Walter Crane Was a Socialist Visionary Who Illustrated the Triumph of Labor

At the turn of the 20th century, Walter Crane’s groundbreaking designs captured the spirit of a rising socialist movement. More than a romantic dreamer, he saw how the triumph of labor could allow humanity’s artistic talents to flourish.

Original relief print of A Garland for May Day by Walter Crane, 1895. (Walter Crane / Wikimedia Commons)

Walter Crane woke up on a spring morning in 1884. He never slept again. As an artist and illustrator, Crane had drawn inspiration from pre-Raphaelite visions of universal brotherhood; as a political activist, he idolized John Stuart Mill and supported the radical, democratic left of the British Liberal Party. But by 1884, thirty-nine years since his birth to a family of Torquay decorators, the artist of enchantment had been thoroughly disillusioned.

The worst thing in the world had happened to Crane: he got what he wanted. Raising illustration to a fine art in the eyes of his peers, Crane saw his groundbreaking book designs warped in crude, commercial reproductions. Successive reform bills enfranchised ever wider circles of the population — but in industrial London, he only saw rising poverty and squalor.

A piece by Walter Crane marking May Day, 1895.
The Triumph of Labour, a work by Walter Crane marking May Day, 1891.

As a decade of economic and political crisis began, Crane’s sunny Victorian optimism was rapidly clouding over. Looking back years later, he described the dread that crept over him as he realized the real nature of British society:

Under the forms and semblance of political freedom, real economic slavery . . . a grinding commercial system of inhuman competition, threatening to be a worse tyranny that any the world has ever seen, reducing all things to money value, vulgarising life, and ruthlessly destroying natural beauty.

Romantic art had promised to reunite the worlds of artifice and nature; democratic reform to make peace between capital and labor. Both had failed. Or so it seemed to Crane, his vision of the future darkening by the day. But then, in the writings of his friend William Morris, he found a light.

Cultural Revolutionary

The visionary artist Morris, the founder of modern design, “crossed the river of fire” to the socialist movement late in life. He brought with him his own heterodox interpretation of communist ideals; a “marriage,” E.P. Thompson called it “between romanticism and Marxism.” The promise of the romantic movement could only be realized, Morris argued, through the revolutionary transformation of society. In “Art and Socialism,” the lecture, that, in the spring of 1884, made Crane a socialist, Morris made his case clear:

One day we shall win back Art, that is to say the pleasure of life; win back Art again to our daily labour . . . now the cause of Art has something else to appeal to: no less than the hope of the people for the happy life which has not yet been granted to them. There is our hope: the cause of Art is the cause of the people.

Morris stood, as Raymond Williams noted, at a crossroads in British intellectual life; proposing a moral and aesthetic “transvaluation” that would sweep away the dark satanic mills of industrial Britain. And an unlikely cultural revolutionary found an unlikely acolyte in Britain’s foremost children’s book illustrator. More than any other artist, Walter Crane inherited Morris’s vision and fought for his ideals, tangling alike with old reaction and commerçant renegades in the Arts and Crafts movement.

Not that Crane was a political neophyte. His commitment to radical, democratic values dated from his apprenticeship amongst old Chartists in the workshops of Hammersmith, veterans of the fight for the vote in Britain. His understanding of art as imbricated with social and moral questions was one borrowed from his mentor John Ruskin. And the words of the radical romantics – John Keats, William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley – were woven through his work and life. Like Morris, Crane’s romantic belief in the power of human self-expression, the beauty of the natural world, and the centrality of friendship shaped his whole life: aesthetic judgment implying — even demanding — political commitments to match.

His private life was no exception, taking hospitality for a way of life. Crane and his wife Mary’s love of fancy dress and delight in friendship made their parties major events on London’s artistic social calendar. For their son Lionel’s twenty-first birthday, they invited seven hundred people into their home. Crane dressed up as a crane — in beaked hat and triple-toed shoe — and Mary as an enormous sunflower. George Bernard Shaw once noted with admiration — and surprise — just how sociable Crane was. Given how personally unpleasant socialists and artists tended to be as separate phenomena, Shaw reasoned, a socialist artist ought to be entirely unbearable. In and out of season, Walter’s residence in Kensington teemed with life and noise, not least given their vast menagerie of household pets: cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, an owl, a jerboa, a golden pheasant, mongooses, marmosets, one shoulder-perching squirrel — and an alligator.

