Let’s Not Airbrush A Brilliant Artist!

Aug 8, 2023 | Women's History

It’s interesting, that amid an increasing focus on women’s history — or perhaps I should say, an increasing spotlight into the lives of women who have hitherto been left out of HIStory — one amazing woman’s legacy has been undermined. As children many of you may well have been familiar with the world of illustrator Kate Greenaway. Of course, you might not have known her name, but her work was unmistakable. Almost as soon as I was given my library ticket at around three years of age, I made a beeline for any book bearing her distinctive illustrations. They took me into a world that was at once magical and completely familiar and welcoming. Perhaps you remember some of them.

But before I get to the nitty-gritty and your task if you choose to accept it, here’s something more about Greenaway.

Kate Greenaway in her studio

Catherine “Kate” Greenaway was born in Hoxton, London.  Although it is now a quite trendy “hip” area of London, it was somewhat less salubrious when Kate was born there in 1846.

Her father, John Greenaway, was an engraver — at one point he was able to enhance the family’s income when he was hired to work on the engraved illustrations for an edition of Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers. Kate’s mother was a dressmaker, who later opened a dress shop in Islington to bolster her family’s fortunes when the family fell on hard times due to John’s work drying up.

Kate Greenaway was taught at home for the most part, and at a few “Dame” schools. Dame schools were popular in Britain and her “colonies” at one point — they were schools for neighborhood children run by a local women for a small fee. It was hardly surprising that Kate began night classes in the decorative arts at age 12. Later she took the National Course in Art Training, which was designed to train artists to work on such projects as wallpaper, tile and pottery design. It was course to feed an industry, so lacked the creativity Kate was looking for, so she moved on to the Royal Female School of Art, and then the famed Slade School of Fine Art — those moves fed her curiosity and allowed her to make connections with other well-known artists of the time.

While she was still a student, Kate began to receive commissions for children’s book illustrations — and as the saying goes “one thing led to another.” Not only was Kate able to build a successful freelance career, but when the greeting card industry took off in the mid-1800’s she was in a position to ride the crest of the wave — her early Valentine cards would sell over 25,000 copies in a week.

By the late 1800s, Kate Greenaway was one of the most popular designers of bookplates, and had already published children’s books. The first was Under The Window in 1879. Kate’s book illustrations, together with cards, bookplates, and even children’s clothing inspired by her designs assured her burgeoning reputation on both sides of the Atlantic and around the world. Kate Greenaway died of breast cancer in November 1901.

In 1955 the Kate Greenaway Medal was established to honor her legacy. The medal has been awarded every year to an illustrator of children’s books and is the oldest literary prize in Britain.

But ….

In 2023 the name of this accomplished woman was struck from the prize. Instead, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (the awarding body) has renamed the award (and without consulting many librarians — you know, the people who meet children looking for books!). Now the Yoto Carnegie Medal for Illustration has replaced the name of an accomplished, inspiring woman with that of an industrialist and a corporation. If this news has pulled at your sense of fair play (to coin a phrase) and your hackles are up, you can sign a petition here to return the Kate Greenaway name to this prize.

The WomenSong Blog is my indulgence—a chance to write about women’s lives from the past to the present. I plan to write not only about women whose names are well known, but women with unheralded accomplishments. Many visitors to this blog will know that I have been interested in women’s history since childhood—since I created my first book at the age of eight. It was a task set in class, for each pupil to produce a “topic book” on something we were interested in. We had to not only research and write the content (though the word “research” was not used—instead it was called “Finding out”), and we created the cover in our art and craft lessons, finally stitching the pages and boards together. Finally we had to present our topic to the class. I loved making that book—and it opened a window for me. Though the women in my “Famous Women” topic book were all well known, as time went on, I became equally interested in women whose accomplishments had been forgotten or never acknowledged. So, as noted, this is my indulgence, a chance to write about the lives of women. I hope you enjoy the posts.

famous women

Read more about Jacqueline Winspear here

Note: This blog is not allied to any other organization using the word “WomenSong.”