Walter Crane was born in Liverpool, England on 15 August 1845, the second son of Thomas Crane, a portrait painter and miniaturist. He was a fluent follower of the newer art movements and he came to study and appreciate the detailed senses of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and was also a diligent student of the renowned artist and critic John Ruskin. A set of coloured page designs to illustrate Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott" gained the approval of wood-engraver William James Linton to whom Walter Crane was apprenticed for three years (1859–1862). As a wood-engraver he had abundant opportunity for the minute study of the contemporary artists whose work passed through his hands, of Pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais, as well as Alice in Wonderland illustrator Sir John Tenniel and Frederick Sandys. He was a student who admired the masters of the Italian Renaissance, however he was more influenced by the Elgin marbles in the British Museum. A further and important element in the development of his talent was the study of Japanese colour-prints, the methods of which he imitated in a series of toy books, which started a new fashion.
From the early 1880s, initially under William Morris's influence, Crane was closely associated with the Socialist movement. He did as much as Morris himself to bring art into the daily life of all classes. With this object in view he devoted much attention to designs for textiles and wallpapers, and to house decoration; but he also used his art for the direct advancement of the Socialist cause. For a long time he provided the weekly cartoons for the Socialist organs Justice, The Commonweal and The Clarion. Many of these were collected as Cartoons for the Cause. He devoted much time and energy to the work of the Art Workers Guild, and to the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, founded by him in 1888. He was also a Vice President of the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union, a movement begun in 1890, whose aim was to promote the loose-fitting clothing, in opposition to "stiffness, tightness and weight". They produced numerous pamphlets setting out their cause, including one entitled 'How to Dress Without a Corset' which Crane illustrated.
Although not himself an anarchist, Crane contributed to several libertarian publishers, including Liberty Press and Freedom Press. Following the Haymarket bombing, Crane made multiple trips to America where he spoke in defence of the eight anarchists accused of murder.
Death, and legacy
Walter Crane died on 14 March 1915 in Horsham Hospital, West Sussex. His body was cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium, where his ashes remain. He was survived by three children, Beatrice, Lionel and Lancelot.
Paintings and illustrations
In 1862 his picture The Lady of Shalott was exhibited at the Royal Academy, but the Academy steadily refused his maturer work and after the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, he ceased to send pictures to Burlington House. In 1863 the printer Edmund Evans employed Crane to illustrate yellowbacks, and in 1865 they began to collaborate on toy books of nursery rhymes and fairy tales. From 1865 to 1876 Crane and Evans produced two to three toy books each year.
In 1864 he began to illustrate a series of sixpenny toy books of nursery rhymes in three colours for Edmund Evans. He was allowed more freedom in a series beginning with The Frog Prince (1874) which showed markedly the influence of Japanese art, and of a long visit to Italy following on his marriage in 1871. His work was characterized by sharp outlines and flat tints. The Baby's Opera was a book of English nursery songs planned in 1877 with Evans, and a third series of children's books with the collective title Romance of the Three R's provided a regular course of instruction in art for the nursery. In his early "Lady of Shalott", the artist had shown his preoccupation with unity of design in book illustration by printing in the words of the poem himself, in the view that this union of the calligrapher's and the decorator's art was one secret of the beauty of the old illuminated books.
He followed the same course in The First of May: A Fairy Masque by his friend John Wise, text and decoration being in this case reproduced by photogravure. The Goose Girl illustration taken from his beautiful Household Stories from Grimm (1882) was reproduced in tapestry by William Morris. Flora's Feast, A Masque of Flowers had lithographic reproductions of Crane's line drawings washed in with watercolour; he also decorated in colour The Wonder Book of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Deland's Old Garden. In 1894 he collaborated with William Morris in the page decoration of The Story of the Glittering Plain, published at the Kelmscott Press, which was executed in the style of 16th century Italian and German woodcuts. Crane illustrated editions of Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene (19 pts., 1894–1896) and The Shepheard's Calendar, as well as Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1873), The Happy Prince and Other Stories by Oscar Wilde (1888), an edition of Arthurian Legends, and A Flower Wedding.
Crane wrote and illustrated three books of poetry, Queen Summer (1891), Renascence (1891), and The Sirens Three (1886). Walter Crane illustrated Nellie Dale's books on Teaching English Reading: Steps to Reading, First Primer, Second Primer, Infant Reader, Book I, and Book II. These were most probably completed between 1898 and 1907.
His own easel pictures, chiefly allegorical in subject, among them The Bridge of Life (1884) and The Mower (1891), were exhibited regularly at the Grosvenor Gallery and later at the New Gallery. Neptune's Horses was exhibited at the New Gallery in 1893, and with it may be classed his Rainbow and the Wave.
His varied work includes examples of plaster relief, tiles, stained glass, pottery, wallpaper and textile designs, in all of which he applied the principle that in purely decorative design "the artist works freest and best without direct reference to nature, and should have learned the forms he makes use of by heart." An exhibition of his work of different kinds was held at the Fine Art Society's galleries in Bond Street in 1891, and taken to the United States in the same year by the artist himself. It was afterwards exhibited in Germany, Austria and Scandinavia.
Crane was elected a member of the Institute of Painters in Water Colours in 1882, resigning in 1886; two years later he became an associate of the Water Colour Society (1888); he was an examiner for the Science and Art Department at the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria & Albert Museum; director of design at the Manchester Municipal School (1894); art director of Reading College (1896); and in 1898 for a short time principal of the Royal College of Art. His lectures at Manchester were published with illustrated drawings as The Bases of Design (1898) and Line and Form (1900). The Decorative Illustration of Books, Old and New (2nd ed., London and New York, 1900) is a further contribution to theory. A well-known portrait of Crane by George Frederick Watts was exhibited at the New Gallery in 1893.
One of his last major works would be his lunettes at the Royal West of England Academy which were painted in 1913.