress as he slowly developed in the 1890s, and compare it to my lowly situation in the 1970s, conveniently ignoring the enormous changes that had happened to the publishing industry since then. Of course, there was no way I’d be able to follow the same route, but comparing his career to mine nonetheless gave me something to aspire to.

Rackham was a slow developer in many ways, beginning as a newspaper hack artist, he was aged 30 before he found his fantasy niche, and 38 before he enjoyed his first major success in colour - so a long-term inspiration! His work of that evolving era (1896-1905) I've always held a particular fascination for, as it shows his development. Though he died 20 years before I was born, he's been a beacon, through his career progress and his art, a silent mentor over the years. I've never felt quite the same about any other illustrator, or studied their life and work so assiduously.

Arthur Rackham in his Studio, 1906, photographed by Reginald Haines for Pall Mall magazine

How would you describe Rackham's style and how do you think it has impacted your own? 

First and foremost, it's his confident, precise and organic pen line, honed through years of 'hack' work in journalism before flowering into the mature fantasy artist. The exquisite balance of tightly observed detail, texture and space, and fearless, sinewy drawing - my greatest teacher in the art of pen & ink!

From Arthur Rackham's Book of Pictures, 1913

In his colour plates, there’s the conjuring of mood through light and shadow, and gradual build-up of colour textures. His colour plates suck you into a world of earthy depth and delicate tints.

Thirdly, his subject matter - the fairy tale world of fairies, goblins, ogres and witches, dark forests, wild mountain, turbulent aqua-worlds, anthropomorphic animals, lost princesses and ragged heroes, elemental landscapes of lore and wonder, it's quite simply, magical.

Children and Witch, unpublished studio image, probably for exhibition at the Royal Academy, 1904

 Not forgetting his exquisite grasp of design, some derived from Celtic and other European tradition, some from art nouveau and Far Eastern influences that would eventually spark my own interest in Japan. The amazing patterns, accurately observed costumes, compositional balance, borders and other decoration.

From De la Motte Fouque's  Undine, 1909

And finally, it’s the delightful, whimsical humour of his work specifically for children, often seen in vignettes and marginalia, always one of my favourite aspects of his work.

The Rescue, magazine illustration for The Studio, 1904

There are many classic illustrators who have combinations of these qualities, - the fabulous colour of Dulac, the humour of Heath Robinson, the draftsmanship of Shepard, the tonal hatching of Peake and Ardizzone… all masters I love. But for me, no-one quite gets into my soul as much as Arthur!

At art school, these Edwardian obsessions were beaten out of me by the tutors and it was a wake-up call to work for today’s world rather than one that passed before I was born. They were right of course, I’m very careful not to allow such influences to creep too obviously into my work now, which is why I’ve shied away from being an outright fantasy illustrator - best not to bide too long in the worlds of your heroes, they can be gardens of temptation and self-indulgence! You need to grow your own patch! But inevitably a little bit creeps in here and there.

What is your favourite book of his and why does it work so well? 


I started collecting first and early editions of Rackham’s work as soon as I began earning money as an illustrator. Save up for driving lessons? Nah, I blew half the fee of my first book commission buying a shabby copy of the 1912 edition of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, one of Rackham’s greatest books. I added other titles over the years, some bought at auction, so I’ve now a robust collection of first, early and signed limited editions.

Books ... books ... books ...

When it comes to complimenting the text, I think Rackham is at his best working with fairy tales - he illustrated numerous fairy tale collections over his career, from Grimm to Andersen and more, all of which attain a perfect balance between the short stories and his art. The tales of princesses, giants and dragons seem made for his pen. However, fairy tales aside, it’s that first Rackham I bought, Peter Pan, that holds my greatest love. Though lacking monsters and princesses, it’s an exquisite fantasy showing his full range from serious to humour, a crowning achievement.

