Thursday, April 14, 2016

Kate Greenaway, Artist and Poet

By Lauren Gilbert

From MARIGOLD GARDEN by Kate Greenaway

When I was a child, “Kate Greenaway” dresses were a fashion necessity for little girls.  I had one; it was pale green with embroidery and a dark green velvet sash, and I loved it.  Children’s rooms were also decorated with Kate Greenaway pictures and so forth.    Her work was greatly admired during her own time, and its popularity revives periodically.  Her illustrations are seen on note cards and prints as well as reprints of her books for children.  However, I never knew much about the artist herself, and became curious when I saw a vintage dress and some of her books for sale.

Born March 17, 1846 in London, her first name may have been Catherine, but she seems to have been always known as Kate.  She was the daughter of John Greenaway, a draughtsman and wood engraver whose illustrations appeared in PUNCH and other periodicals, and Elizabeth Jones Greenaway, a seamstress.  Kate seemed to have inherited talents from both parents, as she loved to draw and to make clothes for her dolls.  She was taught at home, and encouraged to draw.   As a child, she spent time with relatives in Rolleston, Nottinghamshire, and acquired a love for the country.  She pursued her art studies, including some time studying drawing and watercolours in Chelsea, and later at the Slade School of Fine Art.  In 1867, she made Christmas cards, illustrated a book for author William Kingston, and she exhibited some of her work in 1868 at the Dudley Gallery in London.  Her cards, book plates and calendars were popular, and her illustrations appeared in magazines as well.  She illustrated children’s books by multiple authors, and a couple of novels by Charlotte M. Yonge.  Her first exhibit at the Royal Academy was held in 1877.  She was, however, quite eager to write, as well as illustrate, her own book.

Miss Greenaway’s first book Under the Windows, Pictures and Rhymes for Children, was published in late 1878 or early 1879 by Edmund Evans,  who was a colleague of her father.  The original printing sold out quickly, and the book ultimately sold about 70,000 copies in England alone.  Her trademark style was already set: sweet and innocent illustrations of boys and girls and small children dressed in early 19th century fashion, with simple rhymes.  Ms. Greenaway received 40% of the profit, and had the satisfaction of seeing this book, as well as her next 3 books (Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book for Children published in 1880, Mother Goose; or, The Old Nursery Rhymes published in 1881, and The Painting Book published in 1884, maintain their popularity and have solid sales for a number of years.  She was also commissioned to paint portraits, particularly of children, which were well received.  At her peak, she published multiple books annually, and ultimately published at least 20 books.

Miss Greenaway found herself relatively well-to-do as a result of her success.  She was able to help out with household expenses, and built a home in Hampstead which she shared with her parents.  In addition to her books, she published a series of yearly almanacs that spread her popularity further, and were especially popular in the United States.  The Language of Flowers  was published in 1884, and was even more popular in the United States than in England.  The merchandizing of Ms. Greenaway’s work began very early, and included dresses, “skeleton suites” and other garb for children, dolls and other goods.  

The Greenaway look was popular not only in England and the United States, but in France and other countries as well.  Instead of dressing her characters in fashions current to her time in the late Victorian era, she looked back to the Regency era, with her little girls wearing the high-waisted dresses and bonnets, tiny boys wearing the frocks, and their mothers in caps and narrow-skirted gowns according to the modes of the early part of the century.  Thanks to the popularity of her illustrations, these styles were very fashionable again for children in the 1880’s and 1890’s.  Unfortunately, this also led to the piracy of her work, with goods copying her designs being manufactured and sold for which she was not remunerated.  Eventually, she retained her original works, selling only the rights, so that she could control their use and any income generated from them. 

Miss Greenaway never married.  By all accounts, she was very shy and rather plain.  Her work allowed her to meet and become acquainted with other artists and writers.  She received a letter from John Ruskin, the noted art critic, which led to a long correspondence.  He complimented her work, but also criticized, and could be quite cruel.  After corresponding for several years, they finally met.  She seemed to have had something of a “crush” on him, despite the difference in their ages (he was 64 years old and she was 36).  He asked her to visit him, and she did so.  Sadly, she apparently hoped for a marriage proposal which never materialized.   Ruskin tried to influence her to pursue more serious art instead of her illustrations, and suggested they collaborate on something.  He had had a marriage which had been dissolved, with all the accompanying scandal, and was not considered altogether healthy in his designs and influence on Kate (possibly somewhat of a Svengali?).   His criticisms took their toll and damaged her self confidence.  Despite the difficulties, including  her seeing him suffer a mental breakdown, their friendship and correspondence continued.

In 1890, Miss Greenaway was elected to the Royal Academy of Painters in Watercolour.  Unfortunately, that was also the year her father died.  Her mother died 4 years later, and John Ruskin died in 1900.  During this period, her sales declined, causing her to have to reduce her household expenses even though she took more portrait commissions to try to make up some of the difference.  Due to Ruskin’s urging, Miss Greenaway had been working on water colours of a different style than that reflected in her illustrations, which was not as favourably received, which further reduced her sales.  She also suffered from ill health which was originally diagnosed as acute muscular rheumatism, but actually appears to have been breast cancer.  In any event, it seems to have been quite painful.  She kept her illness to herself.  Ultimately, the condition spread to her lungs and she died November 6, 1901 at age 55.  She was cremated, and her ashes were interred next to her parents.

It is easy to see why her illustrations were so beloved during her own time and later.  Their soft colours, sweet faces and air of innocence are soothing and nostalgic, and evoke a gentler time that one wishes one had known.  While her poetry may no longer have broad appeal (although very young children still seem to enjoy the old fashioned rhymes), her paintings are still a pleasure to view.

Sources include: "Kate Greenaway." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004. Here. “Death of Kate Greenaway,” by Richard Cavendish. From History Today, Vol. 51, Issue 11, Nov. 2001. Here. “Kate Greenaway, Regency Revivalist” by Laura Boyle, March 5, 2012. Here. Women Children’s Book Illustrators. “Kate Greenaway (1846-1901).”
Slade School of Fine Art. “History.” Here.
The Cleveland Museum of Art. “K is for Kate...Kate Greenaway.” Here.
The Victorian Web. Here.
Top illustration is from my copy of MARIGOLD GARDEN by Kate Greenaway, which was originally published in 1885 by Edmund Evans Ltd. (My copy seems to be a facsimile reprint issued between 1966-1970.) All others are in the Public Domain via Wikipedia.

Lauren Gilbert is the author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel, published in 2011, and is working on A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, which is due out later this year. She lives in Florida with her husband, and is a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America. Please visit her website here for more information.


  1. This was a wonderful post. I enjoyed learning so much about Kate Greenaway. I didn't realize she had so many books published, or that she had attended Slade School of Fine Art, or that she had exhibited at the Royal Academy. These seem remarkable achievements for a woman growing up in Victorian England.

  2. I was surprised, too. I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. Thank you for all this information about one of my favorites!

  4. I'm a student and need to find books about her has I am unable to use the internet could you please recommend any has I have to do an essay about her.sue


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