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The Beautiful Ordinary: The Life of Arthur Rackham

Posted by Theology of Home on
The Beautiful Ordinary: The Life of Arthur Rackham

By Denise Trull

I love bookstores. I don’t think I have met a single bookstore I haven’t loved. They each have their own particular flavor, so to speak. I am not averse to the more modern shops, mind you. Those places, filled with bright, no-nonsense lighting and low, matching shelves that mean business, speak of a well-catalogued inventory. The order and neatness are admittedly appealing to something in my soul. This is a store where I would buy a book on the foods of Southern France, bulging deliciously with photos of cafes and piles of escargot on blue print china.

There is one particular bookstore, however, that has stolen my heart completely; and any excursion to its door automatically makes the day a memorable one. It’s an old shopfront on a busy street in a very eclectic neighborhood sprouting everywhere with the beauty of ancient trees. The bell on the front door trembles like a tinkling fairy when the door is creaked open and scraping over the buckling floorboards. Stacks of books have made themselves quite at home there for many years. None of the bookcases match. Tall, short, glass paned, or no -- they all seem to go quite nicely together and make a pretty picture of Bohemian comfort.

There is usually an older gentleman, quite Dickensian in appearance, sitting behind the counter reading, of course. He is always wrapped cozily in an overly large, button down sweater with pockets ever and always overflowing with note cards, pencils, and other treasures. He smells faintly of cough drops. He has glasses at the end of his nose through which he peers at you in quite a distinctive, if disconcerting, way. I learned over time what that glance means. He is separating the sheep from the goats who cross his threshold, for he knows, by long experience, the true book lovers from the mere browsing dilettantes. The book lovers always pause in that doorway for the merest second, sniffing like hounds eager for the scent, that familiar tang of authenticity: the musty, dusty, deliciousness of old books. Scent captured, they quickly disappear into the twisted warren of bookshelves, not to be seen until two hours later. Once in a while, like the baying of hounds, you can hear them calling to one another with excited discovery. These are my people.

I have found many treasures in this unassuming little bookstore. I have read dusty, water stained, leather tomes of poetry while sitting on top of a pile of old magazines stacked against an ancient radiator which makes a pleasant nest during the winter months -- shared, of course, with the resident and most ingratiating black cat named Felix. This is where I come to touch the covers of rare editions of Keats, Wordsworth, and Dickinson which, of course, I can in no way afford but am allowed to visit for a while. I slowly turn the pages of art books and revel in the colors of time. Michelangelo, Vermeer, Fra Angelico, the gorgeous cerulean blue signature of Renoir and his joyful take on life -– this man who made me fall in love with the magic that is Paris. I browse through old Bibles and sometimes find ancient holy cards that might have belonged to a small boy who made his First Communion long ago and had a great Aunt Sally who was praying for him. I always have the impression that these shelves echo with the muted voices of writers and illustrators, voices eager to be heard and seen if only the books were opened and the pages free to turn. It is a magical place, this bookstore.

It was no surprise, then, that two days before my birthday my husband and I found ourselves among the stacks on a gray and cloudy winter’s day rummaging as only old bibliophiles can do. We always start together and peruse a few shelves in tandem and then just as an old road forks mysteriously to right and left, we eventually wander away from each other into the warrens of our own particular interests.

This day was no different but we did not diverge until after we looked over the art books. And there it was on the top shelf -- a simple green book with gold lettering: Arthur Rackham by one Derek Hudson. I sighed quite audibly and pulled it carefully from the shelf. It was filled with fairies and goblins and princesses that fairly flew out of the book as I turned the pages slowly. I had found a treasure. The price, however, was also worthy of the prize it was, but a price I thought quite too high for us, and regretfully I put it back. Tony patted me on the shoulder and wandered away to the Science Fiction section.

