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A Mad Tea-Party by Arthur Rackham (Photo credit: Wikimedia.org)

A Mad Tea-Party by Arthur Rackham (Photo credit: Wikipedia.commons)

Japonisme is a French term. It was first used by Jules Claretie (3 December 1840 – 23 December 1913) in L’Art français en 1872 (French Art in 1872) 1913) in L’Art français en 1872 (French Art in 1872). I chose it to describe, in part, the Golden Age of illustration in Britain. The art work that was flooding Europe after Japan’s Sakoku (locked country) period were mere wood-block prints, or ukiyo-e, but no one questioned their beauty. They were in fact not only genuine art, but in many cases, masterpieces.

the Writer and the Illustrator

In Britain, Japonisme ushered in the Golden Age of illustrations. Both word and art could be reproduced very quickly. An author retained the services of an artist, John Tenniel, who, for his part, retained the services of an engraver or engravers. The engravers of  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871) are the Brothers Daziel.

Although some artists could illustrate their text, which was the case with Beatrix Potter (28 July 1866 – 22 December 1943), the author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, in most cases, illustrating a book successfully required the collaboration and compatibility of a writer and an artist. The illustrations were then engraved, unless the illustrator was also an engraver.


The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Therefore, when John Tenniel accepted to illustrate Lewis Carroll‘s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass (1871), he and Lewis Carroll had long discussions. John Tenniel was accepting his first commission as the illustrator of children’s literature. Until he agreed to illustrate Lewis Carroll’s Alice, John Tenniel had been working as a political cartoonist for Punch magazine. He could draw, but the subject matter was brand new. Consequently, if successful, illustrating Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass could make history. Besides given that Lewis Carroll was a pioneer in the area of official literary nonsense, his task was all the more challenging. What was John Tenniel to do each time the text grew “curiouser and couriouser”?

Literary nonsense

Edward Lear (12 or 13 May 1812 – 29 January 1888) had published his Book of Nonsense, in 1846, a few decades before the Golden Age of Illustration. In particular, he had  popularized limericks, a literary genre, poetry to be precise. Witty literature was not new. It found a rich expression in the Salons of the first half of the 17th century in France and it was, to a certain extent, related to the conceit (la pointe), the witty and ingenious metaphors of the metaphysical poets of 17th-century England. Literary nonsense would become a feature of children’s literature.


The flowers are beginning their masquerade as people. Sir Jonquil begins the fun by Walter Crane, 1899 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass were very successful and all the more so because children had gained importance. Although the mortality rate among children had not abated drastically, advances in medicine allowed parents to expect their children to survive childhood. Queen Victoria married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a Prince consort, and gave birth to nine healthy children who married royals.

Gutenberg continued: the Instantaneous, yet…

Moreover the success of Lewis Carroll‘s and Tenniel’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, word and art, did make history. Johannes Gutenberg‘s invention of the printing-press in the middle of the 15th century had been major revolution, one of the most significant in European history. Well, a book had been produced that included fine reproductions of beautiful images. Printed books containing printed illustrations had been produced between 1500 and 1865 but Japonisme had eased the task.

The Calligrapher & the Artist

Compared to the labour of monks who copied books one at a time, Gutenberg’s invention made printing a text seem instantaneous, hence the revolutionary character of the invention of the printing-press. Let us also consider that the printing-press led to the growth of literacy which, in 19th-century Britain, was being extended to children as children’s literature was popular. However, if an illustrated book were to be a commercial success, producing the book demanded that word and art match in an almost inextricable manner.

What comes to mind is the collaboration between the calligrapher and the artist who illuminated such books as Books of Hours, laicity’s Liber Usualis. The printing-press had been invented but, as noted above, a good relationship between the author and the illustrator was crucial:

“There was a physical relation of the illustrations to the text, intended to subtly mesh illustrations with certain points of the text.” (See John Tenniel, Wikipedia.)


Printing illustrations, however, constituted a more challenging task than printing a text, a challenge that was eased by Japonisme. First, Japonisme allowed the rapid printing of illustrations. Second, it validated the work of illustrators. But third, it also simplified the duplication of illustrations.

Typically, the art of Japan featured:

  • a diagonal line crossing a vertical or horizontal line;
  • flat or lightly shaded colours;
  • a stark outline;
  • &c

Composition did not ease a printer’s labour, but flat colours and a stark outline, i.e. the linearity of Japanese wood-block prints, did help the illustrator and the printer. So did the use of flat colours.

Rackham’s work is often described as a fusion of a northern European ‘Nordic’ style strongly influenced by the Japanese woodblock tradition of the early 19th century. (See Arthur Rackham, Wikipedia.)

Rackham’s “Mad Tea-Party”, featured above, exhibits a diagonal line and it is a linear work of art. The colours are poured inside lines, which reminds me of colouring books for children. But note that there are few shadows. The cups and saucer do not cast a shadow, nor does the teapot. As for dimensionality, it is expressed through the use of lines rather than a juxtaposition of shades of the same colour or the juxtaposition of different colours. Wood-block printing allowed for a measure of dimensionality through the use of lighter or darker tones of a colour or colours. However, by and large, Japanese wood-block prints do not show the shadow of the objects they depict.

With respect to linearity, one need only compare Katsushika Hokusai‘s (c. 31 October 1760 – 10 May 1849) “Self-Portrait” and Rackham’s illustration of the “Town mouse and Country mouse”, shown in a previous post. Moreover, draping or dimensionality is achieved by using less lines (pale: close) or more lines (dark: distant).


Self-Portrait by Hokusai (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Town mouse and Country Mouse by Arthur Rackham (Wikimedia.org)

Town Mouse and Country Mouse by Arthur Rackham (Photo credit: Wikimedia.org)


Arthur Rackham’s illustrations are close to ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”). Walter Crane, however, is the most prolific among Japoniste illustrators of children’s books. He illustrated a very large number of literary works. We are acquainted with his Baby’s Own Æsop (Gutenberg [EBook #25433]), but he also illustrated The Baby’s Own Opera (Gutenberg [EBook #25418]), songs for children. Folklorists, however, had collected and classified a very large number of folk tales.

Illustrators had countless tales to illustrate: those produced by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian AndersenPerrault, Madame d’Aulnoy. Anyone can rewrite the “Little Red Riding Hood” and illustrate it. Carl Larsson illustrated the “Little Red Riding Hood” in 1881. The Arts and Crafts movement was international. (to be cont’d)

I apologize for the delay. My computer is nearly dead and life has a way of making demands.

With my kindest regards.

The Little Red Riding Hood by Carl Larsson

The Little Red Riding Hood by Carl Larsson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Japanese Artists

Japonisme in France & Britain


Sources and Resources

“Alice in Wonderland” Tim Burton 2010 by Danny Elfman
Jane Burden Morris

066118© Micheline Walker
6 November 2015