Kate Greenaway’s Dream World

Kate Greenaway (1846-1901) was a late Victorian artist who specialized in beautifully designed paintings of children, mainly little girls, in Regency costume to illustrate stories and poems. ‘She created a small world of her own, a dream world, a never-never land,’ said one critic, and it was one which was, financially, extremely successful.

Illustration of ‘Jack and Jill’ from ‘Mother Goose’ (1886)

She had a very distinctive style and her illustrations are still widely known today. The zig-zag line of Jack and Jill falling down the hill, preceded by Jack’s hat and the pail, is placed very precisely and effectively on the page; and the children’s expressions of astonishment and shock are real – quite a feat for such a small picture. Getting that across takes real skill. In a strange way her work reminds me of the work of her contemporary Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) – something which would probably have horrified both of them. Beardsley was famed, indeed notorious, for the technical brilliance of his black and white illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, and Greenaway was also praised for her ‘extraordinary technical skill’ but censured for too much ‘sweetness and quaintness.’

Kate Greenaway’s childhood home in Upper Street, Islington, where her mother ran a milliners’ shop. It is the right hand section of the Oliver Bonas shop. You can just see the round green plaque about the artist, between the two first floor windows.  

Researching Greenaway’s life, I was very struck by how many personal problems she had to cope with. She was not an attractive child; she was cripplingly shy and lacked self-confidence. She attended various art establishments but made few friends. As a child, she amassed a large collection of dolls and wove fantasies around them but dealing with real people in the outside world was, and remained, a challenge. The fact that she was female made these difficulties even harder to overcome; girls, after all, were meant to be retiring, unassertive and pretty.

‘Little Jumping Joan’ from ‘Mother Goose’

However, looking at Little Jumping Joan, I was struck by how much energy Joan gives off. Her whole body is absolutely concentrated on her jumping. Even her face, tiny though it is, has a look of purposeful single-mindedness. She is more than a quaint little girl in a Regency frock.

Little Jumping Joan from J E Evans’ Nursery Rhymes of 1820

Take the 1820 print from J. E. Evans’ Nursery Rhymes of Little Jumping Joan and you will instantly see the difference. J. E Evans’ Joan has no individual character, unlike Kate Greenaway’s.

A Apple Pie (1886)

Fortunately, Greenaway’s talents were recognized and, by the time she was twenty-four, her career was well on its way and commissions were pouring in. In 1886 she produced ‘A Apple Pie’ from a traditional seventeenth century children’s poem. It is still in print.

‘B Bit It’ from A Apple Pie

Her trademark children wearing Regency Costume quickly became established. The boy is wearing a ‘skeleton suit’ which was popular from the 1790s to the 1830s and Charles Dickens describes it perfectly in Sketches by Boz. ‘An ingenious contrivance for displaying the symmetry of a boy’s figure by fastening him in a very tight jacket, with an ornamental row of buttons over each shoulder and then buttoning his trousers over it so as to give his legs the appearance of being hooked on just under the armpits.’  Dickens, born in 1812, had obviously worn one himself and loathed it. The boy’s hat, though, is an anachronistic Little Lord Fauntleroy hat, popularized by Frances Hodgson-Burnett’s 1886 book of that name, and doting Mamas instantly pressed it on their reluctant sons.

The boy in the picture looks very self-satisfied. The dog by the kennel in the background neatly hints that the boy is a ‘dog in the manger’ – he won’t be sharing the pie.

Fanny Price, age ten, in Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’ (1814). Illustrated by Hugh Thomson, 1897

Interestingly, Greenaway’s depiction of the girls’ dresses, whilst retaining a ‘Regency’ look, are actually incorrect. Girls’ skirts were calf length until the 1830s and they wore white cambric drawers underneath which reached the ankle and were visible. Hugh Thomson’s illustration of Mansfield Park in 1897 gets it right when he depicts Fanny, her white cambric drawers showing, sitting apprehensively next to her aunt.  Plainly, Greenaway, at the same date, didn’t feel comfortable with the visible drawers. However, the girls’ expressions in ‘B Bit It’ are definitely disapproving of the boy’s behaviour.

Marigold Garden 1884

Could there be two Kate Greenaways; one of them fearful of allowing girls to be proactive, and the other fighting against that? Take Greenaway’s book Marigold Garden which she illustrated, and for which she wrote the poems. The poems, it must be said, are dreadful.

To Mystery Land

The ‘To Mystery Land’ poem is extremely interesting from a psychoanalytic point of view.

‘Oh dear, how will it end? / Peggy and Susie how naughty you are. / You little know where you are, /Going so far, and so high, /Nearly up to the sky. / Perhaps there’s a Giant who lives there, / And perhaps it’s a lovely Princess. /But you very well know/ You’ve no business to go;/ You’ll get yourselves into a mess.’

