Birth and early life
Randolph Caldecott was born in Chester on 22 March 1846. He was the third son of John Caldecott and his first wife Mary Dinah Brookes, and one of 13 siblings or half-siblings. Caldecott attended King Henry VIII School, Chester, where he became head boy.
Randolph Caldecott's father was originally a hatter and tailor but later developed an interest, and second career, in accountancy. It was he who decided that Randolph would make his career in banking.
At the age of 15 Randolph Caldecott started work as a clerk in Whitchurch (Shropshire) office of Whitchurch & Ellesmere Bank, where he learned the rudiments of banking.
In December 1866, at the age of 20, Caldecott applied for a position with Manchester & Salford Bank, a much larger and flourishing bank. He was interviewed on Christmas Eve, and started work early the following year at the bank's head office in Mosley Street, Manchester. He progressed well, enjoying a steadily rising income, and was commended by his superiors for having 'worked well'. He was also popular with his fellow clerks, one of whom later recalled that he came 'like a ray of sunshine into our life, and brightened the drudgery of our toil with his cheerful humour'. Caldecott himself recollected later that – in his own judgment – he had not displayed the expected deference towards the bank and its work.
In 1872 Randolph Caldecott resigned from the bank to become a professional journalist and artist.
Early artistic life
From an early age Caldecott showed artistic talent. He won a prize for drawing while at school in Chester, and in 1861, when he was 15 years old, the Illustrated London News published his drawing and written account of a major fire at a railway hotel in Chester.
Caldecott's move to Manchester in 1867 allowed him to develop his skills further and broaden his range of subjects. Indeed, his application to Manchester & Salford Bank may have been motivated less by a wish to improve his banking career prospects than by the hope that city life would open up new artistic opportunities for him.
At the bank, Caldecott drew caricatures of colleagues and customers on the backs of envelopes or scraps of paper. He attended evening classes at Manchester School of Art and some of his drawings were published in local weekly papers, including Will o' the Wisp and The Sphinx. He joined the Brasenose Club, established in 1869 for those with literary, scientific, musical or artistic interests, and in that year one of his pictures was shown at the Royal Manchester Institution, just down the road from the bank where he worked.
Caldecott also began to building links with London publishers, including Henry Blackburn, whose London Society published a number of his illustrations. Blackburn and Caldecott went on to form a lifelong friendship.
In 1872 Caldecott moved to London. He initially worked as a news reporter, and was soon supplying stories and illustrations to journals such as the Illustrated London News, The Pictorial World, Punch and The Graphic. He studied briefly at the recently-founded Slade School and set up his own studio at his lodgings in Great Russell Street, opposite the British Museum. He made friends with a number of other artists, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and Frederic Leighton.
His style of pen and ink drawing, featuring thin lines and large white spaces, was particularly suited to printing using wood engraving, and he became the illustrator of a considerable number of books. He sometimes wrote the accompanying text himself, but more often collaborated with authors, including Washington Irving, Juliana Horatia Ewing, Mrs Frederick Locker and Frederick Marryat. Washington Irving’s Old Christmas (1875) and Bracebridge Hall (1877) set a new standard for quality of popular book production, and also established Caldecott’s name in the genre.
Throughout his life Caldecott chose subjects based on his day-to-day experiences, and he and Henry Blackburn collaborated on two books based on their travels together to Germany and Brittany (The Harz Mountains, 1873 and Breton Folk, 1880). In 1873 Blackburn took some of his sketches to New York, and Caldecott’s work later appeared in Harper's New Monthly Magazine and the New York Daily Graphic.
The wood engraver and colour printer Edmund Evans encouraged Caldecott to move into a pioneering new area, illustrating picture books for children. Such books became the core of Caldecott’s output from 1878 until his death. Two new volumes were issued each year, timed for selling as Christmas presents; a precursor to the Christmas annual of later years. In one of the first pair of picture books, The House that Jack Built, Caldecott included a picture of William Langton, the managing director of the bank in Manchester, who had interviewed and appointed him in 1866.
Many of Caldecott’s books ran into multiple editions, some with print runs in the hundreds of thousands. A number of his illustrations for The Graphic were later republished in four volumes. He and his estate benefitted significantly from his preference for taking royalties, rather than flat fees, for his illustrative work.
Caldecott was also interested in sculpture, and studied for a time with the French sculptor Jules Dalou. He also produced decorative murals, panels and bas-reliefs, and painted in oils.
