Cicely Mary Barker, The pine tree fairy, c.1940, Laing Art Gallery
I recently caught the end of an exhibition at the William Morris Gallery, near to where I live in East London. The theme of the show was ‘The enchanted garden’ but there was, unexpectedly, a strong fairy theme alongside the pictorial paean to English garden paradises.
Amongst the pictures displayed were several of the original flower fairy illustrations by Cicely Mary Barker, which were a delight to see. They were much larger than I might have anticipated. There was also ‘A fairy’ by Lucien Pisarro and the delightful ‘Jorinda and Joringel’ a painting illustrating a scene from one of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales by Mark Lancelot Symons, a painter who produced a number of fairy works and who deserves greater attention.
Lucien Pissaro, The fairy, 1894
The convention is for us to imagine fairies in the countryside- dancing in meadows and on high moors- and leaving fairy rings behind- or secreted in woodland glades. This is all perfectly correct: these are the secluded places where traditional fairy sightings have occurred and they have been reinforced in our imaginations by writers like William Shakespeare. In the last century and a half, though, writers have also moved the fairy folk into (urban) back gardens. They have become, perhaps, the outside equivalent of the domestic brownie.
Most famous for this must be Rose Amy Fyleman (1877-1957) whose first published work, There are fairies at the bottom of our garden, appeared in May 1917. She brought Faery right into the lives of her readers, imagining the fairy court assembling to dance behind the gardener’s shed and casting the imagined little girl reading the poem as the fairy queen herself.
Fyleman was not alone though in relocating fairies so much closer to home, nor was she the first to make the move. English poet Philip Bourke Marston (1850-1887) repeatedly swapped between the ideas of fairies and flowers in gardens in poems such as Flower fairies, Garden fairies and Before and after the flower birth. It’s never entirely clear whether they are real fairies or the spirits of flowers, for their silver laughter and singing are described, as are their “sudden scents.”
“Flower fairies- have you found them,
When the summer’s dusk is falling.
With the glow-worms watching round them,
Have you heard them softly calling?”
American poet Madison Julius Cawein (1865- 1914) also wrote extensively on fairy themes; in ‘Fairies’ he imagines Puck in a garden, travelling “Down the garden-ways … on a beetle’s back” whilst in Unmasked he too realises that the blooms outside his house are really fairies in disguise. Lastly, another US poet, Arthur Peterson, in a verse entitled Halloween 1916 assembled Puck and the “blithe fairies”, who are the spirits of the summer flowers, to dance together to mark the coming of autumn with its frosts.
“… we came unto a garden,
Bright within a gloomy forest…
And I saw, as we grew nearer,
That the flowers so blue and golden
Were but little men and women,
Who amongst the green did shine.
But ‘twas marvellous the resemblance
Their bright figures bore to blossoms…”