The Wonderful World of Victorian Children's Books

In the special exhibition Making the Modern Picture Book: Children’s Books from the Victorian Era (on view at the Legion of Honor through June 17), the intimate art of 19th-century story telling is revealed. England at this time was undergoing a formative period in the design, production, and marketing of children’s books, which were often gifted as rewards or prizes, and reinforced socially acceptable behavior in the guise of entertainment. Maintaining the principles of the Aesthetic Movement, publishers and renowned illustrators achieved a compelling fusion of art and literature.

L is for Lady

William Nicholson (British, 1872–1949). An Alphabet: L is for Lady, 1898. Color lithograph. Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. 1963.30.1351.13

The picture books of Kate Greenaway, Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott, and William Nicholson are littered with nostalgic scenes of England’s past. Quaint Queen Anne style interiors, empire-waist costumes, and medieval picture compositions all contribute to a sweet longing for the innocence of childhood. Following on the heels of the architectural Queen Anne revival of the 1870s, furnishings in the same style populate such picture books as Randolph Caldecott’s The Milkmaid (1888).

The Milkmaid

Randolph Caldecott (British, 1846–1886). Frontispiece the book The Milkmaid, an Old Song exhibited and explained in many designs by R. Caldecott ([London: George Routledge & Sons, ca. 1885-1900]), ca. 1885–1900. Color wood engraving. Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. 1963.30.38673.1

This, along with medieval and Elizabethan styles found throughout other Caldecott stories, evoked associations with Old England and feelings of a relaxed, cozy domesticity. In children’s books, these illustrations trained the child in contemporary ideals while revealing to their youthful imagination a time passed.

Although not their primary intent, Victorian picture books also provided the nation’s youth early instruction in the acquisition of well-designed household furniture and how it was to be displayed in the tasteful middleclass home. Many of the featured picture books include interior scenes just as likely to appear in illustrated manuals of interior design like Clarence Cook’s The House Beautiful. Walter Crane, a leading proponent of the Aesthetic Movement, brought this popular style to his illustrations for The Baby’s Bouquet (1876), particularly its frontispiece.

The Baby's Bouquet

Walter Crane (British, 1845–1915). Frontispiece of The Baby's Bouquet on page 76 in the book Walter Crane's Picture Book, Comprising The Baby's Opera, The Baby's Bouquet & The Baby's Own Aesop (London: Frederick Warne & Company, 1900), 1900. Color wood engraving. Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. 1963.30.39119.55

Images such as this introduce the same type of interior as that featured in My Lady’s Chamber, the frontispiece that Crane designed for Cook’s popular interior design instruction manual. These interiors come to life in the adjacent special exhibition The Cult of Beauty , with furniture, silver, and decorative objects showcased alongside paintings and featuring elements of the Aesthetic interior.

The Lady's Chamber

Walter Crane (British, 1845–1915). Frontispiece to Clarence Cook, The House Beautiful: Essays on beds and tables, stools and candlesticks, 1878. V&A: NAL

Not only did the tasteful arrangement of objects around a room permeate illustrated children’s books, even the palette in which artists rendered their illustrations reflected an awareness of larger artistic trends. As visitors to The Cult of Beauty learn, James McNeill Whistler, Edward Godwin, and George Aitchison designed interiors bathed in palettes of secondary and tertiary colors, whose subdued and gentle hues are also present throughout the illustrations of Kate Greenaway. Greenaway’s control of the subtleties of color is exemplified by the May Day Dance frontispiece that opens Robert Browning’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1888).

May Day Dance

Kate Greenaway (British, 1846–1901). Frontispiece ( May Day Dance) in the book The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning (London and New York: Frederick Warne, [1888]), 1888. Color wood engraving. Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. 1963.30.398732.1

The peaceful colors also help to minimize any threat that might lurk in Browning’s narrative, and complement the melding of medieval and empire styles found throughout the illustrations.

With school out for the summer, take this opportunity to introduce your child to the world of Victorian children’s books. Then witness these illustrated pages come to life in the tableaus of The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860–1900. Avoid the weekend crowds and enjoy a $4 weekday discount on adult tickets to The Cult of Beauty by entering the code LegionSave4 at checkout. (Cannot be combined with any other offers; not valid on previously purchased tickets.)

Making the Modern Picture Book: Children’s Books from the Victorian Era is on view at the Legion of Honor through June 17 and is free after museum admission.