All photos of the book courtesy of Trull 

Arthur Rackham is an artist. Well, more like a magician with a pen and watercolor box, to be precise. When I was little he took me to beautiful worlds of fairies and filigreed lands whenever I read the fairy stories he illustrated. Here I found Puck, Oberon, flower fairies, dryads, nymphs and trees with golden apples that could talk. Here I found Neverland and the lost boys, Wendy and Peter Pan. I was given a poster long ago of one of his lovely princesses and it has traveled with me from my teens through college dorms, through moves and storage and now back onto the walls of my empty nest. It is a bit torn on the edges, but my Dad made me a frame and my princess is quite content to grace my walls with her elegance as though looking at me through the window of another land entirely -- the land of Arthur Rackham’s genius. It is a land I return to often. Even now, after poring over his pictures awhile, I see trees and ponds and weather differently, as though it is entirely within the realm of possibility for a fairy princess to come dancing out of the pines in the park as I walk by. It would come as no surprise. Rackham is that kind of magician.

Well, perhaps he was working his magic that particular day and really wanted me to have that lovely green book, because unbeknownst to me, my husband managed to circle back when I moved on to the poetry shelves and he bought the Rackham right under my nose. I never guessed. There is nothing better than being married to a covert, stealthy romantic. They are the best kind and I am glad I married one. It was the most perfect birthday present I could have imagined.

This dark green volume with the golden lettering contains the wonderful story of Arthur Rackham’s life, and I have been pleasantly surprised in ways that I did not think I would be. By the look and feel of his fairy drawings, I was expecting a character slightly eccentric at least. Perhaps an absent-minded, dreamy little man with spectacles who forgot to wear socks or might be wearing two different colors. I pictured him in a studio littered with half penciled fairy wings and drawings of goblin heads in various forms of completion. One whose studio stood in a cold, upstairs little flat in fanciful disrepair, housing Arthur who subsisted on tea and biscuits with a bit of boiled mutton on a Sunday. Too much reading of Dickens, you say? You might be correct.

In real time, Arthur Rackham was so surprisingly ordinary in every way. He was one of twelve children who grew up in a boisterous, cockney family in mid-19th Century London. He was a bit frail as a child and was easily tired out, but he was an even-tempered, sensible little person, who was good at schoolwork. He loved order and he was quick with sums. His friends loved him for his cheerful and kind ways. His teachers at school loved him for his affability, his diligence, and his emerging wit. He was not above a few reveries during a tedious Latin class, however, and drew witty caricatures of his teachers which were confiscated by those good natured professors who got quite the chuckle at the truth of the likeness. Arthur had a knack for drawing and always had a sketch pad with him. The margins of his schoolbooks worked as well and he filled up every available space with heads, flowers, and insects drawn next to conjugations of amo, amas, amat.

In his teens, because of ill health brought on by too much study, his teachers recommended that he be sent somewhere to rest and recuperate. One of his aunts took him on a sea voyage to visit Australia for a year. This seemed to do the trick. He received his health back and was delighted with the sights and smells of Australia. Here Arthur spent hours drawing the animals and the natural wonders around him. He fell more in love with sketching at this time and got it into his head that maybe he was meant to become an artist.

He returned home at year's end determined to approach his father with his idea. His father accepted his well laid out desire to go to art school, but insisted that it not only be art school. Art must be a side bar to actually making a living. Arthur agreed. One would not have believed this kind of affable agreement from an “artist type.” No angst or wailing or gnashing of teeth as we would expect from our preconceived notions of a creative type? No poignant scene complete with mood music of Arthur running off alone on the moors pacing in a misunderstood, melancholy stew? Nope.

Part of me, truth be told, was disappointed. But my disappointment soon turned to a grin at this surprising charm: Arthur agreeing with his father that business was a good plan. Surprisingly Arthur never once in his life felt tortured for his art. Arthur was true to his word. He pursued business at school and eventually landed a job in an insurance office. In the evenings he enrolled in classes at the Lambeth School of Art where he spent seven years learning the fine art of drawing.

