By all accounts, Arthur Rackham was practical man, unusually so considering his fame would come as an illustrator of fairies. Born in a London suburb, his earliest ventures into an artistic career were close to home, and far less fanciful than his later work. He also cautiously maintained his job as a clerk for years before pursuing an illustration career. When he did focus his career exclusively to art in 1893, his initial impact was minor. It would take a few years for Rackham to find his style, and a market that embraced it.
In 1905 publisher William Heinemann proposed a project that would change illustrator’s careers for nearly a generation. Full color- printing was just becoming affordable, and the publisher found Arthur Rackham’s style to be an ideal paring with a classic American tale: Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving. It was published with 51 tipped-in-full-color plates that followed the text block. It was a huge success and became the outstanding “gift book” of the holiday season. This inspired a new era in publishing—gift books from various publishers became the pride of their annual publishing seasons, and the pinnacle of an illustrator’s portfolio. Arthur Rackham produced one of these titles nearly every year after that first book, long after his contemporaries had moved on to other areas in illustration.
While many artists of fairy tales and fantasy had to diversify into other fields as the age of the gift book came to a close, Rackham was secure in his market. His ink-heavy style drew fans in adult markets as well. With projects as varied as Shakespeare titles, Poe’s tales, or The Compleat Angler, Rackham was not solely a children’s book illustrator; he was an artist for all people who loved what his drawings brought to the story. Most titles throughout his career were produced by William Heinemann, Hodder & Stroughton, and George Harrap.
Late in his career, Rackham traveled to the United States for the first time and was astounded to find that the American audience welcomed him with great fanfare. His last project was one he had longed to do for most of his life. In 1936, he was given a contract and an opportunity to illustrate The Wind and the Willows for the Limited Editions Club of New York. He completed the 16 plates shortly before his death in 1939.
Menges, Jeff A. 101 Great Illustrators from the Golden Age, 1890-1925. Published by Dover Publications. Mineola, New York, 2016. p. 179.