Morna O’Neill, “On Walter Crane and the Aims of Decorative Art”


Walter Crane (1845-1915) was one of the most important, versatile, and radical artists of the nineteenth century: a painter, decorator, designer, book illustrator, poet, author, teacher, art theorist, and socialist. As a synthesis of art, design, and politics, Crane’s career offers new insights into the tradition of painting, the status of the decorative arts, and the transgression of their boundaries at the end of the nineteenth century. His work provides an important, decorative alternative to a realist idiom for socialist art.

For his contemporaries, Walter Crane’s artistic practice embodied the ethos of Arts and Crafts eclecticism. As the painter Sir William Rothenstein recalled in 1931, “He was illustrator, painter, designer, craftsman, and sculptor by turn; he poured out designs for books, tapestries, stained glass, wall-papers, damask, and cotton fabrics . . . he could do anything he wanted, or anyone else wanted” (292). Crane lived and worked among the unity of the arts—so much so that his astonishingly diverse body of work challenged the artistic and political establishment of his time. Like his friend and contemporary William Morris, Crane’s artistic practice overturned the conventional hierarchy of “high” fine art and “low” decorative art. Aesthetic concerns led both artists to declare allegiance to socialism. Yet Crane was not merely a mere follower of Morris. Politically and artistically, his formulation of art’s place in socialist agitation is distinct from Morris’s own. Testing the boundaries between “fine” and “decorative” through painting is fundamental to Crane’s socialist politics. In this way, Crane transformed “art for art’s sake” into “art for all.”

Born in map iconLiverpool in 1845, Crane studied oil and watercolour painting from an early age with his father Thomas Crane, a painter trained at map iconRoyal Academy schools. In recollections of his early years, Crane noted, “I was always drawing, and any reading or looking at prints or pictures led back to drawing again” (“Work” 22). His youthful skill as a draughtsman led to an apprenticeship with the engraver and Chartist William James Linton. Later in life, Crane would hail Linton as both a political and artistic mentor. As Crane remembered in an interview in 1891, “the Pre-Raphaelites were being talked about, and above all Mr. Ruskin was driving his theories home . . . in Linton’s shop these things were talked about” (“Mr. Walter Crane” 6). Throughout the 1860s, Crane advanced his artistic training while supporting himself and his family as a freelance illustrator.

Crane illustration for Beauty and the Beast

Figure 1: Crane, Beauty and the Beast, centerfold illustration, 1875

The artist had early and immediate access to a wide audience through his success as an illustrator, in particular an illustrator of children’s books. By the late 1870s, readers and critics alike hailed Crane as “the artist of the nursery” (Crane, “Notes” 81). His illustrations for children’s books revolutionized the genre in treatment and technique, and many draw upon a wide range of artistic objects and styles. His knowing deployment of artistic sources as in Beauty and the Beast (Fig. 1) from 1875—such as Japanese prints, classical sculpture, and tapestry—exemplifies what art historian Elizabeth Prettejohn has termed the “intertextuality” of the Aesthetic movement: the constellation of meaning created by references to works of art, literature, and music that constitutes a self-reflexive narrative of sorts, celebrating the work of art as art object (“Walter Pater” 37). Yet these references are not simply for the appreciation of beauty; they enrich the narrative and cannily portray contemporary concerns in interior design. For example, in a second illustration from Beauty and the Beast (Fig. 2), Beauty holds a fan depicting the birth of Venus, signifying her own comeliness, while also referencing the fashionable Aesthetic interest in the early Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli, and prefiguring the subject of Crane’s own oil painting, The Renaissance of Venus, exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877. His success as an illustrator led to commissions for wallpaper design and decorative interiors, such as the fantastical, colorful motifs of his mosaics in the Arab Hall at map iconLeighton House, the London home of artist Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) in 1877-9.
illustration to Beauty and the Beast

