Arthur Rackham’s Stunning 1926 Illustrations for “The Tempest”
“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”
By Maria Popova
In 1898, over a garden wall, Arthur Rackham (September 19, 1867–September 6, 1939) met the Irish portrait artist and sculptor Edyth Starkie, who encouraged the onetime insurance clerk turned insecure artist to pursue his creative passion. (She also married him.) She convinced him to exhibit his fantasy watercolors at the Royal Watercolor Society, where Rackham feared his they would be mocking-stock against the stern traditional work. Instead, they were lauded as visionary and innovative. More exhibitions followed, which led to commissions that allowed this quiet, introverted, serious-faced man to unleash his uncommon imagination upon the landscape of literature.
In 1907 — his fiftieth year, and four years after he married Edith — Rackham revolutionized book art and the business of publishing with his Alice in Wonderland illustrations by using his signature robust pen, India ink, and watercolor technique to render engravers unnecessary in the bookmaking process and to produce dreamy images that brought the Carroll classic to life in a thrilling new way. So began a career that would go on to influence generations of illustrators and book artists for more than a century to come. His obituary in The Times of London would mourn him as a preeminent artist who had earned “a special place in the hearts of children” — perhaps because he refused to treat children as emotionally infirm and understood the importance of being scared. His drawings — especially his unmistakable trees — emanate a reverence for the totality of life, the inseparability of beauty and brutality, of terror and transcendence.
In 1926, as the appetite for Rackham’s lavish books was declining in post-war Britain but increasing in America, he set his sights on one of the most timeless masterpieces of literature for grownups: Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, composed more than two centuries earlier. Rackham created twenty stunning ink-and-watercolor illustrations and twenty line drawings for a special limited edition, only 520 copies of which were printed, each signed and numbered by the artist — numbers 1 through 260 to be sold in Great Britain and Ireland, and the remaining half in the United States.
Couple with Rackham’s haunting illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm from the outset of his career, then devour other stunning illustrations from special editions of literary classics: sensual paintings for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass by Rackham’s gifted, forgotten compatriot and contemporary Margaret C. Cook, Ralph Steadman’s illustrations for Orwell’s Animal Farm, Aubrey Beardsley’s gender-defying illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, Harry Clarke’s haunting illustrations for Goethe’s Faust, and Salvador Dalí’s paintings for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne.
Published April 3, 2019