The First Modern Picture Book Illustrator? By Pippa Goodhart

I’m going to quote Maurice Sendak, writing in 1978 (published in a handsome book called ‘Caldecott & Co. Notes on Books & Pictures’). Talking about Randolph Caldecott, the illustrator, he says, ...


            ‘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. In short, it is the invention of the picture book.’

            Sendak then talks (the essays in this book were often speeches) about the ‘honesty’ of Caldecott’s work. ... ‘Caldecott never tells half-truths about life, and his honest vision, expressed with such conviction is one that children recognize as true to their own lives.’ 

            So I went to my bookshelves to look again at my own tatty copy of a Caldecott book.

 It had been given as a present –



         Goodness! 1819 is over two hundred years ago, the year of the Peterloo Massacre, the year when John Keats wrote his ‘Ode To Autumn’, the …   Oh, that can’t be right! Randolph Caldecott wasn’t born until 1846, and was contemporary, and friends with, the pre-Raphaelite artists. Fred had clearly got the date back to front, and must have given that two shilling book in 1918, at the end of the First World War. A salutary lesson in how evidence-based ‘history’ can get it wrong!

            Never mind. Let’s look inside the book. What joy! The colour plates are beautiful, and it’s clear that bank clerk turned illustrator via night school classes Caldecott really was in the same artistic stream as his friends Millais and Rossetti – 



            But the real fun is in the little line drawings which add sub-plots and such relatable humanity that we see what Sendak calls the ‘honesty’ of the work. The emotions ring absolutely true, and that is exactly why they are funny. In ‘The Queen of Hearts’ we have a number of sub-plots, making the Queen herself about the least interesting character in the whole thing. A royal child longing for those tarts, and sneakily stealing something himself (the king’s sceptre) that goes unpunished, unlike the luckless knave who is beaten for his crime. And there’s the wonderful tell-tale cat –


But I’m sure it is the naughty knave himself who children must relate to most strongly. The absolute longing for those delicious tarts, solving the problem of where to hide them, then being called to do a job so having to hide them again, ...

... thinking he’s got away with his crime and will enjoy the tarts in due course, but that sneaky cat has made sure isn't true. We, the book audience, know what the knave doesn't, and soon the knave gets beaten ‘full sore’. At that point we see the children in the story’s sympathy for him, holding back the King of Hearts when he goes to thrash the knave. 


The knave has the agony of being laughed at for his crime, ...

... and seeing everybody else in court scoffing the jam tarts he had wanted. It’s all so, so relatable, even when done in such sketchy fashion! 

I'm going on a search for more Caldecott illustrations. I may be some time ....

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