Laura Freeman Laura Freeman

Munchkins and mischiefs

Laura Freeman celebrates the riotous imagination of the tidy, thrifty cautious illustrator and the enormous influence he continues to have on our collective imagination 150 years after his birth

Arthur Rackham shouldn’t have lived in anything as conventional as a house. It should have been a gingerbread cottage, like the one he drew for Grimms’ Fairy Tales, with cakes for a roof and boiled sugar for windows. Or a Rapunzel turret, for letting down ropes of long, blonde hair, except he was so very goblin-bald. Or a Sleeping Beauty palace with a spinning-wheel in the topmost tower.

As it was, he lived in Chalcot Gardens, north of Primrose Hill and south of Hampstead Heath, with his wife Edyth Starkie, a portrait painter, and their daughter Barbara, at the end of an 1880s row set back from the road. It may not have been a fairy-tale castle (you don’t get many of those in Belsize Park), but it was distinct from its neighbours: an odd, square Voysey house, the sort that children draw, with a high, steep roof like a witch’s hat.

In the 15 prolific years Rackham lived there from 1905, strange things were summoned and conjured. Mad Hatters came to tea, mermaids found themselves beached on the studio floor, geese laid golden eggs, Gulliver surveyed the troops of Lilliput and the Pied Piper played his tune. Rackham marshalled them, not with a long trilling pipe, but with pencils, brushes and watercolours. In a portrait of 1924, when the illustrator was 57, he painted himself against the Thames, his spotted tie neatly knotted, and his pencil sharpened to a spinning-wheel’s point.

Rackham, who celebrates the 150th anniversary of his 1867 birth this year, had to be tidy to keep his sprites and fiends, elves and fairies, giants and wolves, sacred crocodiles and stoned caterpillars, in order. The munchkins and mischiefs of his imagination — more than 3,000 sheets of them over a lifetime, some with as many as 50 rioting hobgoblins to a scene — would have run away with him if he’d let them.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in