Kate Greenaway - The Grace and Tenderness of the Childhood Illustration

by Tolovaj

Kate Greenaway was very important artist from the end of the 19th century. Her books and postcards are still in high demand.

Kate Greenaway was meant to be named Kate way before her birth, but after an administrative error became Catherine. Nevertheless, she always used the name Kate and was frequently corrected when she had to sign official documents or contracts. She signed her works with KG and became one of the most popular (and best-paid) illustrators of her time with a lasting legacy of collectible books and postcards.

Her signature style was largely a result of her character, family situation, and revolutionary changes in printing technique intertwined with a developing market of picture books and ephemera.

Here are the top ten facts to know about Kate Greenaway:

1. In Her Blood

Kate Greenaway was born in 1846 as the second child to John and Elizabeth Greenaway. Her father was a skilled engraver and woodblock printer from whom she acquired first craft skills, often spending the night in his workshop, observing the work process, making breakfast for both early in the morning before he left to deliver what was already done and maybe bring new orders. Her mother was a seamstress, milliner, and dressmaker who opened a children's dress shop when the financial flow from John stopped due bankruptcy of his biggest employer. Clothes for children became Kate's trademark early in her career and living for years in the flat above the mom's shop for well-to-do buyers was, made a huge impact.

Many Happy Returns of the Day by KG

2. Between the City and the Countryside

Kate was born in London where she spent most of her life. When her father got an important commission, he focused on the job and the rest of the family moved to the farm in Rolleston in Nottinghamshire, from where her mother originated. This didn't last long but the experience changed her forever. One of the activities of all four children was playing tea parties. A tea party is one of the most often portrayed scenes in her illustrations.

Tea Party by KG

Children with dreamy and somewhat melancholic expressions on their faces were the main stars of her work. Another noticeable characteristic of Kate Greenaway's works is the environment. The vast majority of the action happens outside, in nature, where the sun is always shining.

The transition from the cold gray city to the sunny colorful countryside was probably the biggest influence on her personality. The wonder of the child in nature with blooming gardens, playful butterflies, and singing birds stayed the inseparable part of Kate Greenaway. The freshness of the first experience can be felt in her drawings and paintings where even the most common stuff gives an impression of hiding something unusual, mysterious, or simply - more. The childhood imagination never left her.

Lucy Locket Lost Her Pocket by KG

3. Childhood

Kate's family went through several financial ups and downs which forced them to move from place to place. Such an unstable environment caused a lot of stress on the children but it seems Kate found a way to enjoy every change. She once recalled that she enjoyed her childhood way more than her three siblings (Lizzie, Fanny, Alfred) who had exactly the same conditions. She believed her imaginary world helped her through rough times. Nature was an important part of the equation for her happiness but the other part was probably access to the books. Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast where the themes of waiting and moving are so important, were her favorites.

Drawing of kitchen in Rolleston by KG

4. Education

Kate had difficulties in a regular school. She couldn't focus on anything but drawing where she excelled. Kate's parents both had artistic skills and they had no trouble noticing their daughter's talent. They gave her the first lessons and sent her to different art schools. The main problem with such education was limitations for women who, for instance, could not train one of the main drawing skills - drawing nude models. Kate never compensated for this handicap and got a lot of criticism for that.

At South Kensington, she studied with Elizabeth Thompson (1846-1933) who later became Lady Butler, and Helen Paterson (1848-1926), who later became Mrs William Allingham. Kate was especially connected with Elizabeth with whom she later worked in the same studio. They also together bribed the custodian to lock them in the school when everybody was gone, so they could work more.

After that, she enrolled in the Royal Female School of Art and took night classes at Heatherly School of Fine Art, where she met Walter Crane, probably the artist she most admired among her contemporaries. The next step was Slade School of Art but her education actually continued right to the end of her life. A fine example was her work with colors which she managed to master only through trials and error, partly due to being too focused on line drawing during formal training partly due to many revolutionary changes in the printing technique during her life.

She won her first award being only 12 years old and got her first commissions for Christmas and Valentine cards when she was still in school. On the other hand, she lacked social skills and had problems with writing all her life.

Valentine's Card by KG

5. Christmas & Valentine Cards

Kate's father arranged for her first commission - an illustration of the book Infant Amusements in 1867. A year later her first exhibition in Dudley Gallery followed. All her exhibited line drawings were bought by William John Loftie, the editor of the People's Magazine. He contacted Kate and brought her first orders from the greeting card industry which was bursting at the time.

Kate's cards were an instant success. Buyers were especially fond of children in her imaginary costumes, which set her apart from other artists in the industry. She was not satisfied with her first cards because the colors were just not right, so she experimented a lot until she got them as she wanted. Some of her cards were not just sold out but also reprinted in special gift books.

6. Books

While her first work on the book was hardly noticed, her cards became so popular that the most influential people in the publishing business wanted to meet Kate. One of the most successful people in the book business was Edmund Evans, who had a great eye for art and a good nose for profit.

