Kate Greenaway : Victorian Children’s Book Illustrator

Kate Greenaway : Victorian Children’s Book Illustrator

Kate Greenaway: Visions of Childhood

Kate Greenaway (1846-1901) was one of the most admired English children’s book illustrators of the Victorian era, if not necessarily one of the most gifted.

Kate Greenaway illustration from Mother Goose, published 1881

Kate Greenaway illustration from Mother Goose, published 1881.

She was also an exhibited painter in watercolours and oils, a designer of greeting cards, and a sketch illustrator for magazines.

It is the nostalgic charm of her book illustrations – and of the fanciful Regency-esque costumes in which she dressed the characters of her illustrations – for which Kate Greenaway and her work are best remembered.

In her heyday, Greenaway attained almost cult-celebrity status among the fashion-conscious new middle class of England and on the European continent, notably in France.

Her work is still so affectionately regarded, more than a century on, that a prestigious award for outstanding illustration in children’s and young people’s books bears her name: The Kate Greenaway Medal, awarded each year by CILIP, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals.

Biography:  The Life of a Victorian Lady Illustrator

Kate Greenaway illustration from My Treasure by Thomas W. Handford

Kate Greenaway illustration from My Treasure by Thomas W. Handford

Catherine (“Kate”) Greenaway was born on March 17, 1846, in Hoxton, North London, the second daughter of well-respected draughtsman and wood-engraver John Greenaway and his wife Elizabeth (Jones) Greenaway.

Bryan Holme reports in The Kate Greenaway Book that the relationship between father and daughter was close and supportive, and Kate’s early aritistic interests were strongly encouraged: “As soon as Kate’s fingers had strength enough to hold pencil, John Greenaway had encouraged her to draw – and this he continued to do up to and through her student years.”

Kate Greenaway studied at South Kensington, at Heatherleys life classes, and at the Slade School, following her father into the field of commercial art – a rather unconventional line of work for a woman of the Victorian era.

In 1868, Greenaway’s watercolour drawings began to be exhibited at the Dudley Gallery, London.

“The grace and charm of her children and young girls were quickly recognized, and her treatment of quaint early nineteenth century costume, prim gardens, and the child-like spirit of her designs in an old-world atmosphere, though touched with conscious modern ‘aestheticism,’ captivated the public in a remarkable way.”

~ Walter Crane

Her illustrations for cards, periodicals, and the books of others were moderately successful throughout the 1870s, but the publication of her first book, Under the Window: Pictures and Rhymes for Children (Routledge, 1879) led to instant celebrity – almost a cult status – and a comfortable income.

Studio House (1885) designed by Richard Norman Shaw for Kate Greenaway

Kate Greenaway’s Studio House (1885) designed by Richard Norman Shaw was photographed in 2007 by Steve Cadman. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Studio House (1885) was designed by the renowned architect Richard Norman Shaw for Kate Greenaway. Located at 39 Frognal, Hampstead, London, England, it is a Grade II listed building (IoE 477407).   See that upstairs room with large windows, turned at a 45-degree angle onto the balcony? That room was Kate Greenaway’s work space or studio, according to the present owners of the house.

(You can read more about the Studio House and its design and construction in an article by Dan Carrier in Camden New Journal, published online September 2011: “Property News: Open House architecture – secrets to be revealed behind Greenaway home and other fascinating properties.”)

One of the defining characteristics of Greenaway’s personal and professional life was her long friendship with John Ruskin, with whom she exchanged many letters – some of which are reproduced and/or quoted at length in Marion Spielmann and George Somes Layard’s 1905 biography of their friend “K.G.”

“One of the charms, as has been said, most striking in the character of ‘K.G.’ (as she was called by her most intimate friends and relatives) was her modesty. A quiet, bright little lady, whose fame has spread all over the world, and whose books were making her rich, and her publisher prosperous and content — there she was, whom everybody wanted to know, yet who preferred to remain quite retired, living with her relatives in the delightful house Mr. Norman Shaw had designed for her — happy when she was told how children loved her work, but unhappy when people who were not her intimate friends wanted to talk to her about it.”

