Walter Crane, illustrator, painter and designer, was born on 15 August 1845 at 12 Maryland Street, Liverpool. He was the third of five children of Thomas Crane (1808-1859), also a painter, and his wife Marie Kearsley (d. after 1861). In October 1845, due to Thomas Crane's failing health, the family moved to Torquay in Devon, where Walter spent a happy childhood. He was educated mainly at home, as school brought on nervous attacks, and, tutored in his father's studio, he showed his artistic talents early on. In his autobiography, An Artist's Reminiscences (London: Methuen & Co., 1907), he described himself as 'always happiest drawing direct from nature or doing something "out of my head".'
Thomas Crane's health improved in Torquay and in May 1857 he moved the family to London, where he hoped to improve his professional prospects. Thomas Crane continued to encourage his son in the arts, taking him to museums and galleries and planning a career for him. At the age of thirteen, Walter was apprenticed to the wood engraver W.J. Linton for three years, to learn the art of drawing on wood, a necessity for a career in book illustration. During these years Crane met many influential figures in the book trade and was influenced by the progressive political views of Linton and others, such as J.R. Wise, whose book The New Forest he was later to illustrate.
In July 1859 Thomas Crane died suddenly and, with the end of his apprenticeship, Walter had to seek work in order to help to support his family. By the early 1860s Crane was working as a freelance illustrator. In 1862 Crane exhibited his first painting, The Lady of Shallot, at the Royal Academy. During these years, as his early journals show, Crane was prodigious in his artistic output; he worked on many different commissions, which he was often required to complete within a matter of hours. Amongst others, he produced many illustrations and cover designs for the printer Edmund Evans, particularly for his popular yellow-back books. In 1865 he began designing the Toy Book series for George Routledge & Sons, for whom he produced several each year until 1876. Crane's fantastic imagination and Evans's skills as a printer made these books incredibly popular. Crane was, however, not limited to book illustration: he diversified into the decorative arts, in 1867 decorating and designing ceramics for Wedgwood.
The 1870s brought family life to Crane and saw his social and professional circles widen. In 1871 Crane met William Morris, with whom he formed a close friendship and whose socialist cause he came to share. On 6 September he married Mary Frances Andrews (c.1846-1914), the daughter of a country gentleman from Essex. The couple spent an extended honeymoon touring Germany, Switzerland and Italy, before settling in Rome where their first child, Beatrice, was born in February 1873. During these years the Cranes absorbed themselves into the social and artistic life of Rome. Crane continued to work on his book illustrations, making studies of the landscape and painting portraits of his wife. This happy period in their lives was recorded in great detail by Mary in her honeymoon journal.
In May 1873 the Crane family returned to London, living first at Wood Lane and later Beaumont Lodge, Shepherd's Bush. Crane's work continued to diversify; he designed his first set of nursery tiles for Maw & Co. in 1874 and, in 1875, produced his first wallpaper designs for Jeffrey & Co. He also began to illustrate works of adult literature during these years. In 1876 the Cranes' second child, Lionel, was born. In the following year Crane exhibited his painting The Renaissance of Venus at the first Grosvenor Gallery exhibition. For Crane, his paintings were always a labour of love, which he valued above all his other work, although they never achieved any real public acclaim. During these years the couple entertained frequently and moved in the very fashionable circles of Holland Park. In 1880 their third child, Lancelot, was born. In 1882 Crane was badly affected by the death of his sister Lucy (b. 1842), author, with whom he had collaborated on books such as The Baby's Opera (London: Routledge & Sons, 1877) and The Baby's Bouquet (London: Routledge & Sons, 1878).
In 1884 Crane joined the Social Democratic Federation and, in 1885, the Fabian Society. Moving in these circles brought Crane into contact with such figures as George Bernard Shaw and Emmeline Pankhurst. He was also a friend of the painter and sculptor George Frederick Watts (1817-1904), who shared his political views. Crane's art began to take on the socialist cause; he produced posters, trade union banners and cartoons, and used socialist themes as the subject of this paintings. During these years Crane became a proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement. He was a founding member of the Art Workers Guild in 1884 and, in 1888, of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, of which he was president until 1893, and again from 1896 until 1912, following the death of William Morris.
The 1890s brought greater national and international recognition for Crane. In 1891 he published his Renascence: A Book of Verse (London: Elkin Matthews) and held his first retrospective exhibition at the Fine Art Society. In October the family travelled to America accompanying the touring exhibition of his work, returning in 1892 to live at 13 Holland Street, Kensington. During this year he published his Claims of Decorative Art (London: Lawrence and Bullen). In 1893 he was appointed Director of Design at Manchester School of Art and, in 1898, Principal of the Royal College of Art. In 1900 the Cranes accompanied a new and larger touring exhibition to the Applied Arts Museum in Budapest, where he and his wife were much fêted. In 1902, for his part in the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in Turin, Crane was decorated by Victor Emmanuel III, after which he called himself Commendatore Crane. In 1903 he became a full member of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours. During these later years Crane published several books on the technical aspects of art and design, including Bases of Design (London: Bell & Co., 1898), Line and Form (London: George Bell & Sons, 1900) and Ideals in Art (London: George Bell & Sons, 1905).
By the beginning of the twentieth century Crane was a respected establishment figure, but his art was rooted in the previous century and increasingly divorced from the avant garde movements that were sweeping Europe. His chairmanship of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society coincided with the calamitous decline of the entire Arts and Crafts movement, and was criticised after his death as backward-looking and ineffectual. On 18 December 1914 Mary Frances Crane was found dead on the railway line near Kingsnorth in Kent, apparently having committed suicide. Crane survived her by only a few months: he died at Horsham Cottage Hospital in Sussex, on 14 March 1915.