He invited Kate with her portfolio, and they agreed on the book Under the Window with her verses and illustrations. Her verses were so rough that another (anonymous) poet was employed to improve them, but the real value of the book lay in the illustrations. Evans arranged an unusually high commission for Kate and decided to print so many copies that competitors laughed at him. Nobody believed he could sell 20 thousand books for six shillings each.

But Under the Window was sold out, reprinted, and translated. Together with sales in Germany and France, it surpassed 100 thousand copies, which secured good money for everybody involved. Kate became one of the three most popular illustrators who worked for Evans. Some of her books were written and illustrated by her, and sometimes she illustrated books written by others, or others wrote verses for her illustrations.

7. Bookplates, Gift-Books, Almanachs

Kate's work was perfect for all kinds of special projects. It was printed by the best technology on the best quality paper with the best binding. It was considered above standard and achieved higher prices. Her commissions were higher than most other artists, comparable to the top tier of male illustrators, which was definitely not self-evident in the 19th century.

She was introduced to affluent people and invited to jet-set events, which she, as an introvert, didn't exactly enjoy but still made a few important connections, which led to more commissions for the books and even portraits of wealthy people's kids. Her paintings were displayed at the Royal Academy. Evans suggested creating a yearly almanac with her pictures in full color and sold it so successfully that she illustrated one from 1885 to 1895. They secured her very nice income despite a few financial flops.

Fashion examples by KG

8. Fashion Influencer

Her decision to draw what she felt, not what she saw, was best seen in the costumes of her children. She was not fond of contemporary fashion, so she opted for costumes from the 18th century. Kate didn't exactly copy them but added her vision and made them in full size. This way, the models could wear them, and she could study how the costumes move, throw shades, etc.

The imaginary fashion of Kate Greenaway was so popular that mothers demanded to buy them, and dressmakers eventually started creating them - in England, continental Europe, and the USA. If someone's imagination is so strong that it leads to materialization, we can only applaud.

All her works for only two bucks
The Complete Works of Kate Greenaway

9. John Ruskin and Other Critics

The more popular was Kate Greenaway, the more criticism she heard. Critics mainly focused on:

  • positions of figures in her drawings,
  • lack of expressions of emotion on the faces of her characters,
  • the simplicity of her writings (if she was also an author).

She always took critics seriously. To be honest, a lot of criticism aimed at the new trends in illustration where illustrators who worked with Edmund Evans implied so many novelties. Kate was just at the top of the leading artists.

One critic was more influential than others. He was Professor John Ruskin, who exchanged letters with her for three years before they were introduced and became better and better friends. Ruskin understood the changes in printing techniques and marketing of picture books. He was Kate's fan from the very beginning and gave her a lot of useful advice. They both believed he was helping her to improve the technique. But non-stop suggestions and constant flow of criticism with gradual persuasion to stop drawing and focus on water painting (which was not her strongest area) hurt her self-confidence, and she spent more and more time executing an illustration. Without Ruskin, her opus would probably be larger.

Cinderella by KG

10. Kate Greenaway's Medal

Kate Greenaway died in 1901 after several years of denial of the seriousness of her illness. She had breast cancer. In her honor, a special reward for outstanding illustration was established in 1955. It was called the Kate Greenaway Medal (the winner really gets a gold medal), but it was renamed the Carnegie Medal for Illustration in 2022 (the Carnegie Medal for Writing has existed since 1933).

No matter what the award is called at the moment, her influence will very likely persist at least for another century.

Credites and Further Reading:


Updated: 05/16/2024, Tolovaj
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Tolovaj on 05/22/2024

Yes, that's right. She was able to portray numerus semingy the same scenes in many differetn ways. I believe her attention for the detail helped her with that. It was very likely acquired from her father, engraver, and from her mother, clothes-designer, at the same time.

Tolovaj on 05/22/2024

I agree.

Tolovaj on 05/22/2024

Yes, it's her work.

Tolovaj on 05/22/2024

KG was focused on imagination, perception, ... Action was not her strongest point;)

Tolovaj on 05/22/2024

Walter Crane and Randolph Caldecott, of course. Article about Edmund Evans is still in my machine ...

Tolovaj on 05/22/2024

No, I didn't find her portrait of Cinderella yet. She may draw it when she was still young and unknown and it may be published uncredited. Still working on that.

Tolovaj on 05/22/2024

Yes, this farm belonged to Kate's mom's family.

Tolovaj on 05/22/2024

No, sorry, the resolution is too low.

DerdriuMarriner on 05/22/2024

Thank you for the four links at your wizzley's very end.

In particular, I like Kate Greenaway's work for its visual interest, manifesting itself here and in all four links, particularly the last, fourth one.

Might you agree that each one of her subjects in one same image manifests something different, in the way of looking or moving or standing? No one looks or moves or sits or stands the same in her two-person, two-plus-person, many-person scenes!

DerdriuMarriner on 05/22/2024

Thank you for the four links at the very end of your wizzley!

The aforementioned links allow even more access to all the Kate Greenaway works so likable to and liked by me.

The 15th in-text image on the last, fourth link amuses me with the girl so tired as to avail herself of a grassy sleep-amiable lawn.

The aforementioned model bears green shoes. Those shoes well could match any grass stains on her white frock, wouldn't one think?

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