What do authors Ludwig Bemelmans (Madeleine), Robert McCloskey (Make Way for Ducklings), Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) and Chris Van Allsburg (Polar Express) have in common? They are all recipients of the Caldecott Award for their illustrations in the aforementioned adored children’s books. The annual Caldecott Award is well known. But do you know the man who inspired the award and whose birthday is March 22nd?
Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886) grew up with a passion for drawing. A keen observer of his surroundings, the self-taught Caldecott was often seen sketching animals, people, buildings and landscapes. At the age of 15, his sketch of a disastrous fire at the Queen Railway in Chester appeared in the Illustrated London News together with his account of the blaze.
Despite his son’s obvious gift, Caldecott’s businessman father dissuaded his young son from pursuing his passion, urging him to go into banking. During his seven years as a bank clerk, Caldecott took nighttime art classes at the Manchester School of Art. After his bank job took him to London, Caldecott enrolled in the Slade School.
As his drawings began to be accepted by various publications and he felt he could support himself through his art, Caldecott grew confident enough to quit his banking job at the age of 26. He became a prolific illustrator of novels and accounts of foreign travel. He was tapped to illustrate books of Washington Irving’s and other authors. His sense of humor was evident in cartoons, sketches of politicians and other famous people, and drawings of the fashionable hunting society that appeared in such notable magazines as Punch and London Society. His sculptures and paintings were exhibited in the Royal Academy and galleries. Among well-known admirers of his work were Gaugin and Van Gogh.
In 1877, Caldecott was asked to illustrate two children’s books for Christmas. They were so successful, the partnership continued with two books issued every Christmas until Caldecott’s death. Increasingly, Caldecott illustrations began to populate more children’s books, written by himself or others. By 1884, sales of Caldecott’s Nursery Rhymes had reached 876,000 copies (of twelve books) and he was internationally famous. He became one of the three most influential children’s illustrators in the nineteenth century, along with Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane.
A childhood illness took its toll on Randolph Caldecott. After a difficult voyage to the United States in February 1886, he became sick and died in Florida at the age of 40. He and his wife are buried in St. Augustine.
Fifty-one years after his death, the American Library Association honored Randolph Caldecott for his contributions by naming a prestigious award for “the most distinguished picture book for children” published in the United States, beginning with 1937 publications, and giving that award to the book’s illustrator, for the first time in 1938. All Caldecott Medal winners are listed at the ALA website.