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  • Arthur Rackham and the Romantic TraditionThe Question of Polarity and Ambiguity*
  • Christa Kamenetsky (bio)

The question of identity has puzzled many critics of Arthur Rackham. Judging by the many contradictory essays written about his work, he still appears to be an artist of various styles that escape a definite classification in the history of the English graphic tradition. Was Rackham a Victorian artist or was he a Romantic visionary? Selma Lanes pointed out Rackham's philistine middle-class tendencies. Although she did not deny his magic in uncovering the fairyland beneath the countryside, she underscored to a greater extent his emotional detachment, his "matter-of-factness," and his affection for detail, texture, and elaborate design in "cozy English interiors replete with rugs, quilts and bric-a-brac."1 Henry Pitz felt that Rackham's drawings had more "conviction" than those of Caldecott and Greenaway and that he was "English to the very core."2 This was also Derek Hudson's view, who saw him as close to his British "Cockney origins."3 Eleanor Farjeon, on the other hand, saw in him an artist capable of transporting the commonplace into a sphere of the imagination, a romantic "wizard" bringing to life a world of fairies, elves, and dwarfs.4

How do we reconcile such differing opinions, which emphasize the realistic as well as the imaginative perspectives of Rackham's work? Margery Darrell came to the conclusion that in his "strange mix of magic and materialism" lay the very key to the credibility of his work. "Perhaps it was his very worldliness that made his drawings so believable," she suggested.5

Without attempting to minimize the British influences upon his work, we will proceed to view Rackham within the broader perspective of European Romanticism, of which English Romanticism was a definite part. A brief exploration of the nature of European Romanticism, in all its complexity, may throw some light upon the complexity of Rackham's subject choice and on the puzzling ambiguities of his style.

Around 1920, Arthur Lovejoy pointed to the diversity of the [End Page 115] term "Romanticism," suggesting that one should refer to it only in the plural form. He felt that the confusion of terminology had led not only to the present "muddle" of critical thought, but also to the unfortunate ambiguity now associated with the word.6 Twenty years later, René Wellek contradicted Lovejoy by asserting that there were three unifying principles of Romanticism that could be detected throughout the art and literature of Europe. He identified them as: the role of the imagination as the very basis for poetry and art; the organic view of all natural objects; and the creative use of myths and symbols.7 In more recent times, Morse Peckham tried to reach a synthesis of Lovejoy's and Wellek's views. He felt it was more important to acknowledge the inherent contradictions of Romanticism as an integral part of the movement than to quarrel about "multiplicity" versus "unity." "Since the logic of Romanticism is that contradictions must be included in a single orientation, but without pseudo-reconciliation," he wrote, "romanticism is a remarkably stable and witful orientation."8

Keeping in mind Peckham's observation, we will now move on to examine the seemingly contradictory forces in Rackham's work on the basis that they may correspond to those inherent in European Romanticism as a whole. In this connection, we will give particular attention to his subject choice, his use of the imagination, his organic view of nature, and the ambiguous qualities of his style.

In looking at the wide range of Rackham's illustrations, we notice that he gave considerable attention to folklore and imaginative literature. Among the folk literature of the oral tradition which he illustrated—with a natural feeling for the mood and the cultural uniqueness in the heritage of other lands—were such folk tales as Grimms' Fairy Tales, Stephens' Irish Fairy Tales, and Aesop's Fables. Of the illustrations of his native folklore we may mention Steele's English Fairy Tales and Mother Goose. Among the literary adaptations of traditional folklore we find his unique illustrations of Wagner's Rhinegold, and his Twilight of the Gods, Ibsen...


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