Randolph Caldecott... a fine Cheshire artist

NOWADAYS we associate the best illustrated children’s books with the likes of Beatrice Potter. But long before Peter Rabbit and company appeared a Cheshire man, Randolph Caldecott, left his own indelible mark.To see his pictures today is to imagine a Cheshire, or Shropshire, of the 19th century.

Caldceott was born in Chester in 1846 and attended the town’s King Henry VIII’s School, becoming - like his brother - head boy there. As a child he carved animals in wood and many of his exercise books were covered with drawings and sketches.

In 1861 he moved to Whitchurch where he worked in a bank for six years. He resided with a yeoman farmer, loved fishing, went to the ‘meet’ and cattle auction and threw himself wholeheartedly into country life.

At this time his first drawing - the burning of the Queen’s Hotel at Chester - had appeared in the Illustrated London News and soon he found his way to London where he met with the engraver, J.D.Cooper.

Cooper was searching for an illustrator for Washington Irving’s Old Christmas and later Bracebridge Hall. After the publication of these books Caldecott’s reputation soared.

In 1878 came the real landmark in his career when John Gilpin and The House that Jack Built - the first of the picture books - appeared. After that, the public demanded and got books every year until Caldecott’s early death, in 1886.

The Cheshire artist was a master. He depicted black and white houses, the social life and hunours of the squirearchy. There was no industry, no electricty, no car, no bus.

Farm boys and rosy cheeded maidens dance round the farmhouse, with its welcoming fire and, like Beatrice Potter, he brought animals to life. His farmers were prosperous, whether in the kitchen or the gig to market...with smock, bulbous nose and irrepressible smile.

Caldecott immortalised the English farming countryside, its squire, parson, milkmaid, huntsman, festivals and celebrations.

The vicar in his vestry hears ‘Tally Ho’ outside and throws off his surplice, regardless of the couple waiting to be wed.

That was Caldecott whose contribution was once described:

‘Geese scatter before Gilpin, the hunt clatters by with almost audible clop-clop; cheeks are rosy, huntsmen jolly, yokels monn-faced, gaffers venerable, maidens charming.’

Caldecott might be out of fashion but his work lives on!