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Arthur Rackham (September 19, 1867–September 6, 1939), who was born 146 years ago yesterday, was probably the greatest English representative of what’s known as the Golden Age of Illustration. And unlike his near-contemporary Aubrey Beardsley, his choice of themes and commissions meant that his images won an enduring place in the childhood memories and imaginations of millions. And a huge proportion of his work is available online for free, much of it in situ in free ebook editions of the original books it was intended for.

Rackham’s work, like that of Beardsley and Edmund Dulac, is associated with the Belle Époque heyday of Western peace and prosperity prior to World War I, and the War, plus post-war economic and social changes and shifts in taste, stifled demand for the kind of lavish, fanciful productions he excelled in – although Rackham was lucky enough to see a good number of more important volumes published during wartime. Needless to say, appreciation of his legacy has revived since then. And the timing of his production means that the books and the illustrations themselves are now out of copyright.

Project Gutenberg hosts illustrated editions of many of his most celebrated children’s books and fairy stories, such as J.M.Barrie’s “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens” and Flora Annie Webster Steel’s 1918 “English Fairy Tales“. You have to look elsewhere for some of the equally well known but often grimmer or more fantastical adult works, such as the stark images of “Some British Ballads” or the teasing Rhinemaidens of “The Rhinegold” – both available on the Rackham page at Archive.org. Other gaps in his oeuvre will have to be filled in piecemeal, from sites like the Fairyworx “Golden Age of Illustration” page. Personally, I can’t think of a better way of revisiting your childhood, or recovering a sense of delight.

 
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