~ M.H. Spielmann and G.S. Layard

Greenaway never married, but lived all her life with her parents and younger brother. She died at Hampstead on November 6, 1901, and is buried in the family plot at the Hampstead cemetery.

She left a legacy of fanciful and romantic illustrations that are unique in the charming vision of childhood they never fail to conjure for viewers of all agess – and opened wide the door for other women to enter the world of commercial art and illustration, and to prosper there.

Kate Greenaway illustration - May Day

Kate Greenaway illustration – May Day

Kate Greenaway Quotations

On Art

“One never uses the rules, one only feels them – and defies if one likes… But we should first know and love them.”

On Business

“I have made it a rule for a long time, not to part with the copyright of my drawings, for I have been so copied, my drawings reproduced and sold for advertisements and done in ways I hate.”

On Childhood

“I suppose my imaginary life made me one long continuous joy – filled everything with a strange wonder and beauty. Living in that childish wonder is a most beautiful feeling – I can so well remember it. There was always something more – behind and beyond everything – to me, the golden spectacles were very, very big.”

Kate Greenaway illustration from My Treasure by Thomas W. Handford

The Illustrator of Children’s Books

Kate Greenaway’s distinctive style first appeared commercially on Christmas cards, but it was Evans’ production of her illustrated book of verse, Under the Window (1879), that first brought her work to public notice.

As an illustrator of children’s books, Kate Greenaway was rivaled in her time only by Randolph Caldecott and Walter Crane. All three artists worked at one time or another with the colour printer Edmund Evans, who had apprenticed with John Greenaway. Evans clearly had an eye for talent, and perhaps also a knack for marketing – but it must be admitted that Caldecott and Crane were superior artists to Greenaway.

What Kate Greenaway’s illustrations had, however, was a certain wistful nostalgia and delicate charm. She created an idealized vision of childhood, with small rounded figures skipping through decorative rural landscapes or across the generous white space of a page in Regency-inspired costumes that became, in themselves, something of a fashion inspiration.

The dainty pictures and clear pure colours of Greenaway’s idealized pre-industrial world of childhood would surely have had a special appeal for late-Victorian mothers of England’s rising middle class – perhaps uncomfortably aware of the great chasm between the pampered lives of their little ones and the rather more grim existences of children working in mines, mills, and factories.

The Greenaway charm proved irresistible and her illustrations for Browning’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin, in particular, were iconic to generations of children. It can be fairly argued, too, that Kate Greenaway’s A Apple Pie marked the birth of the modern picture book.

Thomas the Rhymer meets the Queen of Elphame

Thomas the Rhymer meets the Queen of Elphame in an illustration by Kate Greenaway.

