Sep 192013


Today is the birthday (1867) of Arthur Rackham, prolific book illustrator, whose works are much beloved down to today.  His first book illustrations were published in 1893 in To the Other Side by Thomas Rhodes, but his first serious commission was in 1894 for The Dolly Dialogues, the collected sketches of Anthony Hope, who later went on to write The Prisoner of Zenda. Book illustrating then became Rackham’s career for the rest of his life.

In 1903 he married Edyth Starkie, with whom he had one daughter, Barbara, in 1908. Rackham won a gold medal at the Milan International Exhibition in 1906 and another one at the Barcelona International Exposition in 1912. His works were included in numerous exhibitions, including one at the Louvre in Paris in 1914. Arthur Rackham died in 1939 of cancer in his home in Limpsfield, Surrey.


Arthur Rackham is widely regarded as one of the leading illustrators from the ‘Golden Age’ of British book illustration which encompassed the years from 1900 until the start of the First World War. During that period, there was a strong market for high quality illustrated books that typically were given as Christmas gifts. Many of Rackham’s books were produced in a deluxe limited edition, often vellum bound and sometimes signed, as well as a larger, less ornately bound quarto trade edition. This was often followed by a more modestly presented octavo edition in subsequent years for particularly popular books. The onset of the war in 1914 curtailed the market for such quality books, and the public’s taste for fantasy and fairies also declined in the 1920s.


Rackham invented his own technique which resembled photographic reproduction. He would first sketch an outline of his drawing, then lightly block in shapes and details. Afterwards he would add lines in pen and India ink, removing the pencil traces after it had dried. With color pictures, he would then apply multiple washes of color until translucent tints were created. He would also go on to expand the use of silhouette cuts in illustration work, particularly in the period after the First World War, as exemplified by his illustrations for Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Rackham’s work is often described as a fusion of a northern European ‘Nordic’ style strongly influenced by the Japanese woodblock tradition of the 19th century.

I really don’t want to dribble on about his art.  So much better to just give you a gallery to enjoy. Here’s a sampling of images I like:


rackfairy4  rackfairy3  rackfairy2  rackfairy5
Sleeping Beauty

racksleep2  racksleep1

racksleep3   racksleep4

Grimms’ Tales

rackgrim30-big  rackgrim19

rackgrim14   rackgrim03


rackalice4  rackalice3

rackalice2  rackalice1

Christmas Carol

rackxmas1  rackxmas2

rackxmas3   rackxmas4

For a suitable recipe I have chosen the caption for this last illustration from Dickens’ Christmas Carol, “He produced a decanter of curiously light wine, and a block of curiously heavy cake.”  I can’t think of a Dickensian era cake heavier than Isabella Beeton’s “Rich Bride or Christening Cake,” which is a very dense fruitcake much like classic English Christmas cake.  In this case the recipe is not only heavy in texture but also in sheer weight.  There are 17 pounds of dry ingredients along with 16 eggs, which conservatively weigh 1 ½ pounds.  Quarter the recipe and use an 8 in deep pan.



1753. INGREDIENTS.—5 lbs. of the finest flour, 3 lbs. of fresh butter, 5 lbs. of currants, 2 lbs. of sifted loaf sugar, 2 nutmegs, 1/4 oz. of mace, half 1/4 oz. of cloves, 16 eggs, 1 lb. of sweet almonds, 1/2 lb. of candied citron, 1/2 lb. each of candied orange and lemon peel, 1 gill of wine, 1 gill of brandy.

Mode.—Let the flour be as fine as possible, and well dried and sifted; the currants washed, picked, and dried before the fire; the sugar well pounded and sifted; the nutmegs grated, the spices pounded; the eggs thoroughly whisked, whites and yolks separately; the almonds pounded with a little orange-flower water, and the candied peel cut in neat slices. When all these ingredients are prepared, mix them in the following manner. Begin working the butter with the hand till it becomes of a cream-like consistency; stir in the sugar, and when the whites of the eggs are whisked to a solid froth, mix them with the butter and sugar; next, well beat up the yolks for 10 minutes, and, adding them to the flour, nutmegs, mace, and cloves, continue beating the whole together for 1/2 hour or longer, till wanted for the oven. Then mix in lightly the currants, almonds, and candied peel with the wine and brandy; and having lined a hoop with buttered paper, fill it with the mixture, and bake the cake in a tolerably quick oven, taking care, however, not to burn it: to prevent this, the top of it may be covered with a sheet of paper. To ascertain whether the cake is done, plunge a clean knife into the middle of it, withdraw it directly, and if the blade is not sticky, and looks bright, the cake is sufficiently baked. These cakes are usually spread with a thick layer of almond icing, and over that another layer of sugar icing, and afterwards ornamented. In baking a large cake like this, great attention must be paid to the heat of the oven; it should not be too fierce, but have a good soaking heat.

Time.—5 to 6 hours. Average cost, 2s. per lb.

Fruit cake like this was always traditional for English wedding cakes. The top tier was often saved for either the bride and groom’s first anniversary, or their first baby’s christening.  Prince William and Kate are reported to have saved the top two tiers from theirs (below).  This is possible because the cake is so dense (much like Christmas pudding). Note that this one, according to Beeton’s calculation would have cost more than 36 shillings, which was more than Bob Crachit took home in two weeks (he made 15s per week).