He spent many long years sitting in an office for several hours a day, and did not dislike it. He sold Insurance and found he was really good at it. He had a head for business and accounts. He never starved or wasted his money as we might suspect of an artist type. His books were always balanced, and he always had money safely tucked away in his savings account. But his eyes were on the prize. One day he wanted to be an artist full time. He waited for an opportunity.

He landed a job drawing illustrations for travel brochures. Since there was no photography at this time, he needed to be very realistic and almost draftsman like in his style. He drew landscapes, people, and famous places with precise skill -- almost like taking photos. This style was nothing like what we know him for now, but he spent years doing these illustrations. He drew for magazines. He drew famous people like queens and famous politicians of his day.

Once in a while his goblins would escape his imagination and make it down on paper to personify the influenza running rampant at that time, but that was the only guess at the magical genius percolating underneath that head for numbers. Eventually, he realized that photography was swiftly coming to the fore and he wondered if his realistic drawings were soon to be replaced and his days might be numbered.

He continued to send his work out to publishers and perhaps had it returned and knew disappointment as he once again made his dutiful way to the office. In his evening time, he dreamed up whole worlds that would delight us all. Art swirling underneath the commonplace. Fairies began to emerge, grotesque little goblins began dancing on his brain, princesses in finery, elves, dwarves, gnarly old trees and delightful little men in the moon. No one knew anything of these drawings for a long time. He was inspired by the fantastical drawing of the artist Albrecht Durer and studied his style in those wee hours of the morning. How tenacious is art in the human brain. It will not be conquered by the press of other things. I find that so fascinating.

By a happy providence, a publisher needed some illustrations for a book of Grimm Fairy Tales and would Arthur be interested? And this is when we discover the Rackham under the suit, tie, and sensible shoes. This fanciful, wild, magical, inner world running around inside his well coifed head and falling from his portfolio. Where did it all come from? No one had a clue. Arthur said it was the stories, the fairy stories of his childhood. Parents! Always read those fairy stories! He had those images inside his head for years. Now they came out through his normal, well manicured fingers. And Arthur filled the world with wonder. Arthur Rackham became famous. He gave up insurance and stepped into the role of full time artist. He went on to illustrate many, many children’s books. He became sought after and loved for the beauty he gave.

I think it is telling that the times Arthur lived in were considered the golden age of illustration -- with the likes of Rackham, Beatrix Potter, Caldecott, and even William Morris tucked in there -- all this burst of magical fairy drawing came during the industrial revolution in London and other cities. It was almost a counter-cultural fighting back against the soot and ugliness of factories and machines. These artists feverishly filled minds and imaginations with the beauty of nature and the stuff of beautiful dreams, with reminders of the old tales -- so their people would not forget the "dearest freshness deep down things" as they walked the sooty streets of London.

Arthur continued to draw and eventually he got married to a lovely artist named Edyth Starkie. They had a pretty little daughter named Barbara and found their way to a country home with a studio out back. Arthur’s dream had come true. He was a full time artist with a steady income which could support the family he loved.

I discovered that Rackham had a lovely kind of personality that is "all things to all people." He was so genuine and at ease with himself and others. That is a rare gift in a stereotypical artist. And any who chanced to be his friend were lucky indeed, both young and old. He had that rare quality of treating children like thinking beings and spoke to them as such. But he also knew their emotional limitations and was not afraid to tell them that they would only understand some stories after they had lived a while longer. But never with condescension -- always with a practical realism and honesty that children always appreciate and find inviting.

He often asked children to pose for his drawings of Alice in Wonderland or Grimm's Fairy Tales. One little girl named Jane Dommett was asked to pose for Alice at the Mad Tea Party. Here is what she says:

"...I was so pleased he copied my print frock exactly, because it was one my mother had allowed me to design myself.”

My book goes on to say that, "In the mad tea party picture she sat in Rackham's big wing-back chair, and the table was laid with Mrs. Rackham's best china. The Rackhams' kitchen, and their cook, contributed to the kitchen scene. Miss Dommett remembered asking doubtfully, 'Will she throw plates?'

