Randolph Caldecott

Often called the father of the picture book, Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886) is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential illustrators in the field of children's literature.

An English artist who illustrated picture books, fiction, verse, and fables for children as well as novels, poetry, and nonfiction for adults, Randolph Caldecott is the creator of works that are often considered the first modern picture books. Recognized as an artistic genius who brought creativity, technical skill, and a new professional quality to the genre of juvenile literature, Caldecott is best known for creating sixteen picture books that feature traditional nursery rhymes and songs and eightee nth-century comic poems. They are illustrated with economical yet lively pictures in sepia line and watercolor. These books, which include texts by such authors as Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper, and Edwin Waugh as well as those from familiar sources such as Mother Goose, depict classic rhymes such as "Hey Diddle Diddle," "The Queen of Hearts," "Sing a Song for Sixpence," and "The House that Jack Built"; songs such as "A Frog He Would A-Wooing Go" and "The Milkmaid"; and humorous verses such as The Diverting History of John Gilpin and The Three Jovial Huntsmen. In his illustrations, Caldecott introduced the technique of animation-the effect of continuous movement that takes the eye from page to page-to the picture book. His illustrations are lauded for expressing Caldecott's insight into human nature as well as for including the humor, action, and detail that appeals to children.

Born in Chester, England, in the county of Cheshire, on March 22, 1846, Caldecott was interested in animals, sports, and drawing from an early age. By the age of six, he had become an avid sketcher. Caldecott attended the prestigious King Henry VIII School, where he became head boy. He also continued his artistic endeavors-drawing from nature, carving wooden animals, modeling from clay, and painting. Although he had a fairly idyllic childhood, Caldecott nearly died from rheumatic fever. After his illness, Caldecott's health was to remain precarious for the rest of his life. When he was fifteen, Caldecott's father-who did not encourage his son's interests-arranged for him to work in a bank in rural Shropshire. In his free time, Caldecott hunted and fished and attended markets and local fairs, sketchbook in hand. In 1867, he transferred to a bank in Manchester. Colleagues at the bank later recalled finding his drawings of dogs and horses on the backs of receipts and old envelopes. Caldecott joined the Brasenose Club-an exclusive gentlemen's club for literary, scientific, and artistic pursuits-and became an evening student at the Manchester School of Art. The next year, his first drawings were published in local newspapers and humorous periodicals. In 1870, Caldecott went to London, where his portfolio was received favorably. In 1872, he moved there permanently to become a freelance illustrator. That summer, he accompanied author Henry Blackburn, later to become his biographer, to the Harz Mountains in Germany. Caldecott's drawings were gathered the next year and published in Blackburns's The Harz Mountains: A Town in the Toy Country.

In 1875, Caldecott provided the illustrations for his first children's book, Louisa Morgan's Baron Bruno; or, The Unbelieving Philosopher, and Other Fairy Stories, as well as for Old Christmas, a collection of Yuletide stories by American author Washington Irving. Two years later, his pictures graced another work by Irving, Bracebridge Hall, which is often thought to have cemented Caldecott's reputation as an illustrator. It also led to his association with Edmund Evans, a successful printer and engraver who had been publishing children's books illustrated by Walter Crane, one of England's best known artists, for twelve years. When Crane retired from the partnership, Evans invited Caldecott to continue in his place. Caldecott agreed to produce two picture books a year; these titles, published from 1878 to 1885, were to become his most acclaimed works. Through Evans, Caldecott became the first artist to be able to distribute his illustrations internationally. Since their initial publication, Caldecott's picture books have been issued in a variety of formats: in a single volume, in two collections of eight titles apiece, in four collections of two titles apiece, and in miniature editions.

In 1879, Caldecott moved to a country home in Kent and was elected a member of the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts. In 1880, he married Marion Brind. Although Caldecott loved children and often played with Walter Crane's, the couple remained childless. In 1882, Caldecott moved to Broomfield, Surrey, and entered into a successful collaboration with the children's writer Juliana Horatia Ewing, for whom he illustrated three books. He also continued to submit illustrations to periodicals, including Punch, the Graphic, and the Illustrated London News. In 1883, he illustrated Aesop's Fables, with text written by his brother Alfred. In 1885, he provided the pictures for a collection of fairy tales by the French fabulist, Jean de la Fontaine. Sent to the United States to draw sketches for the Graphic, Caldecott suffered an attack of acute gastritis in St. Augustine, Florida. He died on February 12, 1886, just before his 40th birthday. Prior to his death, Caldecott wrote, "Please say that my line is to make smile the lunatic who has shown no sign of mirth for many months."


Caldecott's Illustrations

Caldecott is considered an exceptional artist whose illustrations reflect his originality and intelligence. Michael Scott Joseph of the Dictionary of Literary Biography has noted, "In Caldecott's work the illustrator becomes an equal with the author…," while William Feaver of the Times Literary Supplement commented, "A brilliant combination of free drawing … and tonal restraint … gave his work a spontaneous yet age-old character." Considered a quintessentially English artist, Caldecott characteristically illustrated his picture books with bucolic scenes of local country life. Generally setting his pictures in the England of a century before, Caldecott accurately depicted people, animals, and typography while investing his works with sly wit and a strong sense of the richness and color of everyday living. The artist, who is often noted for the narrative quality of his pictures, created a style of pictorial storytelling by using subplots in his illustrations to enhance the meaning of the texts. Caldecott studied what he called the "art of leaving out as a science" and once wrote that "the fewer the lines, the less error committed." In his works, the artist uses a deceptively simple style to capture the essence of a subject with a minimum of lines, and he is often credited for his ability to illustrate a story completely while expanding its dimensions in just a few strokes. Caldecott's pictures, drawn with a brush used as a pen, appeared as both small line drawings and large double-page spreads. He is often acknowledged for the fluidity of his style, for the vitality of his renderings, for the beauty and accuracy of his backgrounds, and for his skill in depicting animals-especially dogs, horses, geese, and pigs-and facial expressions.


