1846 (Hoxton, North London)
1901 (London, England)
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botanic, genre, children-miniature painter
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|Biography from a third party submitted on 11/06/2005:|
|Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data
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The essence of Victorian childhood is exhibited in the idealized
children of Catherine Greenaway’s work. Her dreamy little figures
seem almost melancholy as they prance through the English countryside
unaware of time or place. Their outfits of frilly smocks, mob
caps and sunbonnets seem Regency in appearance but are none-the-less
the figments of Miss Greenaway’s girlish imagination. They are an
outcome of her unwillingness to leave childhood behind.
Originally named Catherine, Kate was born on March 17, 1846, in Hoxton,
North London. Her father John Greenaway was a master engraver and
her mother, Elizabeth Catherine Jones, was an accomplished
seamstress. Kate’s choice of profession was clearly influenced by
John Greenaway. They had a special bond, and he served as a
guiding force throughout her life. It is often thought that he
was Kate’s biggest influence, however, her mother influenced her
subject matter more than any one.
Money was always tight because the father supported his widowed mother
and two unmarried sisters as well as his growing family. When
times got tough, Elizabeth took financial matters into her own
hands. She moved the family to Islington and opened a dress shop
making clothing for children. She was so successful that she had
to hire outworkers. Later, she expanded her services to include
millinery, underclothing and eventually lady’s clothing. Kate
lived a happy and carefree childhood. She enjoyed watching the
well-dressed people come in and out of the shop. She had a
photographic memory and many of the outfits her mother made reappeared
in her books later.
For the most part, Kate was left on her own to explore her surroundings
and daydream. Later she said, “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.”
Her summers were spent in Nottinghamshire with relatives. The folks in
this small village wore simple clothing long past the height of
fashion. It was this country that she loved so well and depicted
in her artwork. Her love for flowers grew out of the many gardens she
saw there. She especially liked the neatly tended and tidy
Kate had little formal schooling and was taught at home by local women
who, at times, had little education themselves. She did not
always pay attention and was often caught drawing. When Kate was
twelve, she was enrolled at the Finsbury School of Art which she
attended for six years. At eighteen she attended the Central
School in South Kensington. Women were not allowed to draw from
the nude there. In 1871 she attended the newly founded Slade School
because they advertised equal education for both sexes. She also
attended Heatherley’s School of Art in the evenings.
Her father’s high quality craftsmanship as a master engraver and his
connections “in the trade” proved very profitable to Kate, and he
helped her to get a few small commissions. In 1867, Kate produced
her first printed piece, a frontispiece for a book called Infant Amusements.
She also started doing greeting card, calendar and book illustrations
for Marcus Ward, a Belfast company with an office in London whose art
director was Thomas Crane, brother of Walter. One of her card
designs sold over 25,000 copies in just a few weeks time. She was
paid only three pounds but her work was starting to be noticed.
After six years, Kate stopped working for Marcus Ward because he
refused to return her original drawings after reproduction.
In 1876, Kate’s father contacted Edmund Evans, another engraver who had
apprenticed with Greenaway early in their careers. He knew that
if anyone would appreciate Kate’s artwork and be able to further her
career, it would be Evans. Kate was reluctant to show Evans her
portfolio, but he quickly realized that her style was well suited to
his wood-block printing process. They agreed that Evans would
purchase the original artwork and have a poet correct a few oddities
with the verse in exchange for one third of the profits. Her
first book with Evans, Under the Window, came out in
October of 1879. Evan’s was so taken with Kate’s drawings that no
expense was spared. He used four color blocks to reproduce her
delicate watercolors—red, blue, yellow and flesh. The publisher,
Routledge, advised Evan’s against a large printing but the 20,000
copies sold almost immediately and Evans had to produce a second
printing of 70,000. Her earnings allowed her and her father to
share expenses for a nicer home in a higher class neighborhood.
She now had room for a studio and garden.
Kate worked everyday in her studio from eight until one. She
would draw from her child models or manikins dressed in the outfits
that she designed and sewed herself. She spent her afternoons walking
or window shopping, returning home later for the highlight of her day,
afternoon tea. In the summer, she had tea in her beautiful garden
where she would plant the flowers that she would need in her
illustrations. Night time was spent reading or sewing.
She became quite friendly with the Evans family and visited them
regularly. Through her association with Edmund Evans she met Randolph
Caldecott, another one of Evan’s talented book artists. They
remained friendly rivals, offering each other professional advice,
until his death in 1886. Caldecott noted that the success of
Kate’s books had hurt the sales of his books.
Walter Crane, on the other hand, was not as friendly. He felt
that her drawing had little merit and that the clothing was
overdone. He was upset when the publisher planned to market
Greenaway’s Under the Window together with his Baby’s Opera that
he demanded the publisher to stop. After meeting her, he said, “My
impressions of Kate Greenaway were of a very quiet and unobtrusive
personality, probably observant, self-contained, reserved, with a
Evan’s also introduced her to Frederick Locker-Lampson, the poet who corrected her verse in Under the Window.
Frederick took an interest in young Kate’s career. She was flattered by
the attentions of this rich handsome middle-aged man and listened to
much of his advice. Though she was shy, he was pleased to bring
her to museums, social events and to introduce her to society in
The popularity of her book caused her to start getting fan
letters—including one from noted art critic John Ruskin. He
complemented her greatly on her book but didn’t fail to mention a few
Flattered by Ruskin’s comments, Kate wrote back, starting what would
become a 20 year correspondence with this man.