Figure 2: Crate, Beauty and the Beast, Illustration opposite page 4

Crane undertook these decorative commissions at the same time that he sought to advance his career as a painter. Although he exhibited works at the map iconDudley Gallery throughout the 1860s and early 1870s, he achieved his greatest success with the opening, in 1877, of the Grosvenor Gallery, where he exhibited a number of works drawn from mythological subjects between 1877 and 1887. From 1868 onwards, “art for art’s sake,” championed by Algernon Charles Swinburne and Walter Pater among others, was a declaration of art’s autonomy from any ameliorative social function, whether intellectual or moral.[1] Crane’s historicizing and utopian canvases such as Renaissance of Venus (Fig. 3) from 1877 draw upon a British tradition of history painting in subject matter, style, public ambition, and the deployment of allegory to convey a moral message. Yet they simultaneously engage with the “art for art’s sake” credo and the modes of decorative painting then evolving. Crane situated his painting within a network of craft practices to suggest that painting itself is a craft. Participating in intellectual debates about aesthetics and artistic media, Crane helped to organize other artists to address these issues, first in the Art Workers’ Guild (established in 1884) and then the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, founded in 1887.

Crane's Renaissance of Venus

Figure 3: Crane, Renaissance of Venus, 1877 (Tate Britain, London). Used with permission.

In the mid-Victorian era, “decorative” art could be, and often was, public art. The placement of paintings within public interiors had been a national preoccupation since the unveiling of a scheme for the new map iconPalace of Westminster in the 1840s, and because of the enthusiasm for public art, there were plans for mural decoration in several public buildings.[2] At the Palace of Westminster, perhaps the best-known example, decoration continued throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. Public art was, inevitably, moral art: the notion that art should have a public moral imperative had long held sway in England, and it found full expression in the Discourses (1768–90) of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the annual lectures given to students at the Royal Academy and the founding manifesto of academic art in Britain. In seeking to fulfil art’s moral duty, artists looked to historical examples of public art, most importantly the fresco painting of the Italian Renaissance.

It was John Ruskin, expanding the role of the art critic to encompass social analysis and reformist pronouncement, who first looked to the past to offer a clear vision of decorative painting as public painting. In his third lecture on “Modern Manufacture and Design,” delivered in map iconBradford on March 1, 1859, he argued that “all the greatest art which the world has produced” (italics his) was, in fact, decorative: ; for example, “Raphael’s best doing is merely the wall-colouring of a suite of apartments in the map iconVatican, and his cartoons were made for tapestries” (320-21). While conceding that what precisely constitutes decorative art “remains confused and undecided,” he maintains that decorative art is not “degraded” or “separate” from other art (320-21). Rather, “its nature or essence is simply its being fitted for a definite place”; this condition was the “only essential distinction between Decorative and other art” (320-21). Therefore, all art “may be decorative” if the artist is attentive to its place, purpose, and material” (320-21).

Crane was sensitive to the delicate interplay of aesthetics and politics in Ruskin’s writings, first encountered during his apprenticeship to Linton. In sketchbooks from 1863, he juxtaposed his drawings with extracts from Ruskin, including passages copied from Ruskin’s 1859 lecture “Modern Manufacture and Design.”[3] Ruskin opposed decorative art to portable art, that is to say, easel painting, which he derided as “for the most part ignoble” (320). The key to a “first-rate” portable picture, then, resides in its ability to match the ambition of decorative art, a project taken up by Crane in his paintings. Ruskin ends his lecture with a demand that decorative art should also be democratic art: “The great lesson in history is, that all the fine arts hitherto . . . have only accelerated the ruin of the states they adorned” (342). Addressing his audience of Bradford manufacturers directly, Ruskin suggests that they embrace “the loftier and lovelier privilege of bringing the power and charm of art within the reach of the humble and poor” (342). Ruskin here implicitly claims the moral grandeur of history painting—especially the uplifting, public role of history painting as it was understood in the Victorian era—for decorative art.