Chronological List of Children’s Books Written or Illustrated by Kate Greenaway

  • Kingston, William, Infant Amusements, or How to Make a Nursery Happy, 1867.
  • Aulnoy, Marie, Madame D’Aulnoy’s Fairy Tales, 9 v., Gall and Inglis, 1871.
  • Aunt Louisa’s London Toy Books: Diamonds and Toads, Warne, 1871.
  • Jeune, Margaret S., My School Days in Paris, London, Griffith and Farran, 1871.
  • Knox, Kathleen, Fairy Gifts; or, A Wallet of Wonders, Griffith & Farran, 1874.
  • Aunt Cae, The Children of the Parsonage, Griffith & Farran, 1874.
  • Mulholland, Rosa, Puck and Blossom, Marcus Ward, 1874.
  • Hill, Miranda, The Fairy Spinner, Marcus Ward, 1874.
  • Jerrold, Alice, A Cruise in the Acorn, London, Marcus Ward, 1875.
  • Clark, Mary Senior, Turnaside Cottage, London, Marcus Ward, 1875.
  • Potter, Frederick Scarlett, Melcomb Manor: A Family Chronicle, London, Marcus Ward, 1875.
  • Children’s Songs, London, Marcus Ward, c. 1875.
  • Knox, Kathleen, Seven Birthdays; or, The Children of Fortune, Griffith & Farran, 1875.
  • Quiver of Love, a Collection of Valentines (with Walter Crane), Marcus Ward, 1876.
  • LaBlanche, Fanny, Starlight Stories Told to Bright Eyes and Listening Ears, Griffith & Farran, 1877.
  • Russell, Rutherford, Tom Seven Years Old, London, Marcus Ward, 1877.
  • Hunt, Mrs. Bonavia, Poor Nelly, London, Cassell, Petter, Gilpin, 1878.
  • Campbell, Lady Colin, Topo: A Tale About English Children in Italy, Marcus Ward, 1878.
  • Yonge, Charlotte Mary, Heartsease; or The Brother’s Wife, Macmillan, 1879.
  • Yonge, Charlotte Mary, The Heir of Redclyffe, Macmillan, 1879.
  • Pollock, Walter Herries, Amateur Theatricals, London, Macmillan, 1879.
  • Toyland, Trot’s Journey and Other Poems and Stories, New York, R. Worthington, c. 1879
  • Weatherly, George, The “Little Folks” Painting Book, Cassell, Petter, Gilpin, 1879.
  • Weatherly, George, The “Little Folks” Nature Painting Book, Cassell, Petter, Gilpin 1879.
  • A Favorite Album of Fun and Fancy, London, Cassell, Petter, Gilpin, c. 1879.
  • Haile, Ellen, Three Brown Boys and Other Happy Children, New York, Cassell & Co., c. 1879.
  • Haile, Ellen, The Two Gray Girls and Their Opposite Neighbours, New York, Cassell & Co., c. 1879.
  • Under the Window: Pictures and Rhymes for Children, London, George Routledge, 1879.
  • Barker, Mrs. Sale, Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book, London, George Routledge, 1880.
  • Freddie’s Letter: Stories For Little People, London, Routledge, 1880.
  • The Old Farm Gate, London, George Routledge, c. 1880.
  • Lang, Andrew, The Library, London, Macmillan and Company, 1881.
  • Locker, Frederick, London Lyrics, London, Macmillan and Company, 1881.
  • Mother Goose; or, The Old Nursery Rhymes, London, Routledge, 1881.
  • Foster, Myles Burkett, A Day in a Child’s Life, London, Routledge, 1882.
  • Ranking, Montgomerie and Tully, Thomas K., Flowers and Fancies; Valentines Ancient and Modern, Marcus Ward, 1882.
  • Weatherly, F. E., The Illustrated Children’s Birthday Book (with others), London, W. Mack, 1882.
  • Taylor, Ann and Jane, Little Ann and Other Poems, London, Routledge, 1883.
  • Zimmern, Helen, Tales from the Edda, London, Sonnenschein, 1883.
  • Language of Flowers, London, Routledge, 1884.
  • A Painting Book By Kate Greenaway, London, George Routledge, 1884.
  • Ellice, Robert, compiler, Songs for the Nursery: A Collection of Children’s Poems, Old and New, W. Mack, 1884.
  • Kate Greenaway’s Christmas Carols, London: George Routledge, c. 1884.
  • Kate Greenaway’s Alphabet, London, Routledge, 1885.
  • Kate Greenaway’s Album, London, Routledge, c. 1885.
  • Marigold Garden: Pictures and Rhymes, London, Routledge, 1885.
  • Mavor, William, English Spelling Book, London, Routledge, 1885.
  • Ruskin, John, editor, Dame Wiggins of Lee and Her Seven Wonderful Cats, London, George Allen, 1885.
  • A Apple Pie: An Old-Fashioned Alphabet Book, London, Routledge, 1886.
  • Harte, Bret, The Queen of the Pirate Isle, Chatto & Windus, 1886.
  • Baby’s Birthday Book, London, Marcus Ward, 1886.
  • Allingham, William, Rhymes for the Young Folk, Cassell and Co., 1887.
  • Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Garland, London, George Routledge, 1887.
  • Browning, Robert, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, London, Routledge, 1888.
  • Around the House, New York, Worthington, 1888.
  • Kate Greenaway’s Book of Games, London, Routledge, 1889.
  • Cresswell, Beatrice F. , The Royal Progress of King Pepito, London, Society for
  • Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1889.
  • Arnim, Mary Annette, The April Baby’s Book of Tunes, London and New York, Macmillan, 1900.
  • Spielmann, Mabel H., Littledom Castle and Other Tales (with others), London, George Routledge, 1903.
  • Dobson, Austin, De Libris Prose and Verse (with others), London, Macmillan, 1908, 1911.
  • Almanack, London, Routledge,1883-1895.

