Randolph Caldecott is best known as the namesake of the award that honors picture book illustrations, and in this inventive biography, leading children's literature scholar Leonard Marcus examines the man behind the medal. In an era when the steam engine fueled an industrial revolution and train travel exploded people's experience of space and time, Caldecott was inspired by his surroundings to capture action, movement, and speed in a way that had never before been seen in children's picture books. Thoroughly researched and featuring extensive archival material and a treasure trove of previously unpublished drawings, including some from Caldecott's very last sketchbook, Leonard Marcus's luminous biography shows why Caldecott was indeed the father of the modern picture book and how his influence lives on in the books we love today.
About the Author
Leonard S. Marcus is one of the world's leading writers about children's books and the people who create them. His own award-winning books include Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L'Engle in Many Voices; Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom; Minders of Make Believe; and The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886) was a British artist and illustrator and the namesake of the Caldecott Medal. Although primarily known for highly influential children's book illustrations, he also lent his artistic skills to novels, travel writing, and humorous cartoons, as well as sculpture and paintings. Some of his best known illustrations appear in The House That Jack Built, John Gilpin, The Three Jovial Huntsmen, and A Frog He Would A-Wooing Go.
Read an Excerpt
Two swans at the water's edge trade bewildered glances when they notice a little frog poking his head out of the river. The frog is clutching a paper — a letter it would seem — which he reads with a look of total absorption.
The artist who sketched this delightful scene arranged matters so that the date on the frog's paper — 13 Dec 1874 — would be clearly visible to the young child receiving the picture in the mail. It was Christmastime, and this was Randolph Caldecott's response to a holiday gift containing a six-year-old's "grand sheet of drawings." In his accompanying message, Caldecott thanked the young artist, then added these words of encouragement: "I hope you will go on trying and learning to draw. There are many beautiful things waiting to be drawn. Animals and flowers oh! such a many — and a few people." It was a good wish for a talented six-year-old and one that Caldecott himself might have been glad for as a boy making his own first pictures.
Randolph Caldecott was born, the third of John and Mary Caldecott's seven children, on March 22, 1846, in Chester, England, a walled fortress town built by the Romans around A.D. 70. Little is known about his parents or his early family life. The census of 1851 lists John, age thirty-eight, as a "retail hatter," but other records refer to him as an "accountant of standing." In all likelihood he was both. The Caldecotts lived in rooms on two floors above John's shop, together with two house servants and an apprentice who helped with the hat business.
Illness visited the Caldecotts often, although probably no more often than it did any of their neighbors. A son named William died at age two, only months after Randolph was born. The family's second daughter, Elizabeth, survived just six weeks during his third year. Then the children's mother, Mary Dinah Caldecott, died when Randolph was six. That same year he began to draw and to make animal figures out of wood and clay. As a boy, Caldecott himself suffered from rheumatic fever, a disease that permanently damaged his heart. Even so, he loved sports and exploring the outdoors, and rarely let his frail health stand in the way of a good time.
A small building attached to Chester Cathedral housed the King's School, which Caldecott attended as one of fewer than twenty students. A single teacher, a Mr. James Harris, taught all the lessons, which included the study of English grammar and the classical Roman poets read in the original Latin. Caldecott received high marks despite not being "studious in the popular sense of the word" and preferring instead to spend "most of his leisure time in wandering in the country round," a friend later recalled. One of his old boyhood schoolbooks shows that Caldecott sometimes let his mind wander while in class: the future artist had freely doodled in the margins.
Tall, lanky, and good-looking, with blue-gray eyes and light brown hair that occasionally stood on end, he had a ready smile and easy-going manner and enjoyed poking fun at himself. His schoolmates chose him as their Head Boy, an honor roughly equivalent to student body president. He completed his formal education at fourteen, the usual age for boys given any schooling in a time when education was considered a luxury. Then, in 1861, with some prodding from his practical-minded father, he accepted a job as a clerk at the Whitchurch and Ellesmere Bank, in the nearby market town of Whitchurch, Shropshire. That year, Caldecott turned fifteen.
A bank clerkship was a highly desirable introduction to the world of work. It was a hard job to come by — John Caldecott most likely had to pay the bank something in return for hiring his son. The job paid well and held great promise for the future. In making these arrangements, Caldecott's father doubtless wished to provide his physically fragile son with a steady, dependable means of support.
Whatever his own thoughts about this, young Randolph made the best of his situation, taking up lodging with a farm couple two miles from town and making friends with his fellow clerks. For transportation, he had a dogcart — a lightweight horse-drawn vehicle — which he raced to town and back each day and made further use of for occasional business calls at the homes of the bank's far-flung customers. To his pleasure, he soon realized that the workload of a Whitchurch bank clerk left him with plenty of "off-time" for hunting, fishing, riding, hiking — and drawing. When Caldecott went for a walk down a country lane, he took along his sketchbook. During office hours, bank stationery did just as well.
