Every story requires a spark of inspiration before it can burst into life. In the case of Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat – the children’s picture book I published with V&A Publishing in 2015 – that spark flew from the work of Arts and Crafts polymath Walter Crane. I had seen his wonderful wallpaper designs in the V&A collection, and – knowing Crane to be one of the most popular and influential 19th-century illustrators of fairy tale and fable – was taken with the idea of telling a modern children’s tale in which Crane’s characters and designs step out of their wallpapers into the real world. It was not by accident that I gave Wendy’s grandfather the name Walter.
At Christmas, this connection was highlighted in a splendid article about Walter Crane in the December edition of Elle Decoration. Alongside the wallpaper designs that appear in Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat, the article celebrates the work of an artist who was a contemporary of William Morris and shared his belief that exceptional art should be found in the homes of rich and poor alike.
“A gloriously whimsical tale that promises to introduce a new generation to Crane’s sumptuous designs.”
Crane was born in Liverpool in 1845. The son of a portrait painter, he was apprenticed as a wood engraver. This afforded him the opportunity to study closely the work of many artists, including Sir John Tenniel who famously illustrated Alice in Wonderland (first published in 1865).
Throughout his twenties, Crane worked with the printer Edmund Evans developing and improving the standard of ‘toy books’. These were mass market children’s books featuring alphabets, nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Crane’s revolutionary work laid the foundations for many aspects of modern picture books that we take for granted. He believed that good illustration and design could help children to read from an early age, and that every feature of the book should engage the reader’s interest: from the cover and endpapers through to the integration between illustration and typography. Crane’s illustrations featured ‘bright, frank colours’, and he understood that children would respond to decorative, symbolic art. He also employed comic visual devices: in The Baby’s Opera (1877), for example, three mice lead the reader through the book with their mischievous antics.
There is a delightful step from Crane’s picture books into the nurseries in which they were read. The square format for his youngest readers, which is still used for alphabet books today, was based on tiles used to decorate nurseries. The nursery rhyme characters of his toy books found their way into his nursery wallpapers, including the ‘Nursery Rhymes’ design from which the feline fiddle player steps in Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat. Crane’s wallpapers were popular at home and abroad, and it is amusing to imagine Mark Twain being inspired by the ‘Miss Mouse At Home’ design he used to decorate his own children’s nursery.
As noted in the back of Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat, an article of 1884 said of Crane’s nursery wallpapers: ‘With the aid of a little intelligent and sympathetic talk, nursery walls, covered with these designs, might be made to live within the lives of children.’
Walter Crane became an examiner at the South Kensington Museum, which in turn became known as the Victoria & Albert Museum. Seeing the printed books of Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat decorating – wallpaper fashion – the shelves of the V&A shop alongside gifts based on Crane’s own designs, it feels like the book now has a life of its own. It would be lovely to think that it might return a favour: by breathing new life into the wallpaper designs of the artist who fired that first spark, as they step into the picture book framework he helped to construct, so that they might once again ‘live within the lives of children’.