Kate Greenaway’s work also appeared in a number of popular magazines and newspapers, such as:

  • Cassell’s Magazine
  • Century Magazine
  • The Girl’s Own Paper
  • The Illustrated London News
  • Harper’s Young People
  • The Ladies Home Journal
  • Little Folks
  • The People’s Magazine
  • Punch
  • St. Nicholas

There may have been others. If you’re aware of other magazines and newspapers to which Kate Greenaway contributed her illustrations (or her verse, for that matter), please leave a note in the Comments. It would be lovely to ensure this list is complete!

Kate Greenaway illustration from Under the Window

Under the Window: Pictures and Rhymes for Children

When engraver and colour printer Edmund Evans produced Greenaway’s first book, Under the Window, a collection of verses for children, she was relatively unknown. The book was a commercial successful, firmly establishing Kate Greenaway’s reputation as an author and illustrator of works for children.

Richard Maxwell, in The Victorian Illustrated Book, notes that Under the Window “recorded the play of country children in cottages, gardens, and fields: the window of the title poem opens onto a rural garden. Yet Greenaway’s own visual sense was formed looking through London street windows, watching the crowds, and standing outside Islington shop windows, dreaming over toy villages and over picture books’ brightly colored promise of other worlds.”

The colour illustrations were produced “through a costly process that involved the photographing of her dainty water-colors on to wood blocks” by which means “Evans was able to present all of the charm of Greenaway’s idyllic pastoral scenes and seemingly enchanted children,” according to the L390 Touponce Lecture Notes, Indiana University – Purdue.

The first print run of 20,000 copies sold out almost immediately, and a second printing of 70,000 was soon ordered. In total, some 150,000 copies of the popular little book were sold. Under the Window was also published in French and German translations.

Mother Goose – The Old Nursery Rhymes

Kate Greenaway illustration from Mother Goose or the Old Nursery Rhymes

Kate Greenaway illustration from Mother Goose or the Old Nursery Rhymes


Kate Greenaway cover illustration from Language of Flowers

Language of Flowers

Published in London by George Routledge and Sons, Language of Flowers (1884) was engraved and printed by Edmund Evans.

The first section gives the flower name and its meaning in the Victorian “language of flowers,” and is illustrated in colour by Kate Greenaway. The second section, not illustrated, reverses the order. Some editions also contain a selection of short flower-themed poems by Wordsworth, Shelley, etc. Only 19,500 copies of the book were printed in all the 10 variants.

Language of Flowers may be viewed online, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

Marigold Garden: Pictures and Rhymes

The first edition was published in 1885 by George Routledge and Sons, London & New York, engraved and printed by Edmund Evans. From 1901 on, Frederick Warne published many editions of Marigold Garden.

Kate Greenaway cover illustration from Marigold Garden

“You little girl,

You little boy,

With wondering eyes,

That kindly look,

In honour of

Two noble names

I send the offering

Of this book.”

The green-covered edition of Marigold Garden shown here, available online courtesy of Project Gutenberg, is not dated.

A Apple Pie – An Old-Fashioned Alphabet Book

Kate Greenaway cover illustration from A Apple Pie An Old-Fashioned Alphabet Book

Kate Greenaway cover illustration from A Apple Pie An Old-Fashioned Alphabet Book

The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Written by Robert Browning, The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1888) shows Kate Greenaway at her best as an illustrator of children’s books.  This is the version of The Pied Piper I grew up with, so there’s a nostalgic note in this recommendation. Sentiment aside, however, Browning’s story remains a children’s favourite, and in its lavishly detailed illustrations Kate Greenaway almost certainly reached the height of her artistic achievement.

Kate Greenaway illustration - frontispiece from The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning

Kate Greenaway illustration – frontispiece from The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning


Featured image: based on Old fashioned vignette by Kate Greenaway (Projekt Gutenberg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, modified by the author.

Are you familiar with the art of Kate Greenaway?

Which of her books is your favorite?


likes to make and do and think and explore and share what is discovered. She is also incurably curious. If you are, too, you can find her posting as Flycatcher...r...r on Twitter and Google Plus.

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