East Anglian roots of Peter Pan artist

MANY folk won't have heard of Arthur Rackham, yet his illustrations brought characters such as Captain Hook and Toad leaping off the page. STEVEN RUSSELL discovers his skills were developed on a jolly working tour of East Anglia.

MANY folk won't have heard of Arthur Rackham, yet his illustrations brought characters such as Captain Hook and Toad leaping off the page. STEVEN RUSSELL discovers his skills were developed on a jolly working tour of East Anglia.

ARTHUR Rackham was heading rapidly towards 40 when he became famous for his series of watercolours that adorned JM Barrie's timeless story Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.

Such a triumph saw him go from strength to strength. His final commission, to illustrate Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows as the rumblings of war could be heard, is said to feature some of his best artistic work.

Yet drawings of East Anglia that he produced more than 40 years before his death are also admired greatly. In fact, according to writer Alison Barnes, they haven't been given the credit they're due.

She hopes to change that with a new book called Arthur Rackham in East Anglia, which showcases 40 of his sketches.

Alison, whose grandparents were friends with the artist from 1927 until he died 12 years later, argues these drawings have been almost totally neglected by Rackham's biographers. She also feels they give us fascinating glimpses of an age that's disappeared: “the vanished Victorian world with its horses and carts, gas lamps, village wells, sailing ships, bathing machines, boaters, sunbonnets and parasols”.

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It all started in 1893, she explains, when Norfolk guidebook publisher Jarrold and Sons bought the rights to a popular title called Poppy-Land. The original, a charming guide to the east coast published by Carson and Comerford in 1886, had gone down a storm.

In the kind of triumph that today's tourism marketeers would give their right arm for, Poppy-Land brought holidaymakers flocking to Cromer - where poppies grew along the cliffs - Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft and other locations further down the Suffolk coast.

“For the first time in England's history these eastern counties, so long considered to be flat and uninteresting, were being properly valued as they ought to be for their exquisite scenery, fine old churches, noble manor houses and picturesque cottages. And they remained a favourite holiday destination for all classes of society right down to the First World War,” says Alison Barnes.

Not surprisingly, others sought to jump on the bandwagon. From then and well into the 1920s there was a rash of imitations drawing on the Poppy-Land theme: books, magazine articles, postcards, paintings - even songs!

In buying the rights, Jarrold and Sons planned a fourth edition. The firm also wanted to produced a sister publication, one with a bit more depth and which would cover the whole of East Anglia. It would be called Sunrise-Land.

Writer Annie Berlyn was commissioned to paint a picture of the region in words and two young artists were lined up to produce the illustrations: Arthur Rackham and MM Blake.

For Rackham, it represented his first significant commission. He already knew something of the region: he had sailed on the Norfolk Broads with his brother in 1892 and had spent a summer holiday in Norfolk with his family in 1881.

During their travels the Sunrise-Land party visited Ipswich, Felixstowe, Aldeburgh, Southwold,, Norwich, Cromer, Well-next-the-Sea, King's Lynn, Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge, Ely, Newmarket, Chelmsford, Harwich, Brightlingsea, Clacton, Southend, Walton-on-the-Naze and Colchester.

“The three of them stayed for about a week in each town, always putting up at the best hotels, where they fared sumptuously off such delicacies as roast duck,” says Alison.

“After sightseeing in the towns they toured the country . . . sometimes on foot, sometimes in a hired carriage.” They also played tennis and golf, and enjoyed fishing and boating, whenever the chance arose.

“Sometimes the trio took the train or a carriage straight from one centre to another. At others, as they were all Londoners with additional work to attend to, they returned to town for a while and then resumed their travels. They also often went back in winter to a place they had first visited in summer or autumn, so as to obtain a rounded view of the location.”

Their brief was apparently to record what took their fancy, not what was already best known in each location or what was most important. “As a result Sunrise-Land is a highly original guide book, full of unexpected snippets of information and drawings of unusual things,” says Alison.

