Kate Greenaway: Staying True to Your Own Style
Updated: Apr 6
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 an hour before, the color of a flower or the shape of a bonnet stayed sharp in her mind.
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.
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; see cover image).
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
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 city covered with coal smoke and the noise of vendors, Kate was born on March 17, 1846 at 1 Cavendish Street, Hoxton (now part of the London Borough of Hackney). However, it was her first 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 very ill. Kate was sent to live with the nearby Chappell family on a small cottage farm (Spielmann and Layard).
A sister of the farmer’s wife also lived with the Chappell family. 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.
Second Star: Designing a World of Wonder
I’ve been a fan of Kate Greenaway’s art since my own childhood, but I just 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.
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.
Third Star: Her Own Book
After formally studying art from the age of twelve, Kate went on to take classes at the Slade School. Throughout her studies, Kate intensified her commitment to her work and style. She experimented with technique and increased her knowledge of color harmony.
In those early days, Kate exhibited her own art, illustrated the works of others, and designed greeting cards, sometimes unsigned. Although her income began to grow, Kate was not well-known.
Her biographer explains that “she was the hidden mainspring of a clock with the maker’s name upon the dial.” (Spielmann & Layard).
Everything changed when a noted printer, Edmund Evans, took a chance on both her art and poetry in a volume titled Under the Window.
Kate had a book of her own now, but would it sell?
Evans recalled, “I was fascinated with the originality of the drawings and the ideas of the verse…I printed the first edition of 20,000 copies, and was ridiculed by the publishers for risking such a large edition of a six-shilling book” (Spielmann and Layard).
The first edition in 1879 was an instant best-seller. Evans kept reprinting until about 100,000 copies were circulated at the time, including French and German editions (Spielmann and Layard).
Kate’s name became a household word after the publication of Under the Window. Her clothing and bonnet designs were so famous, parents began dressing their children in Kate’s “art.” Her extraordinary popularity led to the craze known as the “Greenaway Vogue.”
An Art Palace & the 1893 World's Fair
The Greenaway Vogue was still in full swing at the time of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition).
I’ve been spending a lot of time (in my imagination) at the Fair while I write my second mystery. In my book, Kate’s Under the Window comes to life in the mysterious Willowgold Cottage at the Fair. It has been a delight to learn more about Kate Greenaway and her art as I dive into historical research.
Kate’s work was well-represented at the 1893 World’s Fair. This intriguing event covered 600 acres of spectacular architecture, the latest inventions, extraordinary historical artifacts, art treasures, and libraries stacked with beloved books.
At the Palace of Fine Arts, fairgoers found displays of Kate Greenaway’s art, including the Title Page to Marigold Garden, “The Mulberry Bush.” “Girl Drawing a Chaise,” “Little Girls,” and “Little Phyllis” (Spielmann and Layard)
In the Woman’s Building library, visitors tilted their heads to look above the glass-fronted bookcases. On high walls, they’d see illustrations by Kate Greenaway among the portraits and artwork of prominent women displayed there (Wadsworth and Wiegand).
People from all over the world came to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and many saw Kate Greenaway’s art among the treasures.
A Lasting Star: The Kate Greenaway Medal
Toward the end of her life, Kate began writing down the childhood memories which remained so vivid in her mind. I like to imagine the book with her evocative drawings of childhood, paired with her engaging writing style. Sadly, she did not live to finish the project. Kate died of breast cancer on November 6, 1901 at the age of fifty-five.
Kate’s legacy lives on in the delight readers feel as they view her illustrations in timeless books, almanacs, bookplates, and old-fashioned greeting cards.
Her artwork is honored each year when the Kate Greenaway Medal is given for outstanding illustrations published in a book for children.
Perhaps as a testament to Kate’s unique vision and style, no book illustrations were deemed “suitable” the first year after the announcement of the medal. The first book to win is Tim All Alone by Edward Ardizzone for 1956.
In an 1897 letter to her friend, John Ruskin, Kate recalled, “My bedroom window used to look out over red roofs and chimney-pots, and I made [imaginary] steps up to a lovely garden up there with…brilliant flowers so near to the sky."
It was a place she captured in this poem from Under the Window:
"Which is the way to Somewhere Town?
Oh, up in the morning early;
Over the tiles and the chimney-pots,
That is the way, quite clearly.
And, which is the door to Somewhere Town?
Oh, up in the morning early;