DURING THE LAST 10 years of her life, Kate Greenaway's appeal as an illustrator was at low tide. The famed "Greenaway style"--with its beatific children and idealized, pastoral scenes--had had its day in the 1880s when the books she illustrated, sometimes at the exhausting rate of six or eight a year, were prized by English, American and European audiences. Whether through her own work or that of the many Greenaway imitators, her "look" influenced not only picture-book art, but also a host of other elements of late-Victorian life style--what today would be called the "ancillaries"--children's clothing, nursery knickknacks, landscape and interior design, even wallpaper.
By the early 1890s, though, her "faithful public" had begun to desert her, "tired of her quaintly clad girls and groups of children," as her critics warned they would. Her books sold poorly, and few, if any, English publishers would gamble on her new ideas. Her watercolors, once so highly regarded, went unsold at the exhibitions she desperately held in order to regain some public attention, as well as to boost her deflated income.
Even American publishers, who had once treated her with deference and awe, had become quite boorish. After she had scattered her studio with samples of her work, one American editor, whom she entertained for the sake of a possible commission, asked her "how much they were by the dozen, to which his wife added, 'Do you sell works on a wholesale basis?'" It was a frustrating, depressing ending for the artist John Ruskin had championed, claiming that "all gold and silver you can dig out of the earth are not worth the kingcups and daisies she gave you of her grace."
Greenaway might be heartened by the fact that her style has persisted, and that, of the many remarkable illustrators of children's books in the latter half of the 19th century, she is probably the best remembered today. Not long after her agonizing death from cancer in 1901, at the age of 55,
Greenawayisme was a children's fashion vogue in France. Hers was the only couture from England to have been accepted into the continental market. Liberty of London fabrics (Kate was friendly with the Libertys) still bases its patterns on designs that could have stepped out of the pages of one of her
Almanacks. In the 1970s, American girls were again decked out in her prints; and, more recently, young women in England were happily rediscovering the very feminine, Victorian look that she created. And, of course, Holly Hobby and the Joan Walsh Anglund children continue as the pale reminders of Greenaway's once unique vision of what Ruskin called "the radiance and innocence of re-instated infant divinity."
Rodney Engen's revealing portrait of this important and poignant figure of the Victorian golden age of children's literature is thoroughly intriguing. The creator of all those beautiful children of paradise was herself a "short, dark, dowdy" old maid "garbed in black" living on the less than idyllic outskirts of London. One of her child friends thought she looked "something like a gnome."
Given her physical plainness, it is certainly interesting that she would have won the affections of John Ruskin, the quirky Pre-Raphaelite aesthetician, who liked his numerous lady friends (his "pets") to look like the subjects from paintings by Millais or Rossetti. The shy, socially awkward Greenaway was 36 when she and Ruskin had their first tea together in her studio, and she "was extremely nervous and rarely smiled. When she spoke she had difficulties pronouncing her 'm's,' and lisped in a tiresome way." She was painfully aware of her lack of physical attractiveness, and late in her life would write to a friend, "I was given quite the wrong sort of body to live in, I am sure. I ought to have been taller, slimmer, at any rate passably good-looking, so that my soul might have taken flights, my fancy have expanded."
In some of the best chapters of his book, Engen traces in meticulous detail Greenaway's troubled creative development. She was the daughter of a luckless wood engraver, John Greenaway, who encouraged her early artistic promise and later collaborated with her on a number of her first illustration projects. Elizabeth, her mother, was stern and ambitious, determined to provide a better life for her family than her husband could. She opened her own business as a "ladies' outfitter," and it thrived. From the scraps of cloth lying around her mother's shop, Kate first pieced together costumes for her treasured dolls, inventing those dresses that would later be reborn in the pages of her books.
As a child, Kate was temperamental and introverted, plagued by mysterious illnesses, as she continued to be much of her life. These sudden attacks kept her out of ordinary schools and away from normal social intercourse with other children. She preferred to be the observer of childhood activites rather than the participant. In compelling dreams, the primary theme of much of her work (escape from a callous, hostile urban world to a rural eden) began to crystallize, eventually taking its full shape in the visions of her most famous books:
Under the Window (1879),
The Language of the Flowers (1884),
Marigold Garden (1885), and her illustrations for Browning's
Pied Piper of Hamelin (1888).
