Famous for her quaint drawings of mittened and bonneted girls, Kate depicted a rose-tinted view of childhood in days gone by, capturing nostalgic innocence and play in her distinctive and charming scenes.
Born in Hoxton London in 1846, Kate was the second child of four born to John Greenaway and his wife Elizabeth. It was a creative household. John Greenaway was a talented engraver, but early successes were marred by a disastrous turn of fortune when a large project failed to pay. Forced to take small commissions, the family struggled to make ends meet until the enterprising and industrious, Elizabeth took to millinery to support her husband and family.
Kate’s formative years were spent between the urban sprawl of suburban London surrounded by the ladies and frocks of her mother’s successful ladies’ outfitters business and the picturesque rolling hills of Rolleston in Northamptonshire where she stayed for extended summer breaks. Kate described her own childhood as a very happy one. Though shy and sensitive and prone to the swings of emotion which came with a wild and vivid imagination, she was a simply pleased child. Kate adored the countryside and was at her happiest at Rolleston among the buzzing bees and the colourful flowers.
Drawn to the beauty of nature and the good in life, Kate felt unable to reconcile the idea of a benevolent god in a world filled with so much apparent suffering. Though later describing herself as ‘very religious, but in my own way’, she did not believe in the bible or any organised religion. With an aversion to frightening religious sermons and a tendency to ignore the grimmer aspects of life, Kate found a whole day could be ruined in an instant by the distant tolling of church bells that served only to remind her of the precariousness of life.
By the time Kate was a teenager, Elizabeth Greenaway was earning enough to allow her children to pursue their talents. One sister was put through music school and when Kate showed artistic ability, she was enrolled at Finsbury School of Art for threepenny a lesson. Surrounded by outgoing, fashionable young ladies, Kate merged into the background. Average looking and inclined towards plain clothes, she struggled to make an impact on the other students. Her artwork however stood out. In 1864 she was awarded a national medallion for her tile designs. Further art school training followed.
With her father’s talent and a hint of her mother’s industrious nature, Kate soon found herself with several small commissions and by 1870, she was designing illustrations for the burgeoning greeting cards market. Her designs proved popular and a few years later she had made enough to pay for a small studio. Kate’s reputation continued to grow and her distinctive style of drawing children in historical costume, often set in flower gardens or green countryside appealed to a populace struggling with the Dickensian realities of child labour and poverty of the late industrial revolution.
Eager to show creative independence, Kate started work on a small book of her own designs. Accompanying the sketches were short rhyming verses. Her father immediately recognised the potential in her sketches and promised to show his employer, the engraver Edmund Evans. Impressed by Kate’s artistic work but feeling her rhymes were weak, Evans sent Kate’s work to the popular poet and society figure, Frederick Locker, for evaluation.
The introduction to Locker (later Locker-Lampson) had a significant impact on Kate’s life. A self-styled ‘man of letters’, Locker was connected by friendship and family to the greatest literary and artistic figures of the day, including George Eliot, Browning and Tennyson. Kate became a frequent visitor to Rowfant, the Locker-Lampson’s Sussex seat and their summer property Newhaven Court in Cromer.
Kate’s first published work for children, Under the Window (1879) was released in time for the Christmas market and became a runaway success. She cemented her success with Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book (1880) and Mother Goose (1881).
Prone to shyness, Kate had always found making friends difficult, but with great success came invitations and introductions. An exchange of letters concerning her work led to an intense lifelong friendship with the famous art critic John Ruskin. Kate was probably in love with Ruskin, but the romantic affection was unrequited, and she remained unmarried. Taking great pleasure in the company of children, particularly those of her friend and mentor Locker-Lampson, she was often the first to join in with childish fun and chasing games. Oliver Locker-Lampson, son of Kate’s mentor Frederick later recalled:
‘We children always felt that she at least was never bored with us, that to her, if no one else, we were not “tiresome limbs”; for she joined us at all times and in all places and in a way unlike anyone else. Other folks intercourse was invariably from a height, always an act of condescension; her friendship was ever the friendship of an equal’
- Oliver Locker-Lampson, ‘Kate Greenaway: Friend of Children’, The Century Magazine p. 185.
Kate continued to produce work at a steady rate and later works included Little Ann (1883) Language of Flowers (1884) and Marigold Garden (1885). By the time of her death in 1901 from cancer aged just 55, Kate was a household name and a phenomenal commercial triumph. Her death came as a shock to friends who had not been aware of the severity of her illness. A biography was published, and various friends organised a memorial fund.
The popularity of Kate’s work has fluctuated over the years, the decline in sales seen after her death reversed with a resurgence of interest in post war America. Kate’s work is still admired today, and original illustrations still sought after. Perhaps the finest tribute to Kate is The Kate Greenaway Medal, established in 1955 and awarded for the most distinguished annual contribution to children’s illustration, which continues to this day.
Engen, R. and Greenaway, K. (1981) Kate Greenaway: A Biography. New York: Schocken Books.
Spielmann, M.H. and Layard, G.S. (1905) The Life and Work of Kate Greenaway. London: Adam and Charles Black.
Locker-Lampson, O. (1907) ‘Kate Greenaway: Friend of Children’, The Century Magazine, December.
By Helen Murray