The second verse echoes the sentiments of the first. What could the girls, who look like teenagers to me, possibly be interested in? The second verse tells them, ‘That it’s naughty to pry / Into other’s affairs -’ Obviously, the narrator herself knows exactly what’s up the ladder: the ‘You little know where you are’ indicates that the narrator knows something which the girls don’t. Her exhortations are almost incoherent with panic.

But, and this is the interesting point, the two girls are taking absolutely no notice. They are both determined to climb that ladder, come what may, and, somehow, Greenaway’s painting shows that. Peggy and Susie are obviously quite high up already, and they have no intention of coming down.

The Language of Flowers, 1884, by Kate Greenaway

The psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim in his interesting book, ‘The Uses of Enchantment; the Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales’, would say that the girls are curious about sex – as is natural at their age, and I agree. I find it fascinating that Kate Greenaway can give us both states of mind – the fear and apprehension in the poem and the girls’ determination to discover what has, hitherto, been kept away from them. If they are going to become properly functioning adults, they will need to risk ‘getting into a mess.’

In other words, Kate Greenaway is not as sweetly sentimental as she has been accused of being. There is a bit of her which, perhaps unknowingly, had a rather different agenda.

‘The Four Princesses’ from Marigold Garden, 1884

When I was a child, I both loved this picture and, at the same time, found it disturbing. It depicts four beautiful princesses standing on top of a tall, olive-green wooden tower floating in the middle of the sea.

Their curls were golden – their eyes were blue, / And their voices were sweet as a silvery bell; / And four white birds around them flew, / But where they came from – who could tell?’ 

The poem tells us that the princesses looking out from the top of their tower often floated by but where to, or why, nobody knew. Was the phallic-like tower there to keep the princesses out of the reach of men – rather like Danae in her bronze tower in the Greek legend (which I knew). But what was the boat, with its womb-like interior, doing? It seems to be indicating a means of escape – but there are no oars or sail.

When I was a little girl, I was all for beautiful princesses but I wanted them to be doing something, having adventures, say, not just being stuck there. And I think I was right to find the boat unsettling.

‘There was an Old Woman’ from Mother Goose

I’ve always liked this picture and for the same reason as I like Little Jumping Joan, that is,Greenaway’s ability to depict her characters’ total absorption in what they are doing.  The old woman is carefully peeling apples – and her whole mind is on her job. There’s something very special about an artist  who can convey that quality so well. It removes any touch of voyeurism on the part of the viewer; the old woman doesn’t care that we are looking at her; she doesn’t even notice.

Kate Greenaway (1846-1901) Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Some surprising people were admirers of her work; Ruskin, for one. Walter Crane was alarmed by her popularity and saw her as something of a rival. And Paul Gauguin also admired her work. Her book Under the Window sold 100,000 copies and other books like Mother Goose, were also huge successes. In 1889 she was elected to the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours.

The Kate Greenaway Award was set up in 1955 as an annual award for an outstanding illustrator of children’s books. Past winners have included Raymond Briggs, Helen Oxenbury, Brian Wildsmith, Shirley Hughes and, this year, Jackie Morris.

Wishes. ‘Oh, if you were a little boy/ And I was a little girl – / Why you would some whiskers grow / And then my hair would curl. / ‘

‘Ah! if I could some whiskers grow, I’d let you have my curls; /But what’s the use of wishing it – / Boys can never be girls.’

Kate Greenaway is, in my view, a more interesting artist than she has been given credit for, and I’ll leave you with the above picture from Marigold Garden to ponder on.

Elizabeth Hawksley

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6 thoughts on “Kate Greenaway’s Dream World”

    1. Thank you, Deidre, I appreciate being ‘cool’! If you want to follow me, it’s very easy. Just leave a comment, your name (or the name you want to use – first names only are fine), your email address (which doesn’t appear, it’s just for me to check), your website – if you wish; and then click the little box which asks if you’d like to be informed by email of any future posts (the link will drop into your inbox every Sunday) and you are now following me. You could also click the other little box which asks if you’d like to be told of any other comments, if you wish.

  1. I love Kate Greenaway. Like you, I knew her work as a child and was enchanted. In later life I bought an adult colouring book with her illustrations. I agree with your assessment of the concentration of the figures. No wonder she has lasted.

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth. I’m pleased to come across someone else who has noticed the intense concentration her characters, like Little Jumping Joan, show. Technically speaking, it’s quite a feat, as the figures themselves are so small you’d think it would be impossible.

  2. wonderful

    a whole new perspective of Kate Greenaway who I grew up with
    and without looking beyond her illustrations

    so thank you

    1. Thank you, Jess. As a young woman, Kate became an acolyte of the eminent, but now old, art critic John Ruskin, who was beginning to suffer bouts of mental illness. He taught her perspective and widened her horizons, which was good, but the over-intense relationship which then developed caused her a lot of pain. Fortunately, her friend, the artist Helen Allingham, had a more robust view of Ruskin and helped Kate to free herself. All this made me think that a deeper look into Kate Greenaway’s work might be interesting.

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