Caldecott's Themes

Although Caldecott's books are filled with gaiety, they do not shy away from harsh realities. His illustrations depict sickness and death, both of humans and animals. In addition, Caldecott includes surprising, often shocking, revelations in his drawings and paintings. One of his most famous pictures accompanies the nursery rhyme "Baby Bunting." Caldecott shows a tiny child walking outdoors with its mother in a suit made of rabbit skins, including the ears. The artist captures the moment when Baby Bunting confronts a group of rabbits. As author/illustrator Maurice Sendak noted in his introduction to The Randolph Caldecott Treasury, "Baby is staring with the most perplexed look at those rabbits, as though with the dawning of knowledge that the lovely, cuddly, warm costume he's wrapped up in has come from those creatures." Sendak concluded that Baby Bunting's expression seems to query, "Does something have to die to dress me?" In the well known closing illustrations for Hey Diddle Diddle, Caldecott shows the anthropomorphized Dish happily running away with the Spoon; however, the final picture takes an unexpected turn: the Dish has been broken into ten pieces, and the Spoon is being taken away by her angry parents, a Fork and a Knife. However, most of Caldecott's illustrated tales and rhymes are filled with robust, rollicking activity and are underscored by the artist's celebratory approach to life.


Critical Reception

A member, along with Walter Crane and Kate Green-away, of the triumvirate of English artists known as the "Academicians of the Nursery," Caldecott is usually considered the greatest of the three. Admired by Van Gogh and Gaughin as well as by children's artists such as Beatrix Potter and Marcia Brown, he is praised for the variety and range of his talents. Caldecott's picture books are often thought to be a perfect blend of art, text, and design. Popular during his lifetime, his works became extremely i nfluential after this death, and his style can be seen in the works of such artists as Hugh Thomson, L. Leslie Brooke, and Edward Ardizzone. In 1924, his drawing of "The Three Jovial Huntsmen"-taken from the book of the same name published in 1880-became the logo for the children's literature reviewing source the Horn Book Magazine, and in 1938 the American Library Association instituted the Caldecott Medal, an award presented to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book published each year. Although Caldecott's popularity is thought to have diminished in recent years due to changing tastes, his reputation is still stellar: most critics acknowledge that his books have timeless appeal and are among the best ever created for children.

Reviewers in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been almost unanimously favorable in their assessment of Caldecott's work. In 1881, W. E. Henley of the Art Journal wrote that he "is a kind of Good Genius of the Nursery, and-in the way of pictures-the most beneficent and delightful it ever had. … Under his sway Art for the nursery has become Art indeed." The next year, artist Kate Greenaway, herself a popular and respected illustrator, wrote of Caldecott in a letter, "I wish I had such a mind." In 1930, Jacqueline Overton, writing in Contemporary Illustrators of Children's Books, commented, "There has never been any picture book like those of Caldecott's, before or since." Beatrix Potter, an artist whose stature is considered near or equal to Caldecott's, commented in a letter in 1942, "I have the greatest admiration for his work-a jealous appreciation. … He was one of the greatest illustrators of all." Four years later, Mary Gould Davis wrote a biography of Caldecott in which she concluded, "As long as books exist and there are children to enjoy them, boys and girls-and their elders-will turn the pages of the Caldecott picture books." Perhaps Caldecott's most vocal supporter is Maurice Sendak. In 1965, he wrote of Caldecott in Book World, "[N]o artist since has matched his accomplishments.… His picture books … should be among the first volumes given to every child." Thirteen years later, Sendak stated in his introduction to The Randolph Caldecott Treasury, "When I came to picture books, it was Randolph Caldecott who really put me where I wanted to be"; the artist concluded, "Caldecott did it best, much better than anyone who ever lived."


Further Reading on Randolph Caldecott

Beatrix Potter's Americans: Selected Letters, edited by Jane Crowell Morse, Horn Book, 1982.

Blackburn, Henry, Randolph Caldecott: A Personal Memoir of His Early Art Career, Sampson Low, 1886; reprint by Singing Tree Press, 1969.

Children's Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey, Houghton, 1995, pp. 113-14.

Children's Literature Review, Volume 34, Gale, 1988.

Contemporary Illustrators of Children's Books, edited by Bertha E. Mahony and Elinor Whitney, 1930; reprint by Gale Research, 1978.

Davis, Mary Gould, Randolph Caldecott, 1846-1886: An Appreciation, Lippincott, 1946.

Dictionary of Literary Biography: British Children's Writers, 1800-1880, Volume 163, Gale, 1996, pp. 37-47.

The Randolph Caldecott Treasury, Warne, 1978.

Something about the Author, Volume 17, Gale, pp. 31-39.

Spielman, M.H. and G.S. Layard. Kate Greenaway, Putnam, 1905.

The Art Journal, 1881, pp. 208-12.

Book World-The Sunday Herald Tribune, October 31, 1965, pp. 5, 38.

Times Literary Supplement, January 21, 1977, p. 64.