ARTHUR RACKHAM: A Biography By James Hamilton Arcade/Little, Brown. 199 pp. $40

ARTHUR RACKHAM, perhaps the most popular of all British children's book illustrators, had no use for critics. "I do not think I have found the published criticism of my own work of any value to me as an artist," he admitted.That the public liked his work was all that mattered. His advice was that "when we have put forth our best effort, let us quietly retire to our workshops again and try to do better next time." This unassuming cockney gent, known as "the Goblin Master" and "Court Painter to King Oberon and Queen Titania," who looked more like a clergyman than an artist, was a diligent craftsman who did retire quietly to his workshop to do the best he could. His life was so uneventful, his personality so free of eccentricity, that an early biographer lamented that he could find "no amusing myths or romantic legends . . . to excite the curious." Rackham's art was his life.

Still, there have already been three sumptuous coffee-table books devoted to this unobtrusive illustrator. Derek Hudson's workmanlike biography (1960) provides the facts, but little of the man's spirit. However, it does avoid the sometimes absurd critical commentary that mars Fred Gettings's 1975 monograph. The best book is the latest by James Hamilton, who wrote the catalogue for the 1980 Rackham retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He has delved deeply into a mass of Rackham's letters and other family papers. Not that the artist himself would have approved. "I can't bear to have my views (which I expressd far too freely and foolishly) into cold print," he wrote. "I'm much too careless a talker to bear reporting." Nevertheless Hamilton has succeeded in revealing the shrewd intelligence behind the flights of fancy.

Rackman was a late bloomer. Born in 1867, he did not marry until he was 36 (to Edyth Starkie, a gifted painter in her own right) or gain his first success until he was 38. Hamilton spends too much time on the undistinguished early years, but the book, like Rackham's career, comes to life with the publication of his first deluxe edition, Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle (1905). Although Rackham had no idea what the Catskills looked like and his Indians are more goblin than Iroquois, he produced a rich interpretation of the American classic.

Rip Van Winkle was an immediate success. Rackham followed it up with the even more ambitious Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906). This was not J.M. Barrie's famous play, but rather a few chapters from an earlier novel. Rackham preferred "the Kensington Peter being a palpable invention" to "the other Peter a typifying of everlasting boyhood." He never did illustrate Peter and Wendy, evidently because he thought "Never Never lands are poor prosy substitutes for Kaatskills and Kensingtons, with their stupendous powers of imagination. What power localising a myth has." His enchantment of Kensington Gardens after lockout time with all the marvels of fairyland established Rackham as the leading children's book artist of the day.

He could do no wrong. Or could he? His next choice was the most controversial of his career. Now that the copyright of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland had expired, Rackham proceeded to re-illustrate Lewis Carroll's classic, not expecting the public outcry at his daring to replace John Tenniel's wood engravings with his watercolors. The London Times found Rackham's humor "forced and derivative, and his work shows few signs of true imaginative instinct." But the dispute only fueled the book's sales, which were nearly twice that of Peter Pan.

Rackham's limited signed editions were (he was the first to admit) "really to be regarded as bound up portfolios of pictures -- rather than 'books.' " He did not so much illustrate the text as expand on it. He might take an otherwise arbitrary phrase (such as "The fairies are exquisite dancers" from Peter Pan) and weave some exquisite image to fit it. It is not always clear which came first -- the picture or the accompanying text. Rackham believed that the illustrator must be seen "as a partner not as a servant" to the author. "An illustration may legitimately give the artist's view of the author's ideas; or it may give his . . . independent view of the author's subject. But it must be the artist's view; any attempt to coerce him into a mere tool in the author's hands can only result in the most dismal failure." But no matter who the author -- Shakespeare, Barrie, Carroll, Wagner or Andersen -- and no matter what the setting, Rackham strove to provide "the environment for the stories." He transformed an author's words by enveloping them within his own distinctive atmosphere, that "vein of schadenfreude (what is now misleadingly described as sadism)" that so terrified the young Kenneth Clark.

Not all of Rackham's attempts succeeded. He was really not equipped to match the grandeur of Wagner's "Ring," and Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1935) is a dreadful hodgepodge of the grotesque and the whimsical. He also miscalculated in reworking old inferior work with watercolor and in allowing his publishers to hire other artists to color those he could not be bothered with when the demand for his work was at its height.

He had little sympathy for current literature and stuck to the classics. He was by nature conservative, being artistically in effect the last gasp of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. The modern age baffled him: He could not fathom cars, telephones, Cubism, wrist watches or "new-fangled" horn-rimmed glasses. "I would rather have a page of handwriting I couldn't read than a typewritten manuscript," he confessed. He professed no knowledge of politics or changing morality. (When attending one of Augustus John's "dishevelled Bohemian orgies," his host warned the other guests, "Don't shock little Arthur too much, ladies and gentlemen: he is learning about life from you and he must not advance too quickly.") He cared little for modern schools, saying, "To learn nothing, to acquire perfect bodily health and physical development, and to have free social intercourse is my ideal of education." HE WAS JUST as conservative in his taste in children's books. "I can only say that I firmly believe in the greatest stimulating and educative power of imaginative, fantastic, and playful pictures and writings for children in their most impressionable years -- a view that most unfortunately, I consider, has its opponents in these matter of fact days."

As the years went by, it grew increasingly difficult for Rackham to find books to illustrate. "I am so anxious to do only such as give me subjects that I enjoy," he noted, "while my publishers have to think of vacancies in their lists and current market conditions, and competitors . . ." The Vicar of Wakefield (1929) and Peer Gynt (1936) are disappointing, and Christopher Morley's Where the Blue Begins (1925) is a disaster. He could get up no enthusiasm to do "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and Jane Austen was not for him. "I must have some freedom in the direction of grotesque fantasy, humour and such like," he demanded. "There are not a few books of delicate charm that are outside my natural bent."

Although he once admitted "To end their lives in a nursery . . . is the most desired end for my books to reach," he was getting further and further away from children's books. Happily, at the end of his life, the Limited Editions Club commissioned him to re-illustrate The Wind in the Willows, a work he had longed to do for many years. It proved to be his final assignment. He died in September 1939.

Hamilton confines himself primarily to the life. While the artistic circles Rackham moved in are described in detail, his art is not sufficiently compared to his contemporaries' work. The illustrations are also discussed as separate works rather than in the context of the books that inspired them. But what a wealth of pictures Hamilton does include, many previously unpublished! On occasion he neglects to produce some tantalizing image referred to in his text, but he does give a rich selection of photographs, preliminaries and variants of the same picture.

The book's design is disconcerting, with columns of type fighting for space with the images and their dense captions. And more time should have been devoted to copy editing. At one point the Spencer Collection is said to be part of the New York Public Library, at another place part of the Philadelphia Free Library. The same line from a letter to Eleanor Farjeon appears on both pages 128 and 132, the same passage from another letter on pages 150 and 168. Hamilton also has not taken full advantage of private and public sources in the United States (the Beinecke Library at Yale in particular). Nevertheless, despite its flaws, Arthur Rackham is an eloquent and delightful introduction to the life and art of this remarkable illustrator. Michael Patrick Hearn teaches the history of children's book illustration at Columbia University and is the editor of, most recently, "Denslow's Picture Book Treasury."