"'Oh no,' said Rackham, 'they've been broken already.' He had actually thrown a few to get the detail right."

With his own little daughter, Barbara, he was the consummate dad. He always let her into his studio when he worked and let her watch him draw up close. He let her look at all his paints and they had many conversations. He once in a while -- quite randomly -- made her pose for his drawings standing on tables, pretending to dance, holding a tea cup half way to her lips. He read her stories and did all the voices. He sounded like a wonderful father.

He had to face the inevitable envy of his fellow artists as he became more popular. If you have ever had to suffer this kind of thing, you will understand how hard it is. But Arthur accepted it all with great patience and good will and forgiveness -- but he did not stop painting just so they would feel better about themselves. He continued on with this steady self-knowledge of what he was about. He took their puffed up critiques and their snubs with his notoriously dry wit. He sailed above their envious comments with this wonderful, even, cheerful detachment.

People don't often praise the steady, even, kind of fellows half as much as they should. There is a lot of attractive virtue about them even though they can be easily overlooked. Rackham wasn't flashy or emotional. He didn't stir up enthusiasms or create sensational "followings" of devotees as the other artists did. He had friends and treated them with respect and loyalty. But he never over-flattered anyone or made friends to improve his chances at fame. He spoke his admiration of others with ready and heartfelt friendship. He loved warmly and whole heartedly those whom he counted as proven matter their status.

He loved his home, his wife, his daughter, his art. He genuinely had a splendid time creating all his illustrations with whimsy and wit and a constant eye for beauty. He had no pretensions nor demanded to be treated as though he were some sort of art god. He treated his art as a living as well as a thing to give him pleasure. He was very careful to save the money he earned and invested it for his family's comfort and ease. He bought a comfortable, whimsical house and made sure his own artist-wife had a studio of her own. He also listened eagerly to her comments and suggestions. She was his greatest and most sought out critic.

In his helpful, affable way, he joined the volunteer fire department and reveled in the theatrical ventures of his neighborhood community theater, being sought after as quite the actor. He lived frugally and did not waste his hard-earned money as we might think an artist would. He provided for his daughter and kept immaculate ledgers of spending and earning. It was said he wore the same suit and tie over and over again. He loved his small town, his neighbors, his home and puttering in his studio.

The beautiful thing about this story is my happy discovery that Arthur Rackham was ordinary and well-adjusted and yet all this magical, dancing loveliness was going on the whole time within him. I love the mystery of it. The ordinary housing the magical touch. It makes you suddenly look around at all the ordinary, pleasant people you see every day -- including your own children -- and wonder if the same sorts of things are going on inside of them. Rackham makes you ask that question, and it automatically makes the world a more interesting place for the possibility that we are not always what we may seem. Art can be pleasantly housed in a responsible citizen and still be amazing. The imagination is an intricate thing that can house numbers, accounts, lists, as well as fairies flying, goblins scheming, and beautiful princesses taking our breath away. This stuff of muse hidden under the “spell” of an ordinary insurance broker’s sort of life.

As I finished reading the last page, I was grateful Arthur had been waiting for me on the shelf at a small bookstore with a tinkling bell, a big, black snoozing cat named Felix, and a warren of unmatched bookshelves. Arthur would have been quite pleased at the quirky ordinariness of it I am sure. As I gaze at my fairy princess on the wall I can almost see him peek around from behind her and smile with a wink at me from his fairy world saying quite affably “Come any time. You are most welcomed.”

Denise Trull is the editor in chief of Sostenuto, an online journal for writers and thinkers of every kind to share their work with each other. Her own writing is also featured regularly at Theology of Home, and has appeared in Dappled Things. She also can be found at her Substack, The Inscapist. Denise is the mother of seven grown, adventurous children and has acquired the illustrious title of grandmother. She lives with her husband Tony in St. Louis, Missouri.

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