She preserved this fantasy throughout her life, and it allowed her to reach that "Somewhere Town" that lay over the rooftops and far away from the "vulgar and sordid" London streets where she grew up as a child and struggled as a young artist. She disappeared into her work where she could always be, like the Piper's children, "in the spring." At 51 she confessed, "Do you know I'm not grown up yet--it's funny--I'm not."
Engen also helps the reader to understand the often- criticized, static quality of her illustrations--so unlike the lyric liveliness in the work of her friend, Randolph Caldecott. Her artistic talents were shaped by the National Course of Art Instruction, "with its emphasis on geometry, linear outline and decorative design" at the Finsbury School of Art in South Kensington. The rigorous and rigid training she received there was meant to produce "a nation of designer craftsmen" who would create "the carpets, wallpapers, and manufactured bric- Ma-brac essential to the mid-Victorian home." Interestingly, Greenaway did exceptionally well under this system of disciplined, repetitive copying from elaborately detailed ornament and classically draped models. Though Greenaway had drawn from life and nature from an early age, particularly in the country village of Rolleston, where she was sent to stay with relatives during the summers or when her mother was too ill to care for her, it was the influence of Ruskin that helped her to clarify her already deep regard for nature into her aesthetic credo--indeed, her religion.
Engen's is the first full-length study of Greenaway's life and work since the authorized Spielmann biography of 1905, and Engen's is the first biography to make extensive, relatively uncensored use of the voluminous Greenaway-Ruskin correspondence, which was largely suppressed by the relatives of both artists. Ruskin began writing to her in 1879 because he had fallen in love with the Greenaway maidens (her "girlies," as he called them). They reminded him of a disastrous and somewhat scandalous love affair he had hoped to consummate with a teen-aged girl, Rose La Touche (he was 30 years her senior, and her parents forbade the marriage). Rose died a few years later, and Ruskin never fully recovered from the loss. Over the course of the nearly 20--year correspondence between Ruskin and Greenaway, he was able to recapture his lost love through the many "Roses" that appeared in the books, sketches, and watercolors she sent him.
For her part, Greenaway was forever star struck by the attentions of Ruskin. Dutifully, she tried to follow his drawing lessons from nature, though he remained exasperated by her inability to draw as he wished her to. But it would seem she could please Ruskin in other ways, by catering to his less than innocent desire for her to send him suggestively posed, revealing pictures of her children. For several years, at his suggestion, Greenaway engaged in an exchange of "pretend" love letters with him. The trouble was, she took it seriously, falling hopelessly in love with him and demanding more and more of his attention, while Ruskin was playing the same flirtatious game with a number of other "pets" and was often too mentally unstable himself to keep up his part in the selfish charade he had started.
The story of Ruskin and Greenaway's "affair" occupies Engen for nearly half of the book, and this is one of its few real problems. We tend to lose sight of everything else that was affecting her life because of Engen's insistence on quoting, often repetitively and pointlessly, from their letters. Suddenly the bottom has fallen out of the wood-engraved illustration market and Kate is in dire financial straits, or her brother has had another of his bouts with mental instability, or her parents die. Engen handles these minor difficulties with dispatch and returns us to pages more of Ruskin's often incoherent rantings or arrogant demands concerning Greenaway's artistic future. Engen can't be blamed for wanting to mine such a rich lode of biographical ore. But, in the end, one feels that the ghost of the irrepressible Ruskin has also managed to take over Engen's work.
The other problem lies with the book's illustrations. The reader might well have expected more and better quality for a book of this scope and price. Often, key illustrations that receive special attention in Engen's text are so reduced and muddily reproduced as to be nearly impenetrable; others, like the wonderful Piper's garden, appear as murky black and whites, when they should have been featured in Greenaway's translucent colors. And at still other points, important plates are placed years away from their relevant position in the text.
One comes away from Engen's excellent study with the nagging feeling that, while this is surely an important and necessary book, it could have been a much better one. With Engen's impeccable knowledge of the period, especially of its publishing history and of Caldecott and Walter Crane, the other dominant figures of illustration at the time, it
should have been.