Elsie Wright & Frances Griffiths, by t’beck.
The photographs of fairies taken one hundred years ago by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths at Cottingley, West Yorkshire have a significant place in fairy-lore. They represented a severe dent in the reputation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but possibly made the careers of his collaborators Geoffrey Hodson and Edward Gardner. Since the pictures were exposed as fakes, the story of credulous grown men being outwitted by photos taken by teenagers armed only with some card, hat pins and a box brownie camera has been readily deployed to suggest the wider gullibility and foolishness of those adults who choose to believe in fairies.
Some also contend that belief in fairies was killed outright by the incident- and that this happened as far back as the early 1920s when the pictures first appeared. The much more recent exposure of images as false therefore came as little surprise to anyone. In a 1994 article in History workshop journal Alex Owen described the Cottingley case as “one of the last manifestations of a glorious Victorian and Edwardian fairy tradition.” Rosa Lyster, writing on Quartz.com, remarked that “Eventually, people stopped caring about the fairies. Interest in the supernatural was on the wane, and Doyle was looking increasingly unhinged. The girls produced no more photographs, and the public moved on.”
All of this comment is of a piece with the oft-argued contention that fairies never existed in the first place and that fairy belief, in the modern age, is dead and buried. Except, of course, that it’s not- and any search of the internet or of books for sale on Amazon will amply prove this (witness the present blog and my own book British fairies).
Elsie in 1915
We know now that Elsie and Frances copied their pictures from Princess Mary’s Gift Book and cut them out on Windsor and Newton board. We know it was all a hoax- but still people are producing their versions and imitations of the Cottingley pictures. These may just be an homage to a famous photographic forgery, but they are also defiant celebrations of continued belief in the face of what some might regard as fatally damning evidence. The fact that Cottingley wasn’t real doesn’t matter at all; it portrayed something which lots of people remain convinced is real. Richard Sugg has recently put it this way:
“With the 1983 confessions of both women, many might have assumed that the fairy tale was over… But the cousins somehow created a new kind of fairy folklore… Some stories are tough. They manage continually to recreate and re-energise themselves; and the Cottingley affair did just that.” (Magical folk, 2017, p.62)
Richard might equally well have observed that the fairies too are tough and can continually regenerate and survive. The modern manifestations of the Cottingley images are proof of that.
Frances and the fairies, 1917
The paradox of the Cottingley pictures is that, although they look dodgy and now are known to be so, this does not seem to discourage anyone. They retain their own unique mystique because they remain a powerful symbol of something evanescent that numerous people long to experience. Frances and Elsie were impelled by a wish to recreate their dreams and no-one thinks the less of them for that. In fact, lots of people today still want to imitate them.
It’s interesting to see how many people have been inspired to copy the Cottingley images and their stated reasons for doing so. Some certainly are commenting upon the Cottingley story itself, such as Manuel Carballal on his blog El ojo critico (The critical eye), who experimented with the techniques used to explore how the pictures were faked:
It’s notable, though, how unimportant this aspect of the story seems to many. There’s a fascinating narrative to be had concerning two country lasses’ ability to make fools of older and purportedly wiser establishment men like Doyle, but the majority of imitators are not inspired by that. Of course, deception was never the girls’ intention. They made the pictures for themselves and it was a chain of wholly unforeseeable events triggered by Elsie’s mum that gave the images their publicity and notoriety. What seems to attract people is not so much the international publicity, but the original innocent motivation- the yearning for contact with the supernatural.
Imitation and flattery
It’s fascinating to note how closely most of the modern image makers have stuck to the original pictures. They depict a single person encountering a fae in natural surroundings. As will be seen below, and on the separate Cottingley gallery page, Nonchalant Concern even used the same titles for the photographs as in the published versions of those by Frances and Elsie. At the same time, though, none of these pictures are direct imitations and- very definitely- none are presented to us as actual fairy snaps. Just as with the originals- before Gardner, Doyle and the rest got involved, that is- the pictures have been taken for the amusement of the makers and those with whom they choose to share them. They are knowingly faked- forgeries of forgeries, if you like- but somehow that only serves to demonstrate the lasting mystique of the originals.
illustration from Princess Mary’s Gift Book, c.1914
One thing that most of the pictures do have in common is the fairies themselves. Many of the creators seem to have taken the trouble to copy the feminine Edwardian period fairies utilised by Frances and Elsie (there are quite a few Cicely Mary Barker flower fairies in evidence). It’s probably a significant comment upon our fairy iconography (and on the power of the Cottingley story) that winged, female fays in frocks continue to be our accepted idea of a fae, even a century later. In one case, though, there is a slightly more contemporary feel: it seems possible that, in one of her photographs of her friend Elodie, Eleonore Bridge has used one of Alan Lee’s faeries from his joint book of that titled published with Brian Froud in 1978.