“Crane’s mind,” the artist William Rothenstein recalled, “like his house, was too full to be kept dusted and tidy; but he had unusually broad sympathies, and while he followed in the footsteps of Morris and [Edward] Burne-Jones, he was free from prejudice — his spirit kept open house.” The pre-Raphaelite ideal of hospitality found political form in Crane and Morris’s commitment to a socialist society; it found practical expression in the ordering of their lives. “Fellowship is life,” Morris wrote, “lack of fellowship is death.” Crane, who inscribed that slogan on banners and motifs almost beyond counting, had better claim than most to be the older man’s direct successor in politics as well as art.

These two post-pre-Raphaelites embraced a Marxism with romantic characteristics, seeing the society of the future as latent in both ideals of the past and the struggles of the present. “The past is not dead,” Morris declared, “but is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.” Such sentiments led commentators to dismiss Crane and his mentor as “medievalist”: a label neither unjustified nor entirely accurate. Crane drew on classical and international motifs — especially Japanese art — far more than the Middle Ages, helping define the transnational style later known as art nouveau. His aesthetic influences revealed a philosophical underpinning — “spiritual” but secular, romanticist but internationalist — that Crane’s contemporary admirers often overlook.

Economy of Joy

The universalist humanism to which Crane and many of his cothinkers subscribed was encapsulated by one of his great influences, the critic Walter Pater. “The service of philosophy, of speculative culture, towards the human spirit,” Pater said in his essays on Renaissance art, “is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation.” Later art movements — most notoriously Oscar Wilde and the “aestheticists” — took Pater’s vision as a manifesto.

Crane inherited Pater’s penchant for classicism and the Renaissance, but he was never a wholehearted Epicurean, even before he took up the socialist banner. Tempered by his love for Blake and Shelley’s poetry, Crane retained a political edge lacking in many aesthetes. Beauty and use could be reunited; artwork and craftwork made one; the imagination could do more than just dream of a better world. It could create one.

Looking to the past, Crane and Morris sought proof, not solace. Things could be otherwise not because time was empty, but because it wasn’t. What was good and valuable in life could die without being destroyed; enduring the ages and redeeming the time in song and story, painting and prose; “burning always,” as Pater put it, “with a hard, gem-like flame.”

But although art’s flame burned without the permission of gods or kings, in Crane’s eyes it didn’t burn aimlessly — or alone. “Art which can lift our souls with large thoughts, or enchant them with a sense of mystery and romance,” Crane wrote, “can also be a familiar friend at our firesides, and touch each common thing of every day use with beauty, weaving its golden threads into the joys and sorrows of common life, and making happy both young and old.”

Well-made and beautiful art could make us happier, more “refined,” “softening and humanising” us. Art “educated the eye” and so the person: in one of Crane’s last lectures, he expressed sorrow over the novel use of posters for commercial ends, rather than for the enlivening of human experience. The contemporary commonplace that “all art is political” he’d likely consider unambitious: to Crane’s eyes, art was politics: different lenses refracting the same light. Artists were, in a sense, “naturally socialistic,” he explained in one of his essays: “Art itself is essentially a social product, intimately associated with common life, and depending for its vitality upon a co-operation of all workers, upon living traditions and quick and universal sympathies. These are its sunlight and air.”

And real art, being nothing more than the “the expression by man of his pleasure in labour,” as Morris put it, was a kind of prefiguration of socialism itself, as a particular expression of a universal impulse towards freedom. Art spoke, Crane later wrote, this “universal language, bringing order out of confusion, sweetness out of strength.” Just as the Arts and Crafts movement challenged the preeminence of utility over beauty in design, the socialist movement fought for an economy of joy, where “price and virtue is not to be counted in, or commanded by, dollars, but lies simply in human and hopeful conditions of the life of a people.”

