While a bank clerk at Whitchurch, Shropshire, and at Manchester, Caldecott began drawing for local magazines. Through his acquaintance with George Du Maurier he began contributing to the periodical London Society in 1871; the next year he settled in London and turned professional, ultimately drawing for Punch and Graphic, among other periodicals. He increased his skill by painting under Sir Edward Poynter and by sketching and modelling in the studio of J. Dalou.
In 1872 he went with his lifelong friend Henry Blackburn to Germany. His drawings for Blackburn’s book, The Harz Mountains, fix Caldecott’s style in the tradition of Richard Doyle—moderate in distortion and affably satirical. He also illustrated Washington Irving’s Sketch Book (1875) and Bracebridge Hall (1876). These more sophisticated drawings were close to those of Du Maurier and W.P. Frith, though with an original sense of caricature, and they established Caldecott’s reputation. His coloured picture books for children included W. Cowper’s John Gilpin (1878), Oliver Goldsmith’s Elegy on a Mad Dog (1879) and The Great Panjandrum Himself (1885). His works in other media include paintings, metal reliefs, and terra-cottas.
Early in 1878, a white-bearded gentleman came to see Caldecott in his rooms at 46 Great Russell Street to talk over a business proposition. Edmund Evans, a printer famous throughout England for his skill at producing illustrated books in color, was an admirer of Caldecott’s drawings for Old Christmas and Bracebridge Hall. As Caldecott well knew, he was also the enterprising man responsible for engaging his friend and professional rival, Walter Crane, as the illustrator of a long-running popular series of Sixpenny Toybooks, or children’s picture books.
Crane illustrated the first of his books for Evans in 1865. Thirteen years later, he had grown tired of doing them and, with no end of other projects to keep him occupied, told Evans he wished to retire from the field. Evans had come to Caldecott hoping to persuade him to take over for Crane.
While some printers did their work on the cheap, in the quickest, easiest possible way, Evans preferred to take his time and aim for a result that he and his illustrators would all be proud of. He favored subtle colors over the more garish, circus-y ones. He thought of the illustration, design, and printing of children’s books as an art. All this was very much to Caldecott’s liking, as was the chance to illustrate a different kind of book. The artistic reporter’s frantic life of rushing from one news event to the next had taken its toll, and the prospect of immersing himself in a long-term series held great appeal. Still, there were other questions to consider, including what Caldecott would be paid.
Walter Crane, who lacked a head for business, had accepted a modest one-time payment for each of the books he created for Evans. As a result, no matter how many copies of the books sold, Crane never received another penny for his labors on top of the initial fee. Caldecott was quite plain about his unwillingness to agree to the same terms, and proposed instead to place a kind of wager on the success of his toybooks. If not a single copy of the books sold, Caldecott told Evans that he would take absolutely nothing for his services. But for every copy that did sell, he would be entitled to a small portion of the one-shilling price. If the books proved to be a grand success, the royalties would add up, year after year, perhaps for the rest of his life.
The two men also talked about the look and design of the books Caldecott might do. Caldecott had studied Walter Crane’s picture books and had serious reservations about them. Crane’s illustrations, he thought, were too stiff and fussy, with every square inch of the picture frame packed with detail. Crane may have felt that he was giving more to his readers, and his illustrations did sometimes have a kind of treasure-chest appeal. More often, though, Caldecott found Crane’s illustrations lifeless.
Evans assured Caldecott that he did not expect him to do anything remotely similar, and that the quality he liked best about Caldecott’s drawings was their casualness and freedom, the impression they gave of having simply flowed from his pen onto the page. No other illustrator Evans worked with knew the secret of drawing in this way.
Crane and any number of others could produce a drawing of a horse that looked precisely like a horse. But Caldecott alone knew how to make the horse gallop. Even more remarkably, he worked this magic with just a very few well-placed lines.
He and Evans agreed that each picture book would have a small number of formal color paintings and, interspersed among them, a larger number of rapid-fire line sketches, the latter printed in brown ink for the warmer feeling it conveyed compared with the standard black. Combining two types of artwork in a single book would present fascinating opportunities to experiment with layout and design. The final result, whatever it proved to be, was sure to look unlike any children’s book that had come before it.
Still Caldecott hesitated, and it was not until he visited Evans at the printer’s country house some weeks later that he finally said yes.
Evans printed 10,000 copies each of The House That Jack Built and The Diverting History of John Gilpin. When both books sold out immediately, he put through an order for the second of several additional printings. As demand for the books continued to build, Caldecott closed out the year of 1878 by heading to the south of France for a much-needed rest. It was at his hotel in Cannes, hundreds of miles from home, that he had his first real taste of celebrity. During his stay, there appeared in the newspapers read by his fellow guests some wildly enthusiastic reviews of the new children’s books by an illustrator named Randolph Caldecott. On learning that he, too, was named Caldecott, they begged to know if he was “any relation to the gifted artist.