“Mrs Berlyn gives a fascinating account of current Cambridge undergraduate life and customs, for example; she provides us with many intimate details about the royal family's daily routine at Sandringham; and she describes in depth the bizarre, virtually unknown village of Stiffkey, where the men did little work and the emancipated women spent their days cockling . . .”

Annie Berlyn was adept at noticing the characters the trio met, “and encouraged Arthur to draw them, thus capturing for our delectation the pleasant old Walberswick ferryman, of whom the artists' colony there were very fond”.

Rackham completed more than 100 drawings, with 74 finding their way into the publication.

His way of working appears to have been to make quick sketches on location, and then to have perfected them either while travelling to the next destination or in hotels during the evening. “Each complete drawing as handed in to Jarrold and Sons measured 10 by 8 inches; in Sunrise-Land each drawing measures about 4 by 3 inches.”

Sadly, the originals have been destroyed or lost, though a few preliminary sketches held in the library of a New York university.

Alison Barnes says it was during his travels around East Anglia in 1893 and 1894 that he began to blossom as an illustrator, “perfecting his purity of line and harmony of composition, and working closely with the author”.

Rackham's sisters, Winifred and Meg, must have joined the party at points during the summer holidays, as they appear in some of his drawings, including his sketch of the Abbey Gate in Bury St Edmunds.

“Rackham's sketches of his sisters demonstrate his keen observation of female fashions, a subject that occupied him all his life, and can clearly be seen in his drawings of seaside belles at Aldeburgh, Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Southend.”

The drawing of water - the sea, streams, rivers, lakes and ponds - was important to Rackham throughout his life, she says, and reached a pinnacle with his illustrations for Izaak Walton's 1931 book The Compleat Angler, “several of which resemble the river scenes he drew at Bury St Edmunds and Chelmsford”. Trees, however, were what he liked drawing best.

Sunrise-Land didn't prove as popular as its 1894 stablemate Poppy-Land, which saw new annual editions being published until 1914, but Alison says it was a much loved and respected book that ran to four editions and was in print until about 1908. Travel writers often quoted from it.

As the 19th Century drew to a close Jarrolds used seven of Rackham's Sunrise-Land drawings to help illustrate William Tate's book East Coast Scenery. The publisher also selected 14 sketches for a volume called Pictures of East Coast Health Resorts.

In 1900 Rackham's profile grew when he illustrated a book of Grimms' Fairy Tales. “In 1905 he was greatly acclaimed for the watercolours he painted for Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle,” explains Alison. “Finally in 1906 he shot to fame with his exquisite watercolours for JM Barrie's Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.

“Arthur Rackham never looked back but went from strength to strength right up to the time of his last commission, which was to illustrate Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. This took him from 1936 to 1939 and contains some of his finest work.”


Arthur Rackham in East Anglia is published by Poppyland Publishing at £8.95.

Suffolk drawings featured in Arthur Rackham in East Anglia:

Crag Path, Aldeburgh

The Moot Hall, Aldeburgh

The 12th Century Abbot's Bridge over the River Lark at Bury St Edmunds

The Abbey Gate and garden, Bury St Edmunds

The ruins of Leiston Abbey

The fish market, Lowestoft

The harbour basin, Lowestoft

South Pier and Reading Rooms, Lowestoft

Pin Mill

An old well at Southwold

Walberswick ferry

Arthur Rackham was born in London in the autumn of 1867 and signed up for evening classes at Lambeth School of Art while searching for a job.

He worked as a clerk in insurance for seven years and in the early 1890s started to submit drawings to the Pall Mall Budget, and then began work for the Westminster Budget, and Westminster Gazette.

Publications he went on to illustrate included Rip Van Winkle (1905), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1908), and Gulliver's Travels, Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, and Tales from Shakespeare (all 1909).

Rackham died at his country house in Surrey in September, 1939, not long after finishing his last set of designs for The Wind in the Willows.