Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Caldecott, Randolph
CALDECOTT, RANDOLPH (1846–1886), artist, was born at Chester on 22 March 1846, his father being an accountant of good standing, and one of the founders of the Institute of Accountants in England. He was educated at King Henry VIII's School in his native town, where he and his two brothers were successively head-boys. Among his earliest amusements as a child had been the cutting out of animals in wood, and as a schoolboy he won a prize for drawing. His father, however, seems to have discouraged these artistic tendencies, and in due time he left Chester to enter a bank at Whitchurch in Shropshire. The bank life of a little country place was not very exacting, nor without its relaxations, while the agricultural character of the surrounding district stimulated his inborn love of rural sights and scenes. While at Whitchurch he lodged with a yeoman-farmer in the neighbourhood, thus gaining further facilities for making the intimate acquaintance of horses and dogs, to say nothing of occasional opportunities for hunting. From Whitchurch he was transferred to the Manchester and Salford Bank at Manchester, where his advance was rapid. It had long been his practice to sketch from nature such picturesque details or animals as struck his fancy, and about 1871 he appears to have visited London with a view to begin life as an artist. Mr. Armstrong, the art-director of the science and art department at South Kensington, was one of his earliest advisers, and he recommended him to continue to study, but not to relinquish his occupation. A year later Caldecott came to London, and shortly afterwards began drawing for ‘London Society’ and other periodicals. He received much kind assistance from Mr. Henry Blackburn; and he made the acquaintance, among others, of the sculptor Dalou, in whose studio he worked and modelled. He devoted himself with great assiduity to the improvement of his artistic gifts, not only copying, but frequently dissecting, birds and animals. Some time previous to 1875 arrived the opportunity which gave him his first distinction as a thoroughly original and individual artist. Mr. James D. Cooper, the wellknown wood-engraver, had long been seeking for an illustrator for Washington Irving's ‘Sketch-Book,’ when he fell in with one of Caldecott's sketches for ‘London Society.’ The result was the volume of selections from the ‘Sketch-Book,’ which appeared at the close of 1875 under the title of ‘Old Christmas.’ This book, in which artist and engraver co-operated in the most congenial manner, is an almost typical example of fortunate sympathy between author and artist. In 1876 it was succeeded by ‘Bracebridge Hall,’ another of Irving's books, and henceforth Mr. Caldecott's position as a popular book illustrator was secured. In 1877 he illustrated Mrs. Comyns Carr's ‘North Italian Folk,’ in 1879 Mr. Blackburn's ‘Breton Folk,’ in 1883 ‘Æsop's Fables with Modern Instances,’ and he supplied designs to stories by Mrs. J. H. Ewing, Mrs. Frederick Locker, and others. But his chief achievement was the series of coloured children's books, which began in 1878 by ‘John Gilpin’ and ‘The House that Jack Built,’ to be succeeded in the ensuing year by Goldsmith's ‘Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog’ and ‘The Babes in the Wood.’ He continued to produce two of these books annually until the Christmas before his death, when the list closed with the ‘Elegy on Madam Blaize’ and ‘The Great Panjandrum Himself.’ Strangely enough, he had not intended to make any further additions. Besides these, he contributed Christmas sheets and other illustrations (notably some excellent sketches of life at Monaco) to the ‘Graphic’ newspaper. In 1882 he became a member of the Institute of Painters in Water Colours, and he exhibited there and at the Grosvenor Gallery and Royal Academy. He modelled occasionally, one of his first efforts in this way being a bronze bas-relief representing a ‘Horse Fair in Brittany.’ At the time of his death, which took place on 12 Feb. 1886 at St. Augustine, Florida, whither he had gone to escape an English winter, he was engaged in making sketches of American life and manners for the ‘Graphic.’ His health, owing to the sequels of severe rheumatic fever, had long been in a critical state. Yet nothing could suppress his native cheeriness. ‘The quality and quantity of his work done manfully for years under these painful conditions,’ says one who knew him, ‘was heroic, and to the anxious inquiries of friends he was always “quite well,” although unable to mount two flights of stairs.’ He was married in 1880, but left no family.
Caldecott's genius was thoroughly English, and he delighted in portraying English country and out-of-door life. He had a keen love, dating from his Chester and Whitchurch days, for the quaint and old-fashioned in furniture and costume, and the scenes and accessories of the latter half of the eighteenth century especially attracted him. In grace and refinement he was fully the rival of Stothard, but while possessing an equal appreciation of feminine and childish beauty, he far excelled that artist in vivacious humour and sportive fancy. As may be seen from the posthumous paper published in the ‘English Illustrated Magazine’ for March 1886, he drew horses and dogs and the accidents of the hunting-field with the enthusiasm of a sportsman. To these qualities he added the pictorial memory of a Bewick, and he thoroughly understood the capabilities and limitations of colour-printing, by which his most successful books were produced. His skill in adapting his designs to the necessities of the process—a skill in which he was ably seconded by Mr. Edmund Evans, who printed them—and his unerring instinct for simple and effective composition, lent a special charm to his work. But this would have been of little effect without other characteristics. What was most winning in his drawings was their wholesome happy spirit, their frank joy of life, and their manly, kindly tone. Few English artists have left so large a legacy of pure and playful mirth.
[Communications from the Rev. Alfred Caldecott, M.A., Mr. Armstrong, Mr. J. D. Cooper, &c.]