Choosing a ‘favourite thing’ from the Book Library is very difficult because we have such a wealth of items in our Special Collections and also on our main shelves. Since I began working here I have come across tiny, fragile exhibition catalogues from 1900 onwards, letters written by Roosevelt, a completely square book in its own box, a scrapbook of fashion plate cuttings and much more. It’s hard to whittle down these items to just one, but eventually I chose our two volumes of the 1895 edition of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, edited by Thomas J. Wise, with wonderful illustrations by Walter Crane.
The Faerie Queene (1590-1596) sometimes known as Faery Queen, is the best known work of the poet Edmund Spenser (c. 1552/3 – 1599.) It is an epically long, allegorical poem that, although never actually finished, was intended to span twelve volumes. It contains many allusions to members of the Elizabethan court, and can be seen as a celebration of Elizabeth I’s might and Elizabethan culture. It encompasses knights, damsels, magicians, (even Merlin!) monsters and mythical beings. In the poem, Spenser uses a unique rhyme scheme, now known as a ‘Spenserian stanza,’ which was later adopted by Romantic figureheads such as Byron and Keats.
But what makes these particular volumes stand out for me is the illustrations by Walter Crane, especially as I have been an admirer of his work for some time. Walter Crane (1845-1915) was an Arts and Crafts engraver and illustrator. He is best known for his whimsical, finely-executed illustrations of children’s books, including Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1873) Baby’s Own Aesop (1887) Arthurian Legends and Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince and Other Stories (1888).
Crane’s illustrations for Faerie Queene are stylized, painstakingly detailed and vivid in colour and execution, even after all these years. The cover illustration for both volumes features a graceful woman in a stylized garden, standing next to a lion against a bold red background. Each blade of grass and each trailing leaf of the foliage behind her can clearly be seen, and the style bears strong echoes of William Morris’s work. This may not be a coincidence, as Crane was involved in the Arts and Crafts movement and was also friends with Morris. (Morris even turned one of Crane’s designs into a tapestry.) His illustrations also appear to be influenced by the style of medieval and illuminated manuscripts, with pensive, chivalrous figures and intertwined flowers decorating their margins.
Our volumes are from the library of the fashion designer Stella Mary Newton, and this fashion angle can arguably be seen in Crane’s cover depiction of the intricate folds of the woman’s gown, corresponding with the thick drapery of the lion’s mane, and the fish-scale or amour-like embellishments on her sleeves. Crane himself was also interested in fashion, and designed dresses, costumes and even sandals. You can really see the imaginative quality to Crane’s work, especially in the whimsical expressions and gestures of his figures and their stylized androgyny. The frontispiece for Part VIII even depicts a rather forlorn-looking unicorn!
The rarity of these volumes is suggested in its limited run of just 1000 copies, and in the use of unbleached, handmade and rather delicate paper. I think it is amazing that this work has remained in such good condition, and I hope that it will be continue to be used and appreciated by Courtauldians for many years to come.
Spenser’s Faerie Queene edited by Thomas J. Wise ; illustrations by Walter Crane. Part VII and Part XIV. Published by George Allen, 1895-97.
Classmark: CABS Z7483 SPE OVERSIZE. (Reference Only.)
Related items from our collections
- The Allegory of The Faerie Queene by M. Pauline Parker, 1960. (Z7483.SPE PAR: criticism and interpretation)
- Walter Crane: the arts and crafts, painting, and politics, 1875-1890 by Morna O’Neill, 2010. (D497 CRA SPE.)
- Edmund Spenser’s ‘The Faerie Queene’ -an exhibition on the occasion of the four-hundredth anniversary of its publication (Z5020 PRI UNI: exhibition catalogue)
- Walter Crane by Isobel Spencer, 1975.
Spenser Online: Cambridge University’s Edmund Spenser Webpage:
Spenser’s The Faerie Queene on Project Guttenberg:
Edmund Spencer biography at The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/26145?docPos=1 (Athens login details needed)
The Walter Crane Archive Project at the University of Manchester:
Walter Crane Biography and Image Gallery:
Walter Crane biography at Grove Art Online:
http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T020135?q=walter+crane (Athens login details needed)