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Arthur Rackham’s Rare and Revolutionary 1917 Illustrations for the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales

Amid the thickest darkness of World War I, a luminous beacon of the magical inside the macabre.

Arthur Rackham’s Rare and Revolutionary 1917 Illustrations for the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales

“His face was wizened and wrinkled like a ripe walnut, and as he peered short sightedly at me out of his goggle spectacles I thought he was one of the goblins out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.” This is how his nephew Walter remembers thirty-something Arthur Rackham (September 19, 1867–September 6, 1939) — one of the most creatively influential and commercially inventive illustrators of all time. The aesthetic accuracy of the then-teenager’s recollection may be suspect, but one thing is certain — Rackham was deeply animated by the Grimm spirit and was at the time consumed by the famed stories.

In 1900, seven years before he revolutionized the business of book art with Alice in Wonderland, Rackham set out to illustrate a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. He had just met the painter Edyth Starkie, young Walter’s aunt, over a garden fence. Edyth, whom he would soon marry, not only influenced Rackham’s aesthetic but bolstered his confidence, encouraging him to deviate from tradition and develop a style all his own. It was in those early Grimm illustrations that Rackham began honing the singular sensibility for which he is now remembered and which has since influenced generations of artists.

One of Rackham's early color plates for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales
One of Rackham’s early color plates for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

By 1909, he had added 40 color plates to the line drawings from his first Grimm edition. In 1917, amid the thickest darkness of World War I, Rackham returned to the Grimms — those supreme patron saints of the magical inside the macabre. This time, he interpreted the centuries-old tales differently: Where his first edition had been unapologetically violent and grim, the new one radiated what the human spirit most needed amid the hopelessness, destruction, and desecration of the war — beauty, enchantment, charm, hope, even humor.

The result, of which I was fortunate enough to track down one of the few surviving copies, was Little Brother & Little Sister (public library) — a selection of the Grimms’ most beloved and hopeful tales, published in a lavish limited edition of 525 copies each signed by Rackham, who was already one of the most widely known and successful illustrators of his time.

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The True Sweetheart: "The third time, she wore the star-dress which sparkled at every step."
The True Sweetheart: “The third time, she wore the star-dress which sparkled at every step.”
The True Sweetheart
The True Sweetheart
The Old Woman in the Wood: "Suddenly the branches twined round her and turned into two arms."
The Old Woman in the Wood: “Suddenly the branches twined round her and turned into two arms.”
Wishing-Table, Gold-Ass, and Cudgel: "Gold pieces fell down on the cloth like a thunder shower."
Wishing-Table, Gold-Ass, and Cudgel: “Gold pieces fell down on the cloth like a thunder shower.”
Snow-white and Rose-red
Snow-white and Rose-red: “This end of his beard was caught in a crack in a tree.”
The Cunning Little Taylor: "When the bear heard the music he could not help beginning to dance."
The Cunning Little Taylor: “When the bear heard the music he could not help beginning to dance.”
The Gnomes: "He played until the room was entirely filled with gnomes."
The Gnomes: “He played until the room was entirely filled with gnomes.”
The Nose Tree: "They came at last to their poor old friend."
The Nose Tree: “They came at last to their poor old friend.”
The Little People's Presents: "What did she find there but real ripe strawberries."
The Little People’s Presents: “What did she find there but real ripe strawberries.”
The Three Army-Surgeons
The Three Army-Surgeons
Spindle, Shuttle, and Needle: "The waiting maid sprang down first and Maid Maleen followed."
Spindle, Shuttle, and Needle: “The waiting maid sprang down first and Maid Maleen followed.”
The Young Giant: "When her husband saw her, she shouted, 'Hi! Come to me here.'"
The Young Giant: “When her husband saw her, she shouted, ‘Hi! Come to me here.'”
Fitcher's Bird: "He hurried away with long strides."
Fitcher’s Bird: “He hurried away with long strides.”
Fitcher's Bird: "At last she met the bridegroom who was coming slowly back."
Fitcher’s Bird: “At last she met the bridegroom who was coming slowly back.”
How Six Men Got On in the World
How Six Men Got On in the World
The Hut in the Forest: "She begged quite prettily to be allowed to spend the night there."
The Hut in the Forest: “She begged quite prettily to be allowed to spend the night there.”
Frontispiece: "She took off her golden garter and put it round the roe-buck's neck."
Frontispiece: “She took off her golden garter and put it round the roe-buck’s neck.”

Beginning with his Alice in Wonderland edition, Rackham had invented a new business model — each of his books was published in a small run of lavish, beautifully bound, signed, expensive gift copies, and a large run of affordable mass-market ones. But, like many pioneers, he was unprepared for his own success — the limited editions became so prized and popular that people were clamoring to own them despite the premium price, all but neglecting the standard editions. Rackham himself remarked:

There is such a fashion for publishing only limited editions that my books are in a rather curious position. The ordinary editions do not sell so large a number as of old, & the limiteds are vastly over-applied for.

And yet Rackham’s lamentation speaks to the ideal intersection of art and commerce — making something so beautiful and so valuable to people that it’s impossible for the artist to keep up with the demand.

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My own copy came with this endearing inscription to a young Miss Evelyn Horton from her mother, bespeaking just how treasured Rackham’s books were and embodying his pioneering model of the gift book as an artifact and a loving gesture:

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Complement Little Brother & Little Sister with the best illustrations of the Brothers Grimm in the century since Rackham, then revisit his visionary take on Alice in Wonderland.


Published February 29, 2016

https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/02/29/arthur-rackham-brothers-grimm/

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