In Randolph Caldecott: The Man Who Wouldn’t Stop Drawing, Leonard Marcus brings a fresh and fascinating presentation of the artist’s life and works through his meticulous research and in-depth understanding of the artist who influenced so many artists and those in the field of children’s literature. Last year was the 75th Anniversary of the Caldecott Medal that honors “the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children. “ Later this month another illustrator will be recognized with this award for their contribution to the field in the spirit and excellence of Caldecott.
Caldecott began his work life as a bank clerk, always spending his spare observing the world around him. His passion was art and he soon positioned himself to become one, if not the most influential force in the development of the picture book. Caldecott was a determined man with a specific dream, to make his living not in a bank but as an illustrator.
One of the thought-provoking points that Marcus shares in this new biography is how the nineteenth century in England brought the technological advances that would alter the face of publishing forever and with it usher in the mass production and distribution of books as never before. This in turn would benefit artists such as Caldecott. Marcus writes,
“Rich or poor, Caldecott and his contemporaries were all acutely aware of having been born into a remarkable age, an era of breathtaking changes in the way people worked, traveled, communicated, experienced time and space, and imagined the world. What was more, nearly all the changes were man-made – brought about by human ingenuity and the invention of new machines. Without these changes, Caldecott could not have had the career in art that he did.”
From Caldecott’s younger years in the more rural Chester and Whitchurch, to the industrial center of Manchester and finally London, he seemed to be driven to the larger cities that would facilitate his goal. Manchester offered other artistic types, art classes, and the everyday life that he documented in his sketchbooks. The transition to London, made possible by faster railroads, was the next logical step to fulfilling his desire to illustrate full time. (Unfortunately, the pollution in these larger cities did nothing to help Caldecott’s ill health.) His first London residence happened to be across the street from the British Museum that provided endless resources for him to study, sketch, and practice his skills. His momentum as an artist was building, and like the time he lived in was speeding forward to great accomplishments.
It is important to note that during this period society paid a heavy price for such advancements, including children trapped in horrific working conditions, the growing number of people living in poverty, and the dire effects on living conditions and the environment. My grandfather was eight years old in 1880 when he and his mother, father, and little sister came from England to make a better life. Years later, while searching census records, I discovered that he had two other siblings who died shortly before their journey to America. He never talked about his other sister and brother to our family. He did say that his father was angry that there were so many people suffering with so little while others lived in luxury. My grandfather made it clear he would never return to his homeland. It was a time of great advancements in technology and travel, yet a tragic time for many.
However, Leonard Marcus makes us realize that out of such contrasts and suffering an extraordinary amount of beauty emerged. Randolph Caldecott’s art and his impact on children’s literature as well as other artists is a shining example of something good and positive from a less than ideal time.