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Kenneth Grahame’s beautiful prose is widely acknowledged, what is less known is that it has been illustrated by more than 90 artists, making it the most widely illustrated book in the English language. It deserves recognition as a novel which has not just humour and entertainment but also wisdom and meaning. 

The Wind in the Willows, written by Kenneth Grahame, was first published in 1908. It is the one and only success of Kenneth Grahame, a hugely popular book with over 90 illustrators.

John told us that he was first introduced to The Wind in the Willows when he was six years old. Since then, he has re-read it many times. He suggested that the book is really aimed at adults, citing some of his favourite lines from one of the main characters, the Water Rat extolling the virtues of boating:  ‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,’ he went on dreamily: ‘messing-about-in-boats …’

The four main characters could perhaps be construed as the different parts of Grahame’s personality: Ratty who wrote poetry; Mole was inventive and loyal; Toad was naïve and Badger was solitary and serious. Indeed, after Arthur Ransome reviewed the book when it was first published, he questioned who the book was really aimed at.

The story is concerned with adult themes such as loyalty and friendship; generosity and humility; the human condition; fear of radical change in social and economic power; class and class struggle and of course food! Ratty prepares a picnic for the Sea Rat, consisting of a yard of French bread, garlic sausage, cheese and a bottle of sunshine (wine), while the Sea Rat describes his journeys around the world. These are not concepts that children would readily understand.

The many illustrations of Ratty’s house in the river bank are quite sophisticated, lavish and almost human-like. Mole End is more rural. At the beginning of the book, Mole is spring cleaning and white washing. Illustrations show pictures on the wall of The Infant Samuel and Queen Victoria. He seems rather ashamed at the humbleness of his abode. By contrast, Toad Hall is a grand place; ‘an eligible self-contained gentleman’s residence.’ It is said that the House may be based on Maple Durham, but more likely Hardwick House, where Grahame had been a guest to the then owner Charles Rose. Incidentally, Rose liked fast cars as did Toad. Toad Hall must have had servants, there is evidence of wealth everywhere. Ratty and Mole stumbled across Badger’s house by tripping over the doorscraper and deducing that there must be a front door. Badger’s house is rustic and rural. ‘The ruddy brick floor smiled up at the smoky ceiling; the oaken settles, shiny with long wear, exchanged cheerful glances with each other; plates on the dresser grinned at pots on the shelf, and the merry firelight flickered and played over everything without distinction.’

Grahame was born in 1859 in Edinburgh. Following a move to Inveraray, his mother died of scarlet fever and his father could no longer cope, so he was sent to Cookham Dene to live with his grandparents. He was to remain in the Thames Valley from then on. After school in Oxford, he was sent to the university, but his Grandfather refused to pay, so he became a clerk at the Bank of England, eventually rising to Secretary. He lived first in Blewbury and then Pangbourne and the inspiration for The Wind in the Willows is believed to have come from this area.

The book began as a series of bedtime stories for his son, Alastair, whose nickname was Mouse and then Grahame continued with letters whilst Mouse was away at school. When combining these later in preparation for the book, the original notebooks show many edits which Grahame may have made with a more adult audience in mind.

Mouse was born blind in one eye and with a squint in the other. His parents treated him as an adult and he became quite socially inept. Having spent unhappy terms at Rugby then Eton, he was educated by a tutor who then got him a place at Christ Church. Again, he didn’t settle and during the second term, he walked across Port Meadow in Oxford and his decapitated body was found near the railway. A devastated Grahame never wrote anything of significance again.

The Wind in the Willows has been illustrated by more than 90 artists. First published in 1908 with no illustrations apart from the cover, spine and frontispiece. In 1913, Paul Bransom, the first illustrator depicted the animals with no clothes. By 1922, Nancy Barnhart drew Badger, Ratty and Mole in smart country wear and Toad as an upper class gentleman, then in 1927 Wyndham Payne’s famous ink on paper and yellow colourwash appeared. The most remembered however was E. H. Shepherd who worked for Punch, where the assistant editor was A. A. Milne. A. A. Milne knew Grahame and suggested Shepherd as an illustrator for The Wind in the Willows. Shepherd knew he could improve on the existing illustrations and so started sketching in the Thames Valley meadows.

The many illustrators had much to consider: Were the book’s characters really animals or people? What about the relative size of a badger next to a mole? How did a toad drive a car or the caravan? Toad changes as the story progresses, he is small in jail but much bigger as a washer woman.

John Ericson finished with a vast array of illustrations as he told the story, beginning in Ratty’s rowing boat and the fat, wicker luncheon-basket – ‘There’s cold chicken inside it, cold tongue cold ham cold beef pickled gherkins salad French rolls cress sandwiches potted meat ginger beer, lemonade sodawater –‘

Report by Valerie Nourse

John was formerly a lecturer at the University of Bath where he was Director of Studies in the School of Education with responsibility for the professional development of teachers. He has worked extensively overseas as an educational consultant and this has given him the opportunity to give lectures and presentations at conferences all over the world. His eclectic portfolio of talks include Pub Signs, Children’s Book Illustrations and the Shakers of North America.