Drawing, for him, had already become much more than a pastime or even a serious hobby. Art, he had decided, was going to be his ticket out of the bank. Caldecott had no illusions that the sketches he was then making — humorous (but slight) pictures of people and realistic (but unremarkable) drawings of farm animals and landscapes — would earn him a living, let alone end up on the walls of a museum. But he knew that a person who drew well could hope to sell his sketches to the illustrated newspapers, more and more of which were setting up shop all around England just then. In 1855 alone, an astounding 168 new papers had appeared for sale at English newsstands and book stalls. With the coming of the railways, the English public had developed an insatiable appetite for news of the world — and the more pictures the better.
Caldecott wasted no time getting a toe in the door. Less than a year after arriving in Whitchurch, he sold his first drawing to a newspaper — in fact, the most popular of all of England's papers, the weekly Illustrated London News. He would have had to scramble every step of the way. The picture in question was an eyewitness sketch of the spectacular fire that all but destroyed the Queen's Railway Hotel in his hometown of Chester. Caldecott must have heard news of the blaze and dashed to the scene in his dogcart. He then would have had to make a finished drawing, pack it up for the editors of the Illustrated London News, and put the parcel on a train bound for London, where an engraving, based on the drawing, would be rapidly prepared by skilled artisans. The illustration ran in the paper's December 7, 1861, issue, a few days after the event it depicted. Caldecott was nowhere credited by name; still, more than 200,000 readers throughout Britain had seen an image based on his work.
Whitchurch, a thriving market town on the EnglandWales border, was a pleasant place to live. Had Caldecott wanted the quiet, carefree life his father envisioned for him, he could have been very happy there indeed. He must have known this himself. Years later, when he drew the picture books for which he became famous, he showed his special fondness for Whitchurch by recalling bits and pieces of the town in his drawings: the tower of the Whitchurch Parish Church, the shops along High Street, and an inn called The Swan all make appearances.
But Caldecott knew that only in a big city would he meet the art instructors who could help him perfect his craft and the editors and gallery owners who could launch his career. The nearest such city was Manchester, about forty miles to the northeast, and on Christmas Eve 1866 he applied for a clerkship at the offices of the Manchester and Salford Bank. He began work there the following March.
Manchester lacked the gilded pedigree, pomp, and splendor of London, but it had a swagger all its own. The epicenter of England's burgeoning textile industry, Manchester was a new kind of city. Its most imposing buildings, in the heart of town, were not the palaces of kings and queens but rather the fortress-like office blocks of newly rich mill owners, manufacturers, and bankers. The city had rapidly grown from a sleepy backwater town into an industrial-age colossus, and its steam-driven looms churned out mile after mile of affordable cotton cloth for sale and distribution throughout the world.
As Manchester's cotton mills multiplied, money poured into the city and its banks. People were hard-pressed to find words dramatic enough to describe the place and what was happening there. "Cottonopolis" became Manchester's nick- name, always spoken with a mixture of pride and astonishment. "Manchester goods" became a new universal term for cotton cloth.
Not everyone in Manchester prospered, however, and much of the city's new growth was a sprawling expanse of grim, unsanitary, slapdash construction, a confusion of cavernous, smoke-billowing mill houses and the cramped slums where the mill workers lived. Working conditions in the mills were harsh and at times exceedingly dangerous, with the thick clouds of cotton dust that permeated the over-heated mills capable of damaging workers' lungs and eyes, and the machinery itself not only loud enough to cause deafness but also powerful enough to result in lost limbs and even fatalities. Still, people by the thousands from towns and villages throughout England and Ireland streamed into Manchester in search of higher-paying jobs at the mills.
Child labor was deplorably widespread, with a substantial portion of those who worked in the mills — by one estimate approximately one in ten — under the age of thirteen. A series of reform laws enacted by Parliament, starting with the Cotton Factories Regulation Act of 1819, progressively raised the minimum age and shortened the maximum allowable workday for young people. Nonetheless, a great divide persisted throughout the nineteenth century in Britain between those children and teens who worked for a living and those with the unencumbered leisure to study and play.
Rich or poor, Caldecott and his contemporaries were all acutely aware of having been born into a remarkable age, an era of breath-taking changes in the way people worked, traveled, communicated, experienced time and space, and imagined the world. What was more, nearly all these 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.
Perhaps the most important of the new inventions was the steam engine, because it was the machine that powered so many other machines. Steam engines drove the locomotives that moved railway passengers and freight (including the illustrated magazines for which Caldecott had begun to work) at once-unimaginable speeds. For the first time ever, the new steam-powered passenger trains allowed travelers to traverse hundreds of miles in a single day. In 1846, the year Caldecott was born, England had just over two thousand miles of train track in service. By the time he was living in Manchester, the rail network had more than quintupled to nearly twelve thousand miles of track. In the next few years, Britain's mighty rail web would extend its reach into every nook and cranny of the nation.