Crane believed that “the art that is capable of illustrat[ing the epic spirit] is what is called decorative art” (“English Revival” 823); furthermore, he endows “decorative art” in general and “painting as a decorative art” in particular with the moral weight heretofore given to painting as a fine art. Crane signalled this transformation of the decorative in his 1881 essay, “On the Position and Aims of Decorative Art,” a manifesto for the artist that is worth exploring in some detail.[4] He begins by alluding to Ruskin’s 1859 lecture with his assertion that “the grandest Art has always a monumental character, and . . . the highest kind of decoration is architecture” (227). Like Ruskin, he acknowledges that all art may be decorative, since “every picture and statue declares its original decorative purpose and architectural origin by the frame which surrounds the one, and the plinth which supports the other” (227). Yet here the resemblance to Ruskin ends, as Crane reveals his interest in the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and philosopher Herbert Spencer. If, as Crane suggests, “all art is organic,” then its history “is written in the records of the unending struggle for existence throughout Nature” (227).

The relationship of design to nature had preoccupied designers of the preceding generation. For Owen Jones and those in Henry Cole’s circle, writing after the map iconGreat Exhibition, the decorative drew its power from its ability to abstract and formalize natural motifs.[5] Crane proposes an entirely different relationship between art and nature. Rather than look to the natural world for the forms of ornament, Crane discerns in nature—nature, that is, viewed through a Darwinian prism—the underlying processes that governed art as well as biological life. It is “by selection, by gradual development, by adaptation” that art is thus “subject with all living things, to recurring seasons of growth, perfection, decline, and renaissance” (“On the Position” 227). But whereas pictorial art “is checked by a more or less immediate reference to Nature,” decorative art is “quite remote from Nature, as regards imitation of her forms. . . . Decorative or monumental art, in its higher forms, is capable of expressing, by its command of figurative and emblematic resources, more than is possible to purely pictorial art” (227). His ideas informed by the theories of Spencer, Crane regards natural processes as both cyclical and progressive: “There is, in fact, nothing beyond its [decorative art’s] range, by reason of its being more suggestive than imitative; and in its direction it becomes again, as at its beginning, but in a higher sense, a language—a picture-writing” (227). Because “truly, the world, to the decorative artist, is all before him, there to choose,” the artist must “make his world” and, thus, his art, and “people it with his thoughts” (228). Crane borrows the idea of “picture-writing” from Spencer (Spencer 288). Across artistic media, Crane used allegory to represent contemporary concerns as he set forth on canvas his hope—figured as Venus in his paintings from 1877, for example, and later in his political cartoons—for a social order renewed by socialism.

Crane cover design

Figure 4: Crane, “A Garland for May Day,” cover design for _The Clarion_, 1 May 1895

The creation of Crane’s most ambitious allegorical canvases coincided with his increasing involvement with socialist causes. Crane became a socialist in 1884, after more than two decades of interest in radical politics. Although he discussed his turn to socialism in 1884 as a “conversion,” a tradition of radical freethinking is evident in earlier artistic undertakings (O’Neill, Art and Labour’s Cause). He commented upon the centrality of an evolutionary ideal to his political outlook in an 1892 article, suggesting his desire to integrate socialism with theories that we might now consider incompatible: “Some of us, who have sat at the feet of the prophets, have heard other voices . . . Darwin, Mill, Herbert Spencer . . . then looking ahead through the darkness we may behold the gleam of a new epoch.” (Crane, “Aesthetic Pessimism” 40). By 1885, he was an active member of various socialist organizations, including the Fabian Society, and had become a conspicuous voice in contemporary debates about art and politics. H. M. Hyndman, founder of the Social Democratic Party, called him “the artist of socialism” in 1912 because of his earlier contributions to the movement: political cartoons for Clarion (Fig. 4), Justice, Labour Leader, and Commonweal, among other magazines, as well as the designs for journal covers, political prints, decorative seals, membership cards, invitations, union insignias, letterhead, festival decorations, and even pyrotechnics—most notably, the fireworks that wrote out “The Unity of Labour is the Hope of the World” over the Crystal Palace for May Day in 1899 (Hyndman 351).

