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A leading British designer, illustrator, and painter, Crane was a prominent figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement and influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters. He travelled and exhibited widely in Europe and the United States of America and was also a significant and influential writer and lecturer on design matters, a socialist thinker and propogandist, as well as an important force in progressive design education, having been appointed as principal of the Royal College of Art, London, in 1898. After an early apprenticeship in wood engraving Crane steadily built up a reputation as an illustrator in the 1860s. By the early 1870s his work showed the influence of Japanese woodblock prints alongside an increasing mastery of colour, particularly in a number of successful children's books. During these years he also worked on decorative ceramic designs for Josiah Wedgwood (1867-71), on tiles for Maws (1874), and, later, on various ceramic commissions for Pilkington's Tile and Pottery Company (from 1901). Furthermore, Crane was a prolific wallpaper designer, producing more than 50 designs for Jeffrey & Co. from 1874 onwards, and also worked in the field of printed and woven textiles from the late 1880s. Other fields in which Crane made contributions included stained glass and mosaic design, furniture, metalwork, carpet design, and embroidery. In 1884 he became a founder member of the Art Workers' Guild, going on to become the first president of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1888 when a number of members of the Guild seceded in order to set up a new organization more committed to the public promotion and exhibition of their creative work. Crane played an important role in British design education, becoming head of design at Manchester School of Art in 1893, working briefly at the University of Reading in 1897 before being appointed as principal of the Royal College of Art in 1898, a post he held for a year. Crane's international reputation gathered pace during the 1890s: he visited the United States in 1890-1; a retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the Fine Art Society, London, in 1891 before touring the United States and Europe; and his work was also shown at Samuel Bing's celebrated Galerie l'Art Nouveau which opened in Paris in 1895. There was also increasing and favourable coverage of Crane's work in reviews in leading magazines. A number of his lectures were published, including his Cantor Lectures on The Decorative Illustration of Books (1896), The Bases of Design (1898), and Line and Form (1900). His books included The Claims of Decorative Art (1892), Ideals in Art (1905), An Artist's Reminiscences (1907), and William Morris to Whistler (1911).
The art of celebration
Walter Crane (1845-1915) was a leading British artist who is perhaps now best remembered for his association with the socialist movement.
He is also directly connected with how we visualise May Day celebrations, as he designed one of the most well-known posters for the first May Day festival in 1895.
If you are based in northern England or plan to head there over the next few weeks, there is an excellent free exhibition of Crane's work at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester.
The exhibition provides a lot of detail about Crane's artistic methods and style but also covers a wide range of his political work.
Crane was one of those whose political activism straddled the Chartist years - he was apprenticed to the republican Chartist WJ Linton in the late 1850s - and the development of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in the 1890s.
He was associated with two giants of the British left, William Morris and Robert Blatchford, and was clearly influenced by both.
The Manchester exhibition displays several pieces of imagery that Crane designed for May Day 1895.
One is an advertisement for a May Day carnival organised by the ILP at Holborn Town Hall.
The dancing characters adorning the borders of the card represent Merrie England, the title of perhaps Blatchford's most well-known book and also a widespread vision of a country free from the horrors of industrialism, taken forwards - or perhaps back - to a more harmonious and rural time.
The essentially pre-industrial idea of Merrie England is hard to sympathise with from the position of the left in 2009, but it must be recalled that as recently as 1850, 50 per cent of the population were classified as peasants.
In that context, the idea of escaping from industrial society to some form of rural idyll made sense.
Moreover, as EP Thompson's work on Morris demonstrates, there is also a strong sense here of a post-industrial and more environmentally sound society.
If these ideas were around at the first May Day, so were those of solidarity and internationalism demonstrated by Crane's May Day garland, also shown at the Whitworth exhibition.
Crane wrote to Clarion editor Blatchford on April 12 1895 offering him "a cartoon of mine I have prepared appropriate to the first of May and wish to present to the workers."
The idea was to sell it with the Clarion as an insert or to be sold separately with the proceeds going to an agreed "socialist object."
The cartoon again illustrates Merrie England as a female character holding a garland and some of the slogans do hark backwards. One states, for example: "The plough is a better backbone than the factory."
Other slogans have a much more modern ring, such as "production for use not for profit" and "solidarity of labour," while the demand for "no child toilers" and "shorten working day and lengthen life" are still firmly with us over 100 years on.
The exhibition catalogue records that Crane's cartoon was so popular that the ILP made a lantern slide of it and it appeared on a National Union of Railwaymen banner.
Crane's designs have an abiding popularity on the left and whether they appeal to you or not, his work for May Day 1895 is a reminder that May 1 is a festival, a celebration of the possibility of a different and better life, tied up with dance, fun and celebration as well as important political demands.