Tucked away backstage, in a room in Central Library, is a copy of Kate Greenaway’s A Day in a Child’s Life. It’s an illustrated children’s song book with page after page of quaint colour wood engravings from the 19th century (the book was first published in 1881).
The pictures are quintessentially delicate and gentle. They skip along, lightly, gracefully; and every child that Kate Greenaway drew – and she drew many all through the book – she drew them in historical costume, historical costume for the time, that is. The costumes date from decades before, from the early 19th century and Regency-era.
Kate Greenaway’s mother owned a millinery shop in Islington and the shop later developed into a ladies’ outfitters. Kate Greenaway, not unsurprisingly, learnt to sew, and she began to make the costumes for her child models to wear. Her illustrations were such a success that Liberty’s, the London department store, even introduced a line of children’s clothing based on them.
Behind the millinery shop was a garden, which as a child Kate Greenaway spent many hours in, and her pictures, as well as featuring children, feature flowers. Flowers drawn with thought and detail, picked and placed like a florist might for the best composition. Slim-leaved daffodils look particularly tall and upright beside a line of standing children, hands behind their backs; and in another illustration, big-faced sunflowers stand like shining suns to either side of a child (who has a head of golden curls) and is just about to wake up… There was big public interest in flowers in Victorian times, floral dictionaries were enjoying a boom, and a few years later, in 1884, Kate Greenaway’s own The Language of Flowers became very popular.
In terms of its production, A Day in a Child’s Life, was at the forefront of Victorian printing. It was engraved and printed by Edmund Evans, (who printed books by other illustration greats including Walter Crane and Randolph Caldecott). He was pre-eminent in his work, pushing forward printing technologies by using a woodblock technique known as chromoxylography, and printing toy books and picture books that filled the floors of Victorian nurseries. It was also Edmund Evans’ nephew, Miles Birket Foster, who wrote the music for the song book.
Kate Greenaway, who has given her name to our own contemporary illustration award, the Kate Greenaway Medal, has been an influential figure in illustration. The artist and critic John Ruskin wrote of her:
“The fairyland that she creates for you is not beyond the sky nor beneath sea, but near you, even at your own doors. She does but show you how to see it”.
They were friends, John Ruskin and Kate Greenaway, and their correspondence with each other lasted until Ruskin’s death in 1900.
Do have a look on our Capital Collections exhibition to browse over more of these wonderful pictures.