Furthermore, it may be worth remarking that almost without exception the models are female and that so too, predominantly, are the photographers. This may tell us something either about fairy belief or about amateur photography (or both, I won’t commit myself). The preference for white dresses is noticeable; this may have a good deal to do with improving the contrast in a black and white image, but there are of course echoes of the 1910s outfits worn by Frances and Elsie as well, too, as suggestions of girlish innocence and simplicity- part and parcel, perhaps, of a belief in fays? Bows and flowers in the hair add to the period and juvenile feel.
A fairy tale- and a true story
At Notley Green School, Essex, in January 2018 the Year Two pupils studied the Cottingley story. I was surprised to learn this has a place in the National Curriculum, but it turns out that the organisation Film Education has produced Years 1 and 2 study materials linked to the film Fairy tale- a true story. The kids then produced their own imitations-
The Film Education module is aimed at primary school kids and takes the film as a starting point for asking questions such as ‘where do fairies come from?’ and ‘what do people believe about them?’ The material addresses such issues as the risks of visiting fairyland and the differing theories on fairy origins. It discusses some fairy traditions and looks at the Cottingley events, as well as encouraging the children to make their own cut out fairies and fairy photos. I was impressed; anything that promotes interest in the subject has to be welcomed.
Thackley school in Bradford obviously undertook a similar project, but using Photoshop instead of paper cutouts.
‘Where dreams merge with reality’
A brief examination of Cottingley related images on the internet will of course reveal that far more adults are fascinated than children. Many are deliberately undertaking photography projects that honour and echo the original pictures. For example, Katherine Alcock says that she wanted to create not fantasy but realistic fairy images, if that’s not entirely contradictory!
Katherine converted the image to black and white and manipulated it digitally to make it appear more grainy and vintage. TekMagica on Flickr went even further to produce some strikingly ‘authentic’ looking images, which are helped by the girls’ clothes, which look appropriate to the fifties or sixties.
Eleonore Bridge is a fairy believer herself, as well as a keen photographer, and her motivation was to record “A magical moment where dreams merge with reality with hopes of creating a future where there is no contesting that fairies really do exist.”
Plenty of people, like the school children, just wanted to have fun with these pictures. Here’s a selection- with more featured in a separate Cottingley gallery.
Plastic Hippo on Pinsdaddy
Image by Bondart
Frances and the fairies by Nonchalant Concern (see the original above)
Fairy tracking by Hazel Curse
Cottingley fairie by Dark Shepherd
from a Cottingley series by Victoria Emma Thompson
Remember Cottingley by Japan Fanzz
The Cottingley fairies by Marschons
The meeting by Shutterbug Steff
The Cottingley fairies by Kelli, entry for DP Challenge
Promotional photo for ‘One day at a time’ by Kelli Ali
By Soot Sprite
Finally- the stuff of horror: a cat attacks some fays on a bed of four leaf clover. For this hilarious nightmare we must thank Susan Sanford at artsparktheatre.blogspot.com.
Do you believe in fairies?
What unites these Cottingley inspired images, I believe, is not just an underlying wish for the whole story to have been true but also a playful and celebratory spirit. We know we’re dealing with deliberate fakes, but people are enjoying their creativity and the chance to engage imaginatively with fairies. There are, of course, plenty of other photographs of fairies available online, but the status of most of these is never so clear. I’ll restrict myself to one example, which is quite well-known as it has been used as an illustration in Janet Bord’s book, Fairies- real encounters with little people. It’s another black and white image, in the tradition of Cottingley perhaps, but it much more deliberately presents itself as genuine: it shows a nude young woman in a wood meeting what appear to be two naked Action Men at the foot of a tree. The website strange history analyses the background to this picture and pretty comprehensively demolishes its credibility.
The Cottingley replicas illustrated here and in the gallery are immune to this sort of debunking. Thereby they demonstrate the demonstrate the resilience of myth and our need for fantasy and escape.