The tradition of beautifully illustrated children’s books is not a new phenomenon. In fact, there was something of a Golden Age of illustration, starting with the Victorian era and lasting all the way to the start of World War II. During this period, it was not just “picture books” that were filled with lovely and evocative pages, but prose stories as well.
One of the most felicitous parings of author and illustrator were Oscar Wilde and Charles Robinson. Wilde’s fairy tales were only ostensibly for children; actually, he would often recite them at dinner parties and share them with friends. (Though he also recited them in the nursery to his own children, Cyril and Vyvyan.) These stories are magnificent creations – lyrical and lovely and often rife with paradox.
They were greatly admired by actor George Herbert Kersely, who later went on stage and played a part in Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. He sent a copy of the first collection of fairy tales, The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888), to Wilde to autograph. Wilde’s letter in reply read, in part, “I am very pleased that you like my stories. They are studies in prose, put for romance’s sake into fanciful form: meant party for children, and partly for those who have kept the childlike faculties of wonder and joy, and who find simplicity in a subtle strangeness.”
Charles Robinson (1870-1937) was born in Islington, the son of an illustrator. Obviously, art was in the blood, for his two brothers, Thomas and William Robinson, also became illustrators. Robinson entered the Royal Academy, but was unable to attend because of his precarious financial state.
Robinson illustrated A Child’s Garden of Verses (1895) by Robert Louis Stevenson and met with great success. After that, his lilting water colors appears in many great classic, including The Secret Garden (1911), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1907) and Lullaby Land (1897).
The illustration above is from The Selfish Giant, one of the finest fairy tales in the Wilde corpus. Vyvyan remembered his father telling he and his brother Cyril this story and asking why he wept as he done so. Wilde answered that beautiful things always made him cry.
The overall design of this striking water color shows Robinson’s mastery of composition and color. The delicate white blossoms denote both purity and death, and the lighter color around the child’s head is suggestion of a halo. There is an almost subtle Japanese effect, with the one-direction sweep of the action and great amount of unused paper. The wide-eyes of the child, along with the slightly over-sized head and under-sized hands, are still seen in commercial Japanese illustration and animation.
Here is how Wilde ends his tale:
One winter morning he looked out of his window as he was dressing. He did not hate the Winter now, for he knew that it was merely the Spring asleep, and that the flowers were resting.
Suddenly he rubbed his eyes in wonder, and looked and looked. It certainly was a marvellous sight. In the farthest corner of the garden was a tree quite covered with lovely white blossoms. Its branches were all golden, and silver fruit hung down from them, and underneath it stood the little boy he had loved.
Downstairs ran the Giant in great joy, and out into the garden. He hastened across the grass, and came near to the child. And when he came quite close his face grew red with anger, and he said, 'Who hath dared to wound thee?' For on the palms of the child's hands were the prints of two nails, and the prints of two nails were on the little feet.
‘Who hath dared to wound thee?' cried the Giant; 'tell me, that I may take my big sword and slay him.'
'Nay!' answered the child; 'but these are the wounds of Love.'
'Who art thou?' said the Giant, and a strange awe fell on him, and he knelt before the little child.
And the child smiled on the Giant, and said to him, 'You let me play once in your garden, to-day you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise.'
And when the children ran in that afternoon, they found the Giant lying dead under the tree, all covered with white blossoms.