Steam engines also powered the presses that printed the newspapers and magazines that gave illustrators like Caldecott a national audience, and which allowed millions of Englishmen and women to share, as never before, in a common awareness not only of current events but also of new books, manufactured goods, and places to visit. Steam engines powered the textile mills and other factories that had made England the richest nation on earth, and they were greatly increasing the wealth of other nations with access to the same technologies, including the United States. The textile mills of Manchester, New Hampshire, were closely modeled on those of Manchester, England. A new term — horsepower — entered the language as a measure of the power generated by these new engines, which in so many ways had made real horses a relic of an earlier age.
Artists could not help but respond to the great changes happening all around them, and trains, train stations, and the people who frequented them provided new subjects. Monumental paintings, called panoramas, became popular entertainments that people paid money to see. Seated in a theater, the audience watched wide-eyed as the panorama scrolled before them across the stage, a section at a time, creating the illusion of a journey through an unfamiliar and often exotic landscape. One of England's most original painters, Joseph Turner, produced an extraordinary, albeit much smaller, landscape titled Rain, Steam, Speed. Depicting a train in motion as little more than a blur of color in a radiant field of light, he succeeded in expressing what so many of his contemporaries felt: the story of the new age was above all a story about energy, swiftness, and motion.
Life in Manchester was faster paced by far than any that Caldecott had yet known. He started his new job on March 26, 1867. Late that night, having not yet unpacked his books, he wrote a letter to one of his closest Whitchurch friends, John Numerley. He included a quick sketch of himself standing forlornly by the fireplace in his new quarters, looking very much like someone who wished to be elsewhere. That first day, he reported, had come as a great jolt to him. Unlike in Whitchurch, employees of the Manchester and Salford Bank seemed to do nothing but work. The day commenced promptly at 9 a.m., by which time the clerks were expected to be at their desks as the first silk-hatted gentleman customers strode into the banking hall. He teased his old friend that the shock of his new life had made him a believer in"— by which he meant the belief that everyone was born to live in some very particular, predetermined way. Caldecott was certain, he said, that it was God's wish that he should never work another day in his life. Alas, he noted, he was not likely to live out that destiny — not then or any time soon.
Caldecott settled into his demanding, new routine like the good sport he was. In later years he played down his prowess as a "quill-driver." But the bank's records show that the directors considered him a capable worker, and that they rewarded his labors accordingly with a series of raises. Even so, Caldecott managed to sneak in a bit of doodling on bank time — much to the delight of his best friend among his fellow clerks, William Clough, who got into the habit of saving the drawings. Eventually Clough made an album of them, which is now in the collection of London's Victoria and Albert Museum.
With a few rapid strokes of his pen, Caldecott would catch the look of a self-important customer, the amusing spectacle of a fellow clerk dozing off half-buried in a ledger, or, from memory, the swashbuckling swordfight seen in a play or the profile of a mule. William Clough would later say of Caldecott: "He came like a ray of sunlight into our life, and brightened the drudgery of our toil with his cheerful humour, and the playful sketches so easily done ... So fertile was his invention, that a chance blot on a piece of paper became in his hands the nucleus of a happy drawing."
Even allowing for these occasional hijinks, Caldecott in Manchester must have felt that he led a double life. As a bank clerk, he labored six long days a week, with only Sundays off. After work on some evenings, he doubtless headed off with Clough and their comrades to a nearby pub for rounds of drinks. But on many nights Caldecott traded his bank ledger for a sketchbook and took to the streets, wandering the dimly lit byways of Manchester to draw the people and places he chanced upon. His younger brother Alfred recalled: "He made hundreds and thousands of disciplinary sketches at that time. The easy certainty with which, in maturity, he drew ... was acquired [then]." Lost in concentration, Caldecott might forget about the hour and stay out drawing all night.
In Manchester he discovered other ways to advance his art career as well. The city had its share of artists, writers, and patrons of the arts, and of places where such people gathered. A short distance from the bank, the Royal Manchester Institution offered drawing lessons, public lectures on the arts and sciences, and an annual fall exhibition of paintings by local artists. At the Manchester School of Art, which had begun as a training center for textile designers, Caldecott took evening classes in painting. He also joined a new social club that recruited its members from the ranks of the city's poets, painters, journalists, actors, scientists, and other "gentlemen" with an interest in new ideas. At the Brasenose Club, Caldecott met all the editors who were in a position to hire him as an illustrator. Before long, his drawings were appearing regularly in two Manchester magazines, the Will o' the Wisp and The Sphinx. In 1869, he had a painting selected for the fall show at the Royal Manchester Institution.
Excerpted from "Randolph Caldecott: The Man Who Could Not Stop Drawing"
Copyright © 2013 Leonard S. Marcus.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
Randolph Caldecott Timeline,
Randolph Caldecott: His Books,