Delve into the fan­tas­ti­cal world of flow­ers fairies as il­lus­trated by Cicely Mary Barker 100 years ago.

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents -

Cicely Mary Barker painted her first Flower Fairies a cen­tury ago. Soon her char­ac­ters be­gan in­spir­ing gen­er­a­tions of read­ers with a love of the mag­i­cal and the botan­i­cal. Diane Purkiss ex­plores her suc­cess – and re­veals the dark and an­cient ru­ral le­gends that lay be­hind Barker’s vi­sion

In 1920 Sir Arthur Co­nan Doyle, cre­ator of Sher­lock Holmes, amazed Lon­don by pub­lish­ing an as­tound­ing se­ries of pho­to­graphs. The pic­tures, he claimed, showed real fairies in a York­shire gar­den. The so-called Cot­tin­g­ley fairies sharpened the public’s ap­petite for these elu­sive crea­tures of leg­end and set the stage for a young artist from south­east Lon­don.

Two years ear­lier, in 1918, Cicely Mary Barker had painted her first fairies for a set of post­cards. Now, in the wake of the Cot­tin­g­ley sen­sa­tion, she pro­duced her first book on the sub­ject: Flower Fairies of the Spring. Soon Barker was a house­hold name and her images have since be­come fa­mil­iar to gen­er­a­tions of chil­dren. Even to­day, when many of us think of fairies, we think of Cicely Mary Barker’s fairies.

The Cot­tin­g­ley fairies, it later turned out, had been cre­ated by two young girls who had traced the fairies from a book. Cicely, how­ever, did not wish to be as­so­ci­ated with false claims. She wrote in all her books: “I have never seen a fairy, the fairies and all about them are just pre­tend.” For Cicely, the fairies were sim­ply a way of ex­press­ing the beauty of the flow­ers that she loved best. Part of her goal was to ex­pand chil­dren’s knowl­edge of botany and as such the flow­ers in her il­lus­tra­tions were not only beau­ti­fully drawn but also botan­i­cally ac­cu­rate. She also sought to link fairies with a grow­ing public in­ter­est in Bri­tish wild­flow­ers. It is de­light­ful to think that chil­dren in Lon­don might have learnt to recog­nise fox­gloves and gorse be­cause of Cicely’s draw­ings.


Born in Croy­don, south­east Lon­don, on 28 June 1895, Cicely was the sec­ond daugh­ter of Mary and Wal­ter Barker, a part­ner in a seed sup­ply com­pany. Cicely was a frag­ile child, suf­fer­ing from epilepsy and grew up con­fined in a com­fort­able house with a nanny, a cook and a gov­erness. Like most girls of her so­cial class, Cicely learned to draw; her copies of Kate Green­away’s in­struc­tion books sur­vive to­day and show the ex­er­cises metic­u­lously com­pleted. In 1911 her fa­ther, who was also an ac­com­plished artist, showed Cicely’s draw­ings to the post­card printer Raphael Tuck. Tuck ac­cepted them and her ca­reer be­gan.

Her fa­ther’s death the fol­low­ing year, when she was just 17, left the fam­ily in a dif­fi­cult fi­nan­cial po­si­tion. Cicely’s older sis­ter Dorothy took over as head of the fam­ily, es­tab­lish­ing a

kinder­garten, and Cicely tried to earn money by de­sign­ing, il­lus­trat­ing and cre­at­ing post­cards with po­ems.

Cicely’s flow­ers and the fairies were both drawn from life – the child mod­els came from Dorothy’s kinder­garten. Barker’s ca­reer soon blos­somed, her poetry was pub­lished in sev­eral mag­a­zines and col­lected in Old Rhymes for All Times (1928) and her

Flower Fairy Al­pha­bet (1934) cre­ated a fairy­land of Christian val­ues. Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War she pub­lished Flower Fairies of the Trees (1940) and

Flower Fairies of the Gar­den (1944). Barker qui­etly thrived in her sub­ur­ban home. Croy­don might not now be a place we as­so­ci­ate with fairies, but for Cicely it was a fer­tile space. She never mar­ried, but lived with her sis­ter and her mother for most of her life.


Barker’s flower fairies were pre­sented as crea­tures of wild na­ture, but are more do­mes­ti­cated than the fairies of older le­gends; many of the flow­ers she de­picted be­long in gar­dens, not on open moors. And any coun­try dweller could have told Barker that her fairies are much too nice.

For cen­turies, peo­ple in the Bri­tish Isles be­lieved that they lived along­side a tricksy group of scary fairies who hun­gered for their bod­ies and ba­bies, and who had to be kept at bay.

Through their his­tory, fairies can be di­vided into three cat­e­gories: first, those with links to houses and fam­i­lies (the brownie and the hob or hobthrust, but also the bean sidhe, or ‘ban­shee’); se­condly, those with links to na­ture (Cor­nish pix­ies, Fen­land bogles); and thirdly, those with links to the rest­less dead (most older fairy tra­di­tions in west­ern Europe and the Bri­tish Isles). An­glo-Saxon burial mounds of­ten be­came the home of a lo­cal land­scape spirit, later un­der­stood as a fairy who lived in the mound.

Even the most be­nign kinds of fairy, the brown­ies, could turn nasty if given skimmed milk in­stead of cream. To live in a world of fairies was to tread care­fully, fol­low­ing the rules, since any in­frac­tion could be bru­tally pun­ished. Yet some fairies were also beau­ti­ful be­yond the lot of mor­tals, and pow­er­fully se­duc­tive. Many sto­ries tell of mor­tals lured by the fairy queen into her un­der­ground king­dom, only to find that she in­tends to use them to breed ba­bies or pay the fairy tithe to hell. Even Shake­speare’s Puck is mis­chievous and vi­o­lent, and Ti­ta­nia car­ries off a changeling boy af­ter the death of his mother. It’s no won­der that in folk­lore even small fairies were more likely to be feared than revered.


Un­like the fairies of folk­lore, Barker’s fairies, like her flow­ers, are all evanes­cent pret­ti­ness and in­no­cence. Per­haps it’s not sur­pris­ing that they were such a huge suc­cess. They re­flect the de­sire of a post­war world for the image of pure youth when the re­al­ity had been lost in the mud of Flan­ders.

Far more than the fright­en­ing and vi­o­lent fairies of Vic­to­rian and Ed­war­dian chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture, Barker’s fairies of­fered a sweet and asex­ual vi­sion shorn of dark­ness. There is no stop­ping the flower fairies. Even now, long af­ter her death, they to flit ever fur­ther through our lives.

ABOVE The sen­sa­tional story that real fairies had been caught on cam­era paved the way for the suc­cess of the Flower Fairies

ABOVE Ci­cley Mary Barker wove botany, fan­tasy and poetry to­gether to in­spire gen­er­a­tions of chil­dren and na­ture lovers

Diane Purkiss is a Pro­fes­sor of English Lit­er­a­ture at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford’s Kee­ble Col­lege. She has a keen in­ter­est in how folk­lore and clas­si­cal myth in­flu­ence chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture.

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