March 22, 2013
In 1937, the American Library Association, which had been awarding the Newberry Medal since 1922 to recognize the best children’s book of the year, realized that illustrations were an essential component of the genre and should have their own award.
They named the recognition of the best illustrators the Caldecott Medal: “Randolph Caldecott was one of a group of three influential children's illustrators working in England in the 19th century (Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane were the other two). His illustrations for children were unique to their time in both their humor, and their ability to create a sense of movement, vitality, and action that complemented the stories they accompanied.” Randolph Caldecott was born on March 22, 1846, in Chester, England. His father was an accountant, who did not encourage his son’s interest in art. Caldecott, however, “wasted” much time drawing animals, carving figures from wood, modeling with clay and painting.
In 1861, his first drawing was published by the Illustrated London News, a sketch of a fire at the Queens Railway Hotel in Chester; the magazine also published his story about the disastrous fire. That same year, he finished school, at age 15, and became a bank clerk in the small town of Whitchurch. He lived in an even smaller village nearby, Wirswall. As his drawings reflected, he loved hiking and riding in the Shropshire countryside. He became an avid hunter, and chronicled his experiences, often humorous, with drawings.
In 1867, he took another bank position in Manchester, where he was able to take evening classes at the Manchester School of Art, and had his first exhibition at the Royal Manchester Institute in 1869. Living in a larger town, he published his sketches of local life and events in the town’s newspapers. His work caught the attention of London editors, who began buying some of his work.
Emboldened by some commercial success, Caldecott abandoned the banking business and moved to London in 1872. The leap of faith worked out, and he was able to make a living as a freelance magazine illustrator. He lived in the fashionable, and literary, Bloomsbury neighborhood, where he met authors, artists, publishers and their patrons.
Caldecott drew sketches, painted, watercolors mostly, and did some design work. He exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1876.
In 1877, Walter Crane, who had become a popular illustrator of children’s books for printer Edmund Evans, became too busy, and Caldecott was commissioned to illustrate for Evans. “The House that Jack Built” and The Diverting History of John Gilpin” were immediately successful, and launched Caldecott’s career as a children’s book illustrator. He illustrated two books each year until his death in 1886.
He also illustrated books for Washington Irving and Julia Ewing.
Caldecott married in 1880, and moved back to the country – this time to the southeast of London. He had poor health and travelled to warm climates during the wet English winters. In 1886, he and his wife, Marian, toured the United States and sailed to Florida to experience the warm weather. Caldecott died in St. Augustine on February 12.
Maurice Sendak, author of “Where the Wild Things Are,” said, “Caldecott's work heralds the beginning of the modern picture book. He devised an ingenious juxtaposition of picture and word, a counterpoint that never happened before. Words are left out—but the picture says it. Pictures are left out—but the word says it.”
He also saw Caldecott’s work as something deeper. "You can't say it's a tragedy, but something hurts. Like a shadow passing quickly over. It is this which gives a Caldecott book—however frothy the verses and pictures—its unexpected depth."