For the next several years, Kate and Evans collaborated on several more
books, all of which did well. Evans also convinced her to
illustrate her first Almanack
in 1883, which sold over 90,000 copies. Eventually Kate was to
receive five pounds per drawing and half of the profits. Kate’s
books were enormously popular in Britain and America. The public
could not seem to get enough of Kate Greenaway, and there were
imitators everywhere. Pirated copies of her books were being sold
in Europe and especially America. Greenaway items, including
wallpaper, plates, scarves, fashions and dolls, started appearing.
Eventually, Kate insisted on selling only the rights to her work and
keeping her original art. This insured her artistic control and
any future income from additional sales after publication. “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,” she later commented.
Through Locker-Lampson, she made many new wealthy friends that soon
became patrons. They commissioned her to do portraits of their
children. She was now exhibiting at the Royal Academy and her
work sold easily, however, with fame came more criticism.
Locker-Lampson helped Kate take criticism in stride. He
encouraged her and increased her self-confidence. He urged her to
read to make up for her deficient education. He checked to make
sure Evans offers were equal to Caldecott’s, but Evans was always fair
and never discriminated against women. Locker-Lampson also encouraged
Kate into buying a lot and hiring an architect to build her a new house
and tutored her in the nicest furniture to buy, all of which was beyond
her means. Although Kate and Ruskin corresponded regularly, it
was several years before they met. He could be lavish with his
praise or cruelly harsh with his criticism. Their letters became
more intimate. He invited her for a visit and she returned,
convinced that a marriage proposal was forthcoming despite the fact
that he was 64 years old and she being only 36.
John Ruskin now occupied the place in Kate Greenaway’s heart that was
previously occupied by Locker-Lampson. This would prove to be an error
in judgement for Kate. Where Locker-Lampson had built up her
confidence, Ruskin had destroyed it. Locker-Lampson was upset by this
turn of events but dared not tell Kate why. It was generally
known that Ruskin’s marriage had been annulled amidst scandal in 1854
and that he was no longer of sound mind. Rumors abounded about his
affections for young girls. Locker-Lampson feared that Kate’s
drawings of prepubescent girls were the reason for Ruskin’s
attention. But these were not things that a gentleman tells a
young lady about.
Ruskin felt that book illustration was a lower art and encouraged Kate
to become a real painter. He encouraged her to do nature studies
in watercolor. Despite his urgings, she continued to do book
illustration because they constituted a healthy income for her.
Evans was concerned by Ruskin’s influence as Kate Greenaway’s style was
a great asset to his firm. He invited her to stay with his
family. While there she relaxed and worked on another book, The Language of Flowers,
considered by many to be her finest book. Published in 1884, half
of the first edition of 19,500 went straight to America. Ruskin
was highly critical of it, suggesting that they should collaborate on a
project together. Kate was torn between her old friend Evans and
her mentor Ruskin.
Kate continued to visit Ruskin and eventually witnessed one of his
Her next few books did not sell well, barely 10,000 or less copies.
Kate was confused and depressed. She felt that her style was out of
favor with the public which convinced Kate that Ruskin was right.
At Ruskin’s urging, she started to concentrate on larger
watercolors. Her long-time friend from school, Helen Allingham,
had much success with her watercolors of cottages, so Kate decided to
try that as well. Unfortunately, the public only compared her to the
more accomplished Mrs. Allingham.
John Greenaway’s death in 1890 was a blow to Kate, for she was very
close to him. Four years later, her mother died as well. She had over
extended herself in building her new house and money was now tight. Few
illustration jobs were coming in. With a shrinking income, Kate had to
cut back and took on the chore of housekeeping herself. In order
to generate more income, she took on a few portrait commissions. Sales
of her new watercolors were low. She became increasingly tired
The death of John Ruskin in 1900 was yet another blow for Kate although
she had given up on the idea of marriage years before.
By then she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Unfortunately, she
had decided on the life-saving surgery too late, and she died on
November 6, 1901. Several weeks after her death, her brother held
an exhibit of her work that was poorly attended and failed to realize
Kate Greenaway was a young girl who never wanted to grow up. Her
childhood was the source of all her happiness. She is quoted as
saying that she cried the first time she had to wear a long
dress. It is true that she and Ruskin played children’s games and
engaged in baby talk. Is it any wonder that she chose to depict
that which made her the happiest? She was known to have a
photographic memory and it served her well as she drew upon her happier
She knew that she was not the best draftsman and worked diligently at
improving, especially in drawing anatomy. Unfortunately, the
enormous popularity of her books was not enough. Instead, she looked to
those around her for validation. In the end, Ruskin served to
lower her self-esteem and question her own judgment.
Kate Greenaway was depressed because she felt out-of-fashion. Had
she not kept to herself she would have known otherwise. Perhaps
her rich patrons had moved on but her adoring public clamored for more.
When Edmund Evans retired, he sold the copyrights to Kate’s books to
Frederick Warne who reissued her books in 1900. Merchandise
popped up everywhere sporting a “Kate Greenaway” design and imitators
of her book style abounded. Her artwork has endured and to this
day, is still in print and being merchandised. Her lack of
self-esteem, it seems, was not based in fact.
In 1955, the Library Association of Great Britain established the Kate
Greenaway Medal. It is awarded annually to the artist living and
publishing in Britain who has produced the most distinguished
children’s book illustrations for that year. Receiving this medal is
considered the highest honor an English illustrator can receive.
Biography compiled by Denise Ortakales, updated 24 August 2002.
Ortakales is a children's book illustrator who has researched and
written biographies of other women illustrators including Kate
Greenaway. Her website is:
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