Walter Crane was born in Liverpool on 15th August, 1845. Walter's father, Thomas Crane, was a moderately successful artist. In 1851 the family moved to London with the hope that this would provide Crane with more clients. Unfortunately, just as business was improving, Thomas Crane died.
Soon after his father's death Walter Crane obtained an apprenticeship at William Linton's engraving shop. William Linton had been a member of the Chartist movement in the 1840s and his stories of the struggle for parliamentary reform, had an important influence on Crane's early political development.
Linton was impressed by the quality of Crane's work and helped to find him commissions. This included providing the illustrations for J. R. Wise's book on the New Forest. Crane went to live with Wise for six weeks while he was working on the pictures. J. R. Wise had radical political and religious opinions and introduced Crane to the work of John Stuart Mill, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Ruskin.
In 1865 Walter Crane saw Work, a painting by Ford Madox Brown, at an art gallery in Piccadilly. The picture, shows the historian, Thomas Carlyle, and the leader of the Christian Socialist movement, F. D. Maurice, observing a group of men working. The painting marked an important development in British art because for the first time an artist had decided that a working man was a subject worth painting. Although Brown's painting did not immediately influence Crane's work, it had a profound impact on his long-term career.
In the 1860s Crane began to take an active interest in politics. He was a supporter of the Liberal Party and some of their more radical politicians such as John Bright, Henry Fawcett and William Gladstone and campaigned for the 1867 Reform Act. Crane gradually developed socialistic views and spoke out in favour of the Communards who attempted to overthrow the French government in 1871.
Walter Crane's reputation as an artist continued to grow and was recognised as a talented book illustrator. In the 1870s Crane mainly worked on children's books but he also had paintings accepted by the Royal Academy and had several exhibitions in London Art Galleries.
Crane first met William Morris in 1870 but did not become close friends until 1881. The two men both deplored the effects of modern manufacturing and the commercial system of craftsmanship and design. Deeply influenced by Morris's pamphlet Art & Socialism, Crane became involved in both the Art Workers' Guild and the Arts and Crafts Society. Like Morris, Crane created designs for wallpapers, printed fabrics, tiles and ceramics.
Crane and Morris were both socialists and in January 1884 they joined the Social Democratic Federation. Crane contributed illustrations for the party journal Justice that was edited by Henry Hyde Champion. Crane, like Morris, found the SDF's leader, H. H. Hyndman, difficult to work with. Crane shared Hyndman's Marxist beliefs, but objected to Hyndman's nationalism and the dictatorial methods he used to run the party.
Despite their difficult relationship, H. H. Hyndman respected Crane as an artist: "Nobody, not even William Morris, did more to make Art a direct helpmate to the Socialist propaganda. Nobody has had a greater influence on the minds of doubters who feared that Socialism must be remote from and even destructive of the sense of beauty."
In December, 1884, Walter Crane joined the Socialist League that had been formed by William Morris, Belford Bax, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling. Crane now provided illustrations for party's journal, Commonweal, that was edited by Morris.
Although a Marxist, Crane hoped that socialism would be achieved through education rather than revolution. This is reflected in his decision to join the Fabian Society and his work with reformers such as George Bernard Shaw and Sydney Webb. In October 1885, Crane agreed to give a lecture for the Fabian Society on socialism entitled Art and Commercialism. He was not a good lecturer and afterwards Shaw remarked that Crane was only "bearable when he took up the chalk and showed what he meant on the blackboard".
On 13th November, 1887 Walter Crane was involved with William Morris, H. H. Hyndman, Annie Besant, and John Burns in what became known as Bloody Sunday, when three people were killed and 200 injured during a public meeting in Trafalgar Square. Crane later recalled: "I never saw anything more like real warfare in my life - only the attack was all on one side. The police, in spite of their numbers, apparently thought they could not cope with the crowd. They had certainly exasperated them, and could not disperse them, as after every charge - and some of these drove the people right against the shutters in the shops in the Strand - they returned again."
The following week, a friend, Alfred Linnell, was fatally injured during another protest demonstration and this event resulted in Morris writing, Death Song. Crane provided the cover drawing for this work. Crane, as a result of a suggestion made by his friend and fellow socialist, G. F. Watts, provided twelve designs that illustrated heroic deeds carried out by working-class people. This included Alice Ayres, who died while rescuing three children from a fire, and two Paisley railway workers who were killed during an attempt to help others in trouble. This work was first shown at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition in 1890.
In 1892 Walter Crane published his influential book, The Claims of Decorative Art, where he argued that art could not flourish in a world where wealth was so unfairly distributed. Crane claimed that only under "Socialism could Use and Beauty be united".
By the late 1880s Crane was considered Britain's leading socialist artist and was asked to illustrate books such as Chants of Labour by Edward Carpenter and The New Party by Andrew Reid. Crane also provided the art work for The Triumph of Labour, a poster that commemorated May Day in 1891. A collection of Crane's political cartoons, Cartoons for the Cause, were published as a souvenir of the International and Trade Union Congress that met in London in 1896.
Crane's work during this period was to have a lasting impression on the art of the labour movement in Britain. Between the 1880s and the First World War, the socialist iconography developed by Crane can be seen on posters, pamphlets, membership cards and trade union banners. Crane's work was also widely circulated in Europe, and in Italy and Germany his reputation as an artist was greater than it was in England.
In 1898 Crane was appointed head of the Royal College of Art. Although he resigned after a year so that he could devote more time to his own work, his collected lectures were published in two books, The Bases of Design (1898) and Line and Form (1900).
Crane, like many socialists, believed that wars were often begun by capitalists for reasons of commerce than for idealism. In 1900 Crane joined with Ramsay MacDonald and Emmeline Pankhurst in resigning from the Fabian Society over its decision not to condemn the Boer War. Crane was a strong critic of the British Empire and after spending time with Annie Besant in India, wrote India Impressions (1907) that included severe criticisms of the way that the country was being ruled by the British.
Crane continued to provide the illustrations and front covers for a wide variety of books and journals that advocated socialism. This included Free Russia (1905), The Women Worker (1907), The Reformer's Year Book (1908) and Concord (1911).
In December 1914 Crane's wife Mary was killed by a train. The couple had been married for forty-four years and Crane was devastated by her death. Walter Crane died three months later in Horsham Hospital, on 14th March, 1915.