Culture was communism. And vice versa; a “comprehensive artistic unity could only be developed among people politically and socially free.” A common life and common labor would provide the foundations for a new art as well as a new society. Looking at a world convulsed by economic chaos, staggering on to revolution or disaster, Crane thought he saw the new world arriving on the horizon — or at least, at the end of his pen.


In the aftermath of “Bloody Sunday” — a notorious attack by police on unemployed workers in London’s Trafalgar Square — he created artwork protesting the police murder of his friend Arthur Linnell. When the veteran of the Paris Commune Louise Michel held an international school for insurrectionists, the soft-spoken West Londoner produced a lavishly illustrated prospectus. Luminaries of the movement from Edward Carpenter to George Bernard Shaw wrote to Crane to ask his help. They almost always got it. Journals, posters, cycling clubs: working long hours, and often for free, Crane defined “the look of the socialist movement” more than any other artist, according to the Social Democratic Federation’s founder, Henry Hyndman.

Crane’s prospectus for Louise Michel’s international school.

Settling into his new role as agitator-artist, Crane was politically promiscuous, working for most of the socialist movements of his day. Nevertheless, he continued to shadow his mentor closely: following Morris out of the Social Democratic Federation and into the new Socialist League. Like Morris, Crane situated himself on the anarchist-adjacent left of British socialism, celebrating the then recent — and deeply controversial — Paris Commune. Speaking to refugees from the commune, like Michel or the great realist painter Gustave Courbet, Crane was inspired by their foreshortened experiments in the democratization of art.

Although the fluid, rustic imagery of Crane’s designs emanated from a worldview that was anything but conservative, he held no candles for the Victorian cult of science. Crane shared his mentor’s skepticism of the mechanical utopias then popular on the Left. Reconciliation to the natural world was a hallmark of Crane’s politics as well as his art, and — while not quite a Luddite — he agreed with Morris that “as a condition of life, production by machines is altogether evil.” Underlying his politics was a belief that revolution meant restoration; the recovery of human capacities and talents warped by an artificial social order.

“Artists must become craftsmen,” Morris declared, again and again, “and craftsmen artists.” Socialized humanity would be a commonwealth, a collective: but a collective of individuals. It’s an insight immediately obvious in Crane’s designs, where groups are common but crowds are rare. Nearly always the features of his characters, however idealized, are picked out in careful detail, neither obscured by distance nor disguised by proximity. Crane allows us to see socialism with a human face. This meld of romantic individualism and humanist technophobia has dated in the century since Crane’s death. But his warnings of a world where the human-built world displaces the human and “machines master men” have a grim resonance today.

The Villainous Dyes of Western Commerce

Reconciling art and labor was a high ambition, and one Crane bore largely alone after Morris’s death in 1894. He didn’t confine it to the realm of politics. In art, design, and architecture, Morris and Crane’s fulminations against commercialism had struck a chord. A growing number of artists, disenchanted with government-sponsored schools of design and excluded from the emerging professions, sympathized with their radical critiques. Parity between ornamental work and other art; truth to materials, handwork over machinework; the revival of handicraft: even where artists rejected their political activism, Morris and Crane’s worldview held a powerful attraction.

Arts and Crafts artists like T.J. Cobden-Sanderson set up guilds and workshops where designers and craftsmen worked as peers rather than servants and masters. One Arts and Crafts thinker, Crane’s friend C.R. Ashbee, took this a step further, attempting his own utopian community on the banks of the Thames. The Clarion, a socialist newspaper, set up a national “Guild of Handicraft”; Crane himself established the Art Workers’ Guild, aimed at uniting the decorative and fine arts. Unlike the reclusive Morris, Crane threw himself into organizing artists: devising Arts and Crafts contributions to international exhibitions, writing pamphlets, and giving lectures on the meaning of the movement.

