Heritage: Idyllic images of childhood made illustrator Kate Greenaway a famous name

Kate Greenaway, 1880. Portrait of the children's book author at her desk in 1901. Picture: Lebrecht

Kate Greenaway, 1880. Portrait of the children's book author at her desk in 1901. Picture: Lebrecht - Credit: Archant

Kate Greenaway’s distinctive illustrations pioneered a Regency ideal of childhood without the gasworks and waterworks of industrialisation, but it was at her studio home in Hampstead that the artist found quiet solace, Adam Sonin discovers.

'The May dance' by Kate Greenaway. Young Victorians dancing in the celebration of May Day. Picture

'The May dance' by Kate Greenaway. Young Victorians dancing in the celebration of May Day. Picture: Lebrecht - Credit: Lebrecht

Best known for her distinctive images of children in simple clothes – set in pastoral and garden landscapes – Kate Greenaway became a bestselling author after her first book, Under the Window, was published in 1879.

The Greenaway house in Frognal, Hampstead. Picture: Nigel Sutton

The Greenaway house in Frognal, Hampstead. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

The title sold around 100,000 copies in her lifetime, launched her career and made her a household name in Victorian England.

Her influence was such that Liberty’s of London picked up on her popularity and adapted her drawings into a clothing range.

The paintings, portraits and prints of Georgian and Regency children made her one of the most prolific painters of an idealized Regency childhood and “incorrectly” depict the fashions of the period.

Her work led to a mini “Regency Revival” and influenced a generation of mothers to dress their offspring accordingly.

The writer, painter and critic John Ruskin was an admirer – and later a close friend and pen-pal.

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He once praised Greenaway’s idyllic vision of childhood , writing: “No gasworks! No waterworks, no mowing machines, no sewing machines, no telegraph poles”.

Her later works include an illustrated version of Browning’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin and from the 1880s she lived quietly with her parents and brother at her “tile-hung” house in Frognal, designed by architect Norman Shaw.

Catherine [Kate] Greenaway was born on March 17 at 21 Cavendish Street in Hoxton. Her father was a wood-engraver and often found it difficult to make ends meet.

As a result her mother opened a successful milliner’s shop in Islington in 1851. Kate spent most of her childhood behind the counter, supervised by her elder sister.

She was fascinated by the shops and entertainment of London but was happiest on holiday in Rolleston in Nottinghamshire. The setting provided inspiration for many of her early watercolours.

Aged 12, Greenaway was enrolled as a full-time student at the Finsbury School of Art, where she had already taken evening classes.

In 1865 she moved to the National Art Training School in South Kensington, ultimately progressing to the Slade School of Fine Art.

In 1867 Greenaway’s first book illustrations was published. The following year she exhibited drawings publicly for the first time at the Dudley Gallery.

She received an important commission, in 1869, and produced six watercolours to illustrate Diamonds and Toads, a children’s book published by Frederick Warne. By 1870 she had earned more than £70 through book illustration and was designing greeting cards for Marcus Ward & Co.

A new colour-engraving process opened possibilities for her work. Under the Window: Pictures and Rhymes for Children (1878), written and illustrated by her was an instant hit. She became an enduring public favourite after publishing the Kate Greenaway Birthday Book for Children in 1880.

By this time Greenaway’s income was large enough to afford a new house – for the family – at 11 Pemberton Gardens in Holloway.

Mother Goose, or, The Old Nursery Rhymes, F. Locker-Lampson’s London Lyrics, and A Day in a Child’s Life followed in 1881, and the first of her illustrated almanacs appeared in 1883.

During this period the Royal Academician Henry Stacey Marks introduced Greenaway to the ageing John Ruskin (1819 –1900). He wrote her an extraordinarily impertinent letter on January 6, 1880, to which she responded warmly.

She was swiftly adopted as one of his circle of female art protégées (E. E. Kellett later recalled how Ruskin brought 50 of her pictures to one of his Slade lectures and passed them round). The pair began to correspond and did so almost daily for some 20 years.

Greenway was becoming an artistic celebrity and lost much of her earlier shyness. In the 1880s she became friends with Anna Thackeray Ritchie, the Tennyson family, and other literary lions.

In 1883 Greenaway moved to Hampstead, and in 1885 she bought 39 Frognal, a house designed specifically for her by Norman Shaw (1831–1912). The plot cost Greenway approximately £2,000 plus the same amount again for construction. She told the architect: “If you’d ever lived in Holloway you’d know what sort of a paradise Hampstead must seem.”

Just prior to the move Ruskin wrote: “You’re not going to call your house a Villa!? Could you call it Kate’s State or Kitty’s Green or Katherine’s Nest, or Brownie’s Cell or Camomile Court or Lassie’s Leisure or the Romp’s Rest ?”

The elderly artist continued: “I will take care about the addresses but I really must have a pretty one for the New House you don’t suppose I’m going to write Frognal every day of my life. It might as well be Dognal-Hognal-Lognal. If it is to be I’ll have it printed!”

But Kate saved him the trouble and kept him supplied with self-addressed envelopes.

Once she’d moved in Ruskin wrote: “I hope you are beginning by this time in the afternoon to be very happy in thinking you’re really at home on the Hill, and that you will find all the drawers slide nicely, corners fit and firesides cosy, and that the flowers are behaving prettily, and the chimnies [sic] draw as well as you. That’s a new pun, all my own only think!

“It isn’t a very complimentary one but indeed the first thing to be seriously thought of in a new house is chimnies, one can knock windows out or partitions down build out oriels and throw up turrets but never make a chimney go that don’t choose.

“Anyhow I am glad you are settled somewhere. And let us bid, both, farewell to hollow ways, that lead only to disappointment and know what we’re about, and not think truths teasing, but enjoy each other’s sympathy and admiration and think always how nice we are!”

The house itself contained an extensive studio – which can be seen at second-floor level. It also had a garden, which she planted informally with traditional cottage flowers.

A neat rectangular panel of deep-blue Poole Pottery manufacture, with a coloured floral border, was crafted so as to avoid diminishing the visual allure of her studio house and erected in 1949.

By 1900 Greenway was suffering from breast cancer. She concealed the condition from friends and family and underwent an operation, but sadly the cancer had spread to her chest.

Greenway died at her home on November 6, 1901. Her body was cremated at Woking six days later. Her ashes were placed in the family plot in Hampstead cemetery.

The Kate Greenaway medal – an annual award for an outstanding illustrator of children’s books – was established in 1955. Winners include Sir Quentin Blake.