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Artists Who Died Before 40: Randolph Caldecott

Updated on July 22, 2019
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Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40+ years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.


Children's Book Illustration, Randolph Caldecott

It’s so sad when anyone dies young, but doubly so for artists, because there is so much more they could have done to make the world a more beautiful, colorful place. The sad fact is that artists feel deeply, all the highs and all the lows of life. Sometimes I envy people like my mother, who have a very “even keel.” People like that seldom get mad or upset (although when they do, look out). However, they also don’t get overly jovial or jocular. Every day is a straight line from sunrise to sunset.

Gratefully, I don’t live like that. I am one of the artists. When I am happy, I am a very ecstatic, giggling fool. And when I’m sad, I am in the dismal dumps. No halfway for me. I feel it all and it often shows up in my work.

That’s what happened to most of these artists who died young. They felt too deeply the pain of life. And some just succumbed to sickness, sadness, and drug addiction before their work was done. This is the story of one artist who started somewhat late and died young but who made an indelible mark on children's book illustration that is felt even today: Randolph Caldecott


Randolph Caldecott 1846-1886

The man that the prestigious Caldecott medal is named in honor of, and given to outstanding children’s book illustrators each year, didn’t start illustrating books until he was 31. As a young man, Caldecott worked in a bank and took art classes at night, submitting work to magazines and was finally able to work at illustrating full time. Once he did start illustrating books he was quite prolific. Sadly he was not even 40 when he died.

The Hunt
The Hunt | Source

Small Illustrations If Any

You have to imagine how books were done before to appreciate where they are today. In the Victorian era, children’s books were almost nonexistent. They were made for school purposes and most had no color illustrations or small superficial black and white sketches. Illustration was something done for newspapers and adult periodicals and not for children generally.


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Job At The Bank

Randolph Caldecott was born in Chester, England in 1846. His father was a businessman who was married twice and had 13 children. On leaving school at the age of fifteen, Randolph got a job at the Whitchurch & Ellesmere Bank. I did do drawings in his spare time and enjoyed riding his bike around the countryside, drawing from life, buildings, and scenery of that part of Cheshire. He had success in have a few illustrations published in the Illustrated London News and other publications. After he moved to the head office working in Manchester of the Manchester & Salford Bank, he took the opportunity to attend night classes at the Manchester School of Art. He had the habit of decorating letters and documents of all sorts with illustrations in the margins, mostly for amusement.


Some Success

After having some success getting illustrations published through a monthly magazine, Caldecott decided to quit his job at the bank and support himself with his art. He was 26. He managed very well and achieved several awards and milestones including having a picture hung in the Royal Manchester Institute and elected to the Royal Institute of Watercolour Painting in 1872.

The House that Jack Built
The House that Jack Built | Source

Two Books Per Year

The fateful year came when Edmund Evans, who was a color printer and engraver, lost the services of his children’s book illustrator and asked Randolph to do the illustrations for two books for Christmas. Those first two books were The House That Jack Built and The Diverting History of John Gilpin, published in 1878. They were such a success that he continued, publishing two new books each Christmas till he died in 1886. Children with their two shillings eagerly waited for the two books illustrated by Randolph Caldecott each Christmas for 8 years. His work was unique for its time in the humor and the depiction of movement.


Married to Marian Brind

He married Marian Brind in 1880 but the two had no children of their own. Caldecott’s illustrations remain for the children of the world. He became internationally famous and loved.

He and his wife sailed to New York and traveled to Florida on an unusually cold February. Caldecott had suffered from poor health since his youth, with problems with his heart and gastritis. It was in Florida that he finally succumbed to the illness. He was not quite 40 years old.


Modern Picture Books

Caldecott was one of three early children’s illustrators that changed the industry and the way people looked at children’s picture books. The other two were Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane. It was because of his influence and the others that the children’s book industry changed and expanded. His work heralded the beginning of the modern picture book for children, and the industry will never be the same again.


Caldecott Medal

Each year the American Library Association votes on the best children’s book published the previous year for the Newberry Medal. In 1937 it was suggested that authors were being honored but the illustrators of children’s books were not, so the Caldecott Medal was created for outstanding and distinguished children’s picture book illustrator for the previous year. Since then each year one Newberry Medal and one Caldecott Medal are awarded to children’s book authors and illustrators in the United States. Some former Caldecott Medal winners are Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, 1964, Ox-Cart Man, illustrated by Barbara Cooney, 1980, The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg 1986, Tuesday by David Wiesner, 1992, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, 2008, and This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, 2013.



I appreciate the stories and struggles that artists have to endure to make the mark in history that some of them have made. Many times it just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I know that it seems like artists who are not very talented or who show no more talent than some others who did not achieve fame did, however, it is a lot of chance, happenstance and whom you know more than talent most of the time.

This artist had only a few short years to make his mark in the art world but he managed to be both prolific and revolutionary, influencing many artists long after his passing.

I find it very interesting that they would use a British illustrator for an American award but I don’t make this stuff up. However, I would be deeply honored to receive an award like this. I hope you liked reading about a great artist that could have done so much more if he had only lived longer.


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