Predictably, that meaning was socialism. But Crane’s romantic ideals struggled to sink roots in the arid soil of late-Victorian Britain. Arts and Crafts ideals, always vague, were swiftly diluted as the movement won critical acclaim — and commercial success. Far from building a new art for a commonwealth of fellowship and service, Morris’s epigones helped found modern consumer culture. The revolt of artists against the nascent professional world finally won their entry to it. And a negotiated surrender to mammon was on the cards for all but a few embattled utopians. One firm split the difference and finished machine-made metalware with manually applied hammer marks — for a suitably artisanal look.

Dismayed but not defeated, Crane renewed his commitments to the socialist movement as the new century approached. A tour of America saw Crane condemn the United States in self-penned verse as soon as he disembarked and concluded in Crane’s ostracism by most of the East Coast’s art world after a vehement defense of the “Haymarket Eight” — anarchists convicted of a murder they didn’t commit. With Irish home rule on the horizon, Crane threw his weight behind the struggle for independence. And traveling throughout India in 1906, he joined the small number of Western socialists calling attention to the injustice of colonialism.

At a time when many British socialists professed an attachment to the empire or looked for “progressive” justifications of imperial expansion, Crane was unremitting in his disgust for the West’s domination of Asia — both political and economic:

But all over the East, wherever European influence is in the ascendant, the result is disastrous to the arts, and thus the very sources of ornamental design, beauty of colour, and invention are being sullied and despoiled by the sharp practices and villainous dyes of Western commerce.

Art, the “universal language,” was being forgotten. Religion was defunct, and the romantic ideals that had inspired Crane at the beginning of his career seemed to evaporate by its end. By age or inclination unable to appreciate the impressionist movements sweeping European art, Crane saw the “Moloch” of capital holding the field. In 1911, he still maintained the “socialistic influence” of the Arts and Crafts movement — but even Crane had to grant it was an influence exercised only indirectly. As the new century wore on, he was a man artistically and politically out of time.

A Wall in Time

Whether he realized it or not, the political world Crane lived in was created by a confident workers’ movement united around revolutionary convictions. It was destroyed in 1914 when war revealed that these convictions were nominal. Another casualty of that same cataclysm was Crane’s romantic philosophy of art. Postwar artists, jaded by the use of art nouveau in propaganda and deeply alienated from the culture that fed their generation into the meat grinder of the Somme, saw the war — in Wyndham Lewis’s phrase – as a “cyclopean dividing wall in time.” For Crane, the creative process may have involved struggle but only in the journey toward final aesthetic harmony. For his modernist heirs, an inverse dynamic took hold: the artwork itself became a site of struggle.

The Arthurian idylls of Morris’s poetry had been smashed to pieces; the “heap of broken images” of T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland” remained. Some Arts and Crafts figures struggled on into the interwar years: in a grim irony, they supported themselves by supplying a grieving nation’s endless demands for war memorials. Crane didn’t live to see it; he died in 1915, broken by his wife’s unexpected death. Lancelot, his youngest son, followed him to the grave a few years later: one of millions of young men in uniform who never returned home.

Artists continued to rally to socialism in subsequent decades, but never with the same innocent idealism as Crane or Morris. Crane’s mixing of the gentleman-artist and the revolutionary was a relic of the past, not a token of the future. Arcadian fantasies of garden utopias and communard-knights had a cooler reception in the century of Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

Yet something about Crane’s art still resonates. Every May Day and Christmas, his designs proliferate in postcards and posters and tea towels — and the movement to which he dedicated his life renews itself across the world. Insistence on the public, communal character of art continues to be bitterly necessary. Asserting the creative potential of every human being — and the creative skill of every worker — is something contemporary socialists would do well to emulate. And Crane’s appetite for transcendence, seeing in politics and art a disclosure of truths beyond either, is surprisingly well-suited to a world where everything from food to free time is subservient to utility.

In his art and activism, in his writing and speeches, Crane reminds us that, while the injustice of capitalism necessitates the building of a new society, this society must be built on an affirmation of what makes us human.

In one of the last essays published before Crane’s death, he wrote, once again, on the congruity of art with socialism; their shared past, their linked future. “From ideals in art we are led to ideals in life and to the greatest art of all — The art of Life.” It is an art we are yet to master. It is a world we have yet to win. Look at a Crane drawing, though, and see what he saw: it’s closer than we know.