design history August 27, 2020

Children’s illustration history: going back in time

There’s something about illustrated books that always draw me in, especially kids’ books. There’s so much color, so many different approaches, and formats, it’s like a candy store but with books. But to fully get a grasp on its influences and how it came to be what it is today, I need to get a sense of children’s illustration history first.

Additionally, it’s on my bucket list to write, design, and illustrate a children’s book, so it’s never a bad idea to have a hold on why and how this field of illustration started.

Pioneers in children’s illustration history

Previous to the 19th century, every element of the family was working to put food on the table. Unfortunately, that included children as well.

The industrial revolution, besides providing more and better-paying jobs, also allowed for fast and cheaper, book production.

Around that time, Victorians started seeing children, not as miniature size adults, but as kids with different needs from their parents. As a result, new products – such as books – were developed with them in mind. From that point on, several artists/illustrators devoted their work to wonder and educate little ones.

Edward Lear (1812 – 1888)

Lear’s Book of Nonsense was a pioneer in children’s illustration history.
Although he was a scientific illustrator, he began illustrating limericks (small humorous rhymes) to make kids laugh. It’s true that he didn’t create new worlds like some of the other illustrators. Yet, he managed to change mentalities by providing every spectrum of society (young and old) with a good time.

Walter Crane (1845-1915)

Crane apprentice woodworking, but turned into one of the most influential illustrators.
Much like Lear, he wanted to entertain children instead of teaching or preaching to them. As a result, he created a series of toy books, a novelty in his time.

Randolph Caldecott (1846-86)

By 26 years old, Caldecott was already living in London and working as a professional freelance illustrator with a steady stream of work.
His ability to interpret and create a new reality – where objects are alive, animals make music, and children are at the top of society – became the new normal. Twentieth century children’s products, like Disney and Studio Ghibli movies, took that same idea.

Kate Greenaway (1846-1901)

She was not only an illustrator but also a poet who created inventive layouts for children’s books.
Greenaway’s work had such an impact during the Victorian era that even kid’s fashion design reproduced her character’s clothes.
The worlds she created within the books made her an international name whose books are still being reproduced.

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943)

If none of the other names rang any bells in your mind, this name probably will.
Potter’s books pass on from generations and still a treasure to read and to keep.
Keeping in mind Victorians’ interests in nature and natural elements, Beatrix Potter created an idyllic world where animals are the main characters who grab all of the attention.
Watercolor illustrations were her signature work and are now almost a fail-safe (and favorite) style in children’s literature books.

Children’s illustration over time

During the Victorian period, people collected illustrated books like pieces of art. High premium versions, very popular at the time, were commissioned and offered as holiday presents to wealthy kids, some of them becoming a significantly envied and expensive possession. 
However, with the break of World War I, these books went out of fashion as they were simply too costly, and illustrators ended up changing careers or adapting to new areas.

Children’s illustration presently

These children illustrators largely influenced many of the subsequent artists and continue, to this day, to amaze children worldwide.

Along with other professionals, they contributed to the golden age of illustration from the late 18th to mid 19th centuries. Children’s illustration is a recognized and valued profession because of them.

Nowadays, designers and artists of different backgrounds still take inspiration from their work, come up with new imaginary worlds for children. And that’s what the legacy of these illustrators is all about: the smile in those kids’ faces.

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