Image from the British Museum.

Kate Greenaway’s illustrations from the late 1800s are childhood favourites for many growing up in England. Even if you grew up somewhere else in the world there’s still a chance you will have seen them adorning the pages of a children’s book. The style in which she depicted children – angelic youths with puffed out cheeks, pale skin, red lips and golden hair – is full of energy, nature and cheekiness, if a little over-Romantic for some tastes. She drew a lot of flowers too, along with decorative alphabets and illustrated poems, all intricately detailed.

My favourite thing about her drawings is her use of outline. Very fine but bold outlines like hers are delicate and fiddly, and give backbone to the softness of the subjects. I feel it rescues it from an overload of ‘frilliness’ which occurs often and is typical of what seemed to be a very Victorian ideal of young femininity. In Greenaway’s illustrations, girls are often seen playing and dancing in groups around blossom trees, wearing bonnets and petticoats with aprons. Sometimes the bonnets are so big we can barely see the tiny faces of the wearers.

This particular image, a sketch of a girl, is fascinating. It sets a more subdued tone to Greenaway’s more lively works, and as such feels quite unfamiliar. Head down, the girl in this sketch looks very reserved; she is ready to walk off the page away from us. It’s interesting to note that Greenaway herself is believed to have been quite shy, particularly as a younger woman.

It’s clearly an early experiment for a pose, and I’m interested to know what this draft would have eventually developed into. The key elements are there though: a young girl, a flower and an importance placed on attire. This girl wears long gloves, a small bonnet and a long dress with a sash across. Greenaway seems to have really enjoyed depicting fashion of the time, and also a little earlier – some costumes veer towards Georgian style.

It’s been noted that female artists of these periods in England chose illustration, often literary or botanical, to give them prominence in their careers at a time when male artists were given enough spotlight and freedom to paint a vast range of subjects and still be exhibited at the Royal Academy. Kate Greenaway’s illustrations were well loved at the time though, and she was a favourite of John Ruskin, one of England’s most famous artists and art critic of the time. Through her art she was also able to publish her own writing and poems, which she illustrated herself. The faded sketch of the withdrawn girl walking away from us is now even more important, in my eyes. By the time she died in 1901, the shy artist had built a self-sufficient career in the art world, her petticoat-wearing characters standing boldly in the spotlight.

-Jo Lord
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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