"A band of workmen, who were sawing down a toadstool, rushed away, leaving their tools behind them." Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, 1906

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens is not the Peter Pan recognised by Disney fans, there’s no Wendy, no Captain Hook, no Neverland, and Peter is a one-week old baby, not a child. It’s Barrie’s first version of Peter, entirely set in Kensington Gardens, expanded from a story first published as The Little White Bird in 1902. In this, Barrie tells us that babies were originally birds, Peter, a one-week old infant, forgets he’s human and flies back to Kensington Gardens, where, unable to become either bird or child, he becomes thus a “betwixt and between”, looked after by his crow mentor Solomon Caw, and eventually the fairies of the Gardens. It concludes with the story of Maisie, a child lost in the gardens one winter’s night, who’s eventually saved from freezing to death by Peter, who persuades the fairies to build a protective house around her - clearly a prototype Wendy. As a narrative, the book is somewhat patchy, a series of whimsical episodes, some positively fructose with sentimentality, held together by the fantasy of the fairy world conjured by Arthur Rackham. It’s Rackham’s enchanting illustrations that pull all the threads together into a magical dream world.

"Put his strange case before old Solomon Caw." Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, 1906

What makes these illustrations work so well, and the fairy world so tangible, is the way Rackham sews high fantasy within a factual world. The whimsy isn't just integrated with our familiar world, it appears to have grown from it. It's as if the two worlds - that of our own, and of Rackham’s imagination, are joined somewhere in the deep unseen shadows, and revealed to us in his illustrations as a single, blended whole. When I was grabbed by those bookmarks, it was as if the fairies themselves had drawn the pictures. That's the kind of stuff to sweep you away.

My 1912 copy of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, the first Rackham illustrated title I bought. This particular illustration was on one of the gift shop bookmarks that first inspired me so much as a teenager.

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was first released in 1906 by Hodder & Stoughton with 49 colour plates, by which time Barrie was already re-imagining the story for the stage version of Peter Pan - the Neverland tale widely known today, later released in book form as Peter Pan and Wendy. After the play’s success Rackham’s book was reissued in 1912 with one extra colour plate and more B/W drawings. For collectors, the 1912 is widely regarded as the best edition.

"The Serpentine is a lovely lake." Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, 1906

My veneration of Arthur Rackham has taken me in strange directions, not least setting me on the path to far shores. With my 1912 copy of Peter Pan in hand, I’ve visited all the locations Rackham drew in Kensington Gardens, his old studios in Primrose Hill and house in Chalcot Gardens. I’ve handled original artwork in the V&A, and make a bee line for any show of his originals I can find - the Chris Beetles Gallery often has something. By a bizarre coincidence, my former London home stood opposite that of Rackham’s oldest London friends in Highgate, the Andrewes, which at the time was still owned by a descendant of the family, who showed me several illustrated letters. I had no idea of that when I bought the place and it seemed so strange that Rackham was a frequent visitor to the very street my house was on!

Owning original art by Rackham is a dream, way beyond my pocket, but I like to watch the auction sites for what comes under the hammer and share rarities with the Arthur Rackham Facebook Group which I help moderate. Just like my mum’s old books - auctioned original artwork is a privilege to see and share online, but no touching!

Header image: Rackham selfie, from Little Brother and Little Sister, 1917


John Shelley is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures and the illustrator of over 50 books for children, most recently The Boy in the Jam Jar by Joyce Dunbar, for Bloomsbury. He's a three times nominee for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.   @studionib

Alison Padley-Woods is Words & Pictures' Deputy Illustration Features Editor. Alison used to work for Condé Nast’s Brides magazine. She now writes middle grade fiction and picture books and has been shortlisted and longlisted for several prizes including The Times/Chicken House Competition, Bath Children’s Novel Award and Writing Magazine’s Picture Book Prize. @AliPadleyWoods


  1. Lovely article. I first discovered Rackham's work in college (1970) through friends who had a smattering of book plates. Then began a lifelong search for more of his work. My bookshelves now creak under the weight of many of his and others (Dulac, Nielsen, Robinson, John Bauer, etc) and their pervasive influence is solidily lodged in my own illustrative work. Many years ago I illustrated an edition of 'Midsummer' approached with delight, quite a bit of fear and a feeling that Arthur was staring, hard, down over my shoulder. I continue to actively pursue folk and fairytale illustration project (the illustrated Stardust, The Books of Earthsea and up-comming a collection of new fairy tales written by Joanne Harris) and nothing makes me happier than sitting down at my drawing board.

  2. Hi John -- Loved your article -- really enjoyed your choice of illustrations. I wondered if we might republish your article in a future issue of the Journal of The Arthur Rackham Society? Please let us know.


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