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  • Writer's pictureLinda Borromeo

Kate Greenaway: Staying True to Your Own Style

Updated: Feb 21

How do memories transform creativity and imagination?

For artist and poet Kate Greenaway, childhood memories created a swirl of color, shapes, scents, and textures. As if she’d seen them only an hour before, the color of a flower or the shape of a bonnet stayed sharp in her mind years later..

She turned the colors and shapes into her unique vision of art—a place where apple trees bloom and invite us to step inside a world where it is forever spring.

Little Miss Muffet by Kate Greenaway
Little Miss Muffet by Kate Greenaway

Critics—including well-intentioned friends—offered all kinds of advice. They urged her to become more conventional, change the expressions of the people in her drawings, or even erase the shadows under their shoes (Spielmann and Layard).

At times, Kate struggled to grow in confidence and make up her own mind about what to keep and what to change.

How did her childhood memories act as navigational stars to help Kate stay true to her own creativity and style?

First Star—From Sepia to Color

Judy Garland and Terry as Dorothy Gale and Toto in "The Wizard of Oz" (Public Domain).

When I recently picked up a biography of Kate and read about her childhood, I thought about my surprise when I first saw the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz.

Before Dorothy Gale opens the door of the ruined farmhouse, we see her awash in sepia tones. Like many others as a child, I gasped when Dorothy and Toto discover a new land of startling color: yellow (of course!), blue, orange, and the vivid green of giant leaves.

In a sepia city covered with coal smoke and the noise of vendors, Kate Greenaway was born on March 17, 1846 at 1 Cavendish Street, Hoxton (now part of the London Borough of Hackney). However, like Dorothy Gale, it was Kate's visits to the color-drenched world of the English countryside that opened the door to her imagination.

The scent of cottage flowers and new-mown hay first shared their magic with Kate at the impressionable age of about two. While visiting relatives in the village of Rolleston, Nottinghamshire, her mother became seriously ill. Kate was sent to live with the nearby Chappell family on a small cottage farm (Spielmann and Layard).

The Kitchen Pump and Old Cheese Press, Rolleston. Early drawings by Kate Greenaway (Spielmann and Layard).
The Old Cheese Press and Kitchen Pump, Rolleston. Early drawings by Kate Greenaway (Spielmann and Layard)

A sister of the farmer’s wife also lived with the Chappell family, and one of Kate’s earliest memories is of Ann carrying her on one arm. With casual competence, Ann also carried a basket of bread, homemade butter, and a can of steaming tea for the haymakers.

Kate never forgot the “beauty of the afternoon, the look of the sun, the smell of the tea, the perfume of the hay, and the great feeling of Happiness—the joy and the love of it—from her royal perch on Ann’s strong arm” (Spielmann and Layard).

And there were flowers everywhere. The hedgerows and fields showcased the enormous blue crane’s-bill, purple vetch, and willow-herb. Sunday walks with Ann gave her the “enchanted vista” of paths alive with pimpernels, pansies, blue and white veronica, tiny purple geraniums, and great crimson poppies. On the banks of a little river, she found forget-me-nots and apple tree branches dipping down toward the water (Spielmann and Layard).

In Kate’s art, there are many intricate flowers and trees, captured in her imagination from the storybook world that opened its pages for her at Rolleston.

Tip From Kate's First Star: To keep your creative works fresh and unique, draw on your memories of the scents, sights, and color palettes of your childhood home, or your vacations to the mountains, deserts, or the sea.

"The Bubble" by Kate Greenaway.

Second Star: Designing a World of Wonder

I’ve been a fan of Kate Greenaway’s art since my own childhood, but I recently discovered a fun surprise. Before starting work on a new illustration, she designed and sewed the costumes worn by the girls in her drawings. With living models, she could see the way the dress draped and moved.

Kate Greenaway in Her Studio, 1895 (Spielmann and Layard).

Childhood memories again played an important role in Kate’s art. Her father was a well-known draughtsman and wood-engraver. His work was published in the Illustrated London News and Punch. But when a time-consuming engagement to illustrate an expensive book collapsed, the family fell on hard times.

Kate’s mother used her skills as a seamstress to open a shop, initially offering lace, children’s dresses, and fancy goods. The young Kate reveled in the ribbons, lace, patterns, and textures of the cloth.

Her experiences at her mother’s shop, combined with the old-fashioned dresses and hats worn by the residents of Rolleston, inspired the fashions that became Kate’s signature style.