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Today marks the centenary of the death of Walter Crane (1845-1915), one of the most important artists, designers and book illustrators of the Victorian era.

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Crane trained as a wood-engraver and became a freelance illustrator in the 1860s, while also exhibiting at the Royal Academy. During the 1860s and ’70s, his artistic output was prodigious. He designed the immensely popular children’s Toy Books for George Routledge, printed by Edmund Evans, as well as Evans’s own cheap ‘yellow-backs’, forerunners of the modern paperback. He also designed ceramics, nursery tiles and wallpaper. His clarity of line and use of flat areas of colour indicate a strong Japanese influence.

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‘The bundle of sticks’, from The Baby’s Own Aesop (London: George Routledge, 1887). R144222.

Walter Crane became a Socialist under the influence of his friend William Morris, whom he met in 1871. The two men were leading figures of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which espoused honesty of design and materials, and sought to give proper recognition to the work of craftsmen. Like Morris, Crane wrestled with the paradox of his own position: he championed Socialism, while his commer­cial work catered for the tastes of a wealthy elite and he himself enjoyed a comfortable middle-class life.

Design for the Ancoats Brotherhood, Manchester. The figure of Hope appears to a workman, his wife and infant. R199330.

Design for the Ancoats Brotherhood, Manchester. The figure of Hope appears to a workman, his wife and infant. R199330

After the death of William Morris, Crane was the best-known decorative artist in Britain. He remained President of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society until 1912. However, Crane was unable to provide energetic leadership or direction. As the twen­tieth century advanced and new artistic trends came out of Europe, the Arts and Crafts Movement was perceived in some quarters as a relic of a bygone age.

On 18 December 1914 his wife Mary was killed by a train. The inquest recorded a verdict of suicide. Walter Crane died three months later in Horsham Cottage Hospital, on 14 March 1915.

In 2002 the Whitworth Art Gallery and the Library jointly purchased the Walter Crane Archive, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other funders. The archive contains over four thousand items from Crane’s studio, and covers all aspects of Crane’s art and design work, including his book illustration, decorative designs, sketches and paintings. The artistic material is now located at the Whitworth, while the Library holds the textual elements of the archive: correspondence, commonplace books and journals, manuscripts, and photographs. A catalogue of the entire archive is available on Elgar.

The Library has recently digitised one of Crane’s hugely popular children’s books, King Luckieboy’s Picture Book, published by George Routledge in 1870. Clicking on the image below will open a browsable ‘bookreader object’ in Luna.

King Luckieboy's Picture Book (London: George Routledge, 1870). R221875

King Luckieboy’s Picture Book (London: George Routledge, 1870). R221875