James Hamilton’s Arthur Rackham: a life with illustrations

imagePublished as a hardcover edition in 1990, Hamilton’s illustrated biography of English painter Arthur Rackham has been gorgeously reproduced here as an oversized softcover edition. Rackham is perhaps best known for his exquisitely detailed paintings of whimsical fairies, gnarled and tangled tree folk, and other such flights of fancy. His work has been used as illustrations for such diverse publications as Rip Van Winkle, Peter Pan, A Midsummers Night’s Dream and Alice in Wonderland. Hamilton’s book is an excellent glimpse into the painter’s life for both fans and those unfamiliar with Rackham’s own special brand of whimsy.

The first 178 pages are devoted to Rackham’s life and art, lavishly illustrated with works both familiar and obscure. Intriguingly, the text actually begins before Rackham’s birth, detailing his father Alfred’s youth and rise in government service, thus establishing the importance of Rackham’s family in his life (for example, his younger sister was a frequent model). One of the more interesting facts that comes out is that Rackham was considered a late bloomer: his other brothers had all found gainful employment, or otherwise distinguished themselves well before his art attracted notice.

Hamilton’s text flows well and is an easy, pleasant read. He has organized the information chronologically and peppered the requisite facts about Rackham’s professional and personal lives with insightful quotes from the painter, his family and associates. The picture Hamilton paints is of a quiet, dedicated man, devoted to his family and his profession (Rackham was actively involved in several professional artistic societies for much of his career).Along with the better known paintings, Hamilton has included early doodles, rough drafts and a handful of more mainstream works, which further flesh out Rackham’s unique talent and justify the book’s subtitle: a life with illustration.

Following the main text is a wealth of information crammed into a relatively few pages: footnotes, a chronology of Rackham’s life, a family tree, a list of books illustrated by Rackham, public galleries containing his works, a brief essay on the printing industry at the time of Rackham’s career, a bibliography and an index. All a testament to Hamilton’s devotion to his subject matter. Fans of Rackham’s art will appreciate Hamilton’s thoroughness; those unfamiliar with his work may not get as much from the text, but will assuredly marvel at the wealth of gorgeous art reproduced within.

(Pavilion, 2004)