Caldecott’s work was exhibited at the Royal Academy; the Fine Art Society; the Grosvenor Gallery; the Dudley Gallery; the Institute of Painters in Water Colours (member from 1882); the Royal Manchester Institution; and the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts (member from 1880). Both Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin admired his work.
Published and original works
Caldecott is most famous for his 16 picture books, published annually in pairs by George Routledge & Sons, London:
- The House that Jack Built (1878)
- The Diverting History of John Gilpin (1878)
- Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog (1879)
- The Babes in the Wood (1879)
- The Three Jovial Huntsmen (1880)
- Sing a Song for Sixpence (1880)
- The Farmer’s Boy (1881)
- The Queen of Hearts (1881)
- The Milkmaid (1882)
- Hey Diddle Diddle and Baby Bunting (1882)
- The Fox Jumps over the Parson's Gate (1883)
- A Frog he Would a-Wooing Go (1883)
- Come Lasses and Lads (1884)
- Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross and A Farmer went Trotting upon his Grey Mare (1884)
- An Elegy on the Glory of her Sex, Mrs Mary Blaize (1885)
- The Great Panjandrum Himself (1885)
Some of his books are still in print and many are available online. A substantial list of Caldecott’s works in all media appears in the appendix of RK Engen, Randolph Caldecott: Lord of the Nursery (London: Bloomsbury Books, 1976)
The principal collections of his drawings, pictures and sketchbooks are held by the Victoria & Albert Museum (which also holds some of his sculptures), the British Museum and the Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Family life and character
In 1879 Caldecott moved to a house near Kemsing in Kent. While living there he met Marian Harriet Brind, daughter of Frederick William Brind of Chelsfield. They were married on 18 March 1880, and in 1882 moved to a small farm at Frensham near Farnham in Surrey. In the same year, he also bought a house in Holland Street, Kensington, where he set up a studio. From then on, Caldecott divided his time between London and the country.
Caldecott had suffered from rheumatic fever as a child, and his health remained fragile for the rest of his life. He often spent the winter months in warmer climes, particularly in the Mediterranean.
He was noted by contemporaries for his cheerful and witty character and his charm, attributes which also apply to his artistic work. Although his health was often a cause of concern to his friends, he refused to draw attention to its effects or allow it to stop him working. Frederic Leighton said of him that 'his humour was as quaint as it was inexhaustible, and his mirth bubbling and contagious'.
Death and legacy
In October 1885 Caldecott and his wife sailed for America on a trip intended partly to improve his health and partly to provide material for sketches of American life for The Graphic. After an arduous Atlantic crossing they met with unseasonably cold weather as they travelled down the east coast of America. Early in 1886 Caldecott developed acute gastritis. He died at St Augustine, Florida, on 13 February 1886, at the age of 39.
He was buried in the Evergreen cemetery, St Augustine, but his friends also paid for a memorial, designed by Sir Albert Gilbert, in St Paul’s Cathedral, London. A plaque was placed in the cathedral in Chester, Caldecott's home town. In 1888 an exhibition of his work was exhibited at the Brasenose Club in Manchester.
Many of Caldecott's books were reprinted in large print runs after his death. He continued to influence the work of later illustrators, including Beatrix Potter and EH Shepard. Since 1938 the Caldecott Medal, named in his honour, has been awarded annually to the best American picture book.
Related publications and online sources
- 'Randolph Caldecott' in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- 'Randolph Caldecott: bank clerk and artist', Three Banks Review, March 1951, vol. 9, pp.29-35
- H Blackburn, Randolph Caldecott: a Personal Memoir of his Early Art Career (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1886)
- RK Engen, Randolph Caldecott: Lord of the Nursery (London: Bloomsbury Books, 1976), including a bibliography relating to Caldecott’s life and work
- Catalogue of a loan collection of the works of Randolph Caldecott at the Brasenose Club, Manchester (Manchester: Privately printed by John Heywood for the Brasenose Club, 1888)
- The Randolph Caldecott Society of America
Archives held elsewhere
- Houghton Library, Harvard University: correspondence, including letters to William Clough and Frederick Locker-Lampson, 1871-85 (Ref: MS Eng 784)
- Cheshire Archives and Local Studies: papers of and relating to Caldecott, including letters to family members, 1867-1932 (Ref: D 7651)
- Sheffield Archives: Hunter Archaeological Society, Gatty correspondence: correspondence with Juliana Horatia Ewing, 1879-85 (Ref: HAS)
- National Art Library, Victoria and Albert Museum: letters to John Numerley, 1867-85 (Ref: MSL/1980/38)