The House that Jack Built
By Greg Herringshaw, assistant curator in charge of wallcoverings, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Walter Crane was introduced to the arts early in life as the second son of Thomas Crane, a portrait painter and miniaturist. The younger Crane was apprenticed to a wood engraver at an early age and also began enrolling in drawing classes. He illustrated his first children’s books in the 1860s, working under Edmund Evans. Children’s wallpapers first appeared in the 1870s and were printed by engraved copper rollers in a monochromatic sepia colorway. The popularity of Crane’s children’s book illustrations earned Crane a commission to design his first nursery paper in 1875, and he began designing more general use papers the following year, working exclusively for Jeffrey & Co. his entire career.
Crane’s nursery papers were the first to be designed by a well-known illustrator. Drawn in the Aesthetic style, the elements of The House That Jack Built appear flat with little sense of depth, printed in the tertiary colors popular at the time. Early children’s papers were designed to be instructional, but Crane’s use of color and delightfully-drawn figures would be engaging to a child, and make learning fun. The lyrics of the popular British nursery rhyme and cumulative tale are illustrated line by line in this design.
Crane designed numerous nursery papers over the course of his career, all of which were machine-printed making them more affordable for this niche market. His general use papers which were all hand-printed with wood blocks and many had fairly large repeats. Crane’s wallpapers were continually displayed by Jeffrey & Co. at major expositions, winning awards at several including the Philadelphia Exhibition in 1876 and the Paris Exhibition in 1878 and 1889. The House that Jack Built was the only machine-printed paper exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Crane continued designing wallpapers until 1908. Even before designing wallpapers, Crane expressed an interest in interior decoration through the beautifully detailed artistic interiors in his children’s book illustrations.