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Learning to read - the Victorian way

The National Archives celebrates the 175th anniversary of the birth of artist, printmaker and wallpaper designer Walter Crane with an in-depth look at how Crane transformed children's book design in the second half of the 19th century. Walter Crane (1845-1915) was the son of a portraitist father and was apprenticed to a wood-engraver when just 13 years old. This led him into a career in book illustration with a particular focus on children's books. As he later explained, the standard of children's printed books at the time was deplorable: ‘The books for babies...of the cheaper sort called toy books were not very inspiriting. These were generally careless and unimaginative woodcuts, very casually coloured by hand, dabs of pink and emerald green being laid on across faces and frocks with a somewhat reckless aim.’ Crane’s own elaborate, highly imaginative woodcuts, partly inspired by Japanese prints which were then all the rage, raised the standard considerably and turned his children's books into works of art.

The National Archives sum up Crane’s success in children’s book illustration as coming down to his understanding that 'all of the elements of the book as an object, including its content, decoration and manufacturing contributed to the child’s experience of it. He achieved this by applying the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, where form followed function, and by using a combination of decorative art and pictorial representations to illustrate them'.

To read a full article about Crane's work and to see many more of his illustrations, visit:

The National Archive, the official archive and publisher for the UK Government, describes itself as 'the guardian of over 1,000 years of iconic national documents'. Do visit their website which boasts a great archive of podcasts, a wonderful blog, and lots of live author webchats and Q&A sessions.

Image copyright: The National Archive


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