THE FAIRY QUEEN
Delve into the fantastical world of flowers fairies as illustrated by Cicely Mary Barker 100 years ago.
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.
A FRAGILE CHILD
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.
BEFORE THE FLOWER FAIRIES
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.
SWEET AND INNOCENT
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.