The Triumph of Labor cartoon

Figure 5: Henry Scheu, after Walter Crane, The Triumph of Labour, 1891 reprinted 1896

Crane created his most famous commemoration of the socialist May Day celebration, The Triumph of Labour, in 1891 (Fig. 5). It would become the definitive image of English socialism. Borrowing slogans and emblems (such as the Phrygian bonnet) from the French Revolution and English trade unionism, the cartoon celebrates the unity of industrial, agricultural, and artistic labour rendered as the happy progression of liberated workers through a setting of natural bounty. The cartoon brims with decorative emblems (from the cornucopia of Lady Bountiful to the banner carried aloft by the labourers) executed in Crane’s rich linear style. It does not have recourse to the modern idiom of the newspaper or the usual political-cartoon arsenal of satire, parody, and caricature. Rather, it is a revolutionary expression of the ideal future through what Crane termed “succinct, emphatic, or heraldic expression in rich, beautiful, and symbolic form” to embody “social ideals” (Crane, “Art and Character” 114). These decorative forms embody political ideals: The Triumph of Labour is an emblematic rendering of the future promised by the hope of socialism and the central place of art in articulating and realizing that future. Rich with allusions, dense in imagery, The Triumph of Labour is a compendium of Crane’s artistic practice. At the far left, signalling his faith in the intertwined nature of art and labour, he portrays himself holding aloft a palette and riding beside an architect in a wagon bearing the standard “Wage Workers of all Countries Unite.” According to G. K. Chesterton, writing in 1912, socialists recognize each other “on the fact that a man of their sort will have . . . Walter Crane’s ‘Triumph of Labour’ hanging in the hall” (142). For Crane, all art—whether painting, design, decorative object, or political cartoon—constituted a better, more beautiful world that implicitly and, at times, presciently condemns the current one. Crane’s art expressed the revolutionary power of creativity and beauty, and gave voice to his hope for a better world.

Morna O’Neill is Assistant Professor of Art History in the Department of Art at Wake Forest University. She is the author of Walter Crane: The Arts and Crafts, Painting, and Politics (Yale UP, 2011) and “Art and Labour’s Cause is One:” Walter Crane and Manchester, 1880-1915 (Whitworth Art Gallery, 2008). She is the co-editor, with Michael Hatt (University of Warwick), of The Edwardian Sense: Art, Design, and Performance in Britain, 1901-1910 (Yale UP, 2010).


published August 2012

O’Neill, Morna. “On Walter Crane and the Aims of  Decorative Art.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


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—. Beauty and the Beast. London: Routledge, 1875. Print.

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—. Claims of Decorative Art. London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1892.  Print.

—. “The English Revival in Decorative Art.” Fortnightly Review 58 (July 1892): 815-25. Print.

—. “Notes on My Own Books for Children.” Imprint (1913): 81-86. Print.

—. “On the Position and Aims of Decorative Art.” Art Journal ns (1881): 227-8. Print. Rpt. as “The Claims of Decorative Art” in Crane, The Claims of Decorative Art 1-6.

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Hyndman, Henry Mayers. Further Reminiscences. London: Macmillan, 1912. Print.

“Mr. Walter Crane and His Picture-Books: An Interview at Beaumont Lodge.” Pall Mall Budget 25 June 1891: 6. Print.

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Ruskin, John. The Two Paths. Ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. London: Allen, 1903. Print. Vol. 16 of The Works of John Ruskin. 39 vols. 1903-12. Print.

Spencer, Herbert. First Principles. 1864. New York: Appleton, 1898. Print.

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Imogen Hart, “On the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society”


[1] For an overview of this topic, see Prettejohn, Beauty and Art: 1750-2000 111-56.

[2] For further discussion, see Willsdon.

[3] Now in the Walter Crane Archive, Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester.

[4] He would later re-title this essay “The Claims of Decorative Art” when he published his first volume of essays, also titled The Claims of Decorative Art, in 1892.

[5] See, for example, Wornum.