Fairies can threaten humans, leading them astray or stealing children, but they can also serve as muses, inspiring great works of art and literature. This post looks at one quite unique product of that inspiration.
Writing on British fairy literature during the 1920s and ‘30s in the journal Mythlore for 2013, author Douglas Anderson teased his audience:
“I’d like to turn to the author I find most interesting from this period. He grew up in the Birmingham area of England and was indelibly inspired after seeing Peter Pan performed on stage. He was devoted to William Morris and George MacDonald. He went on to write about fairies, in poems and in stories, illustrating his own writings with his own artwork. He was particularly renowned for his maps…”
I imagine we all think we know who Anderson is referring to, but he has a surprise for us:
“Though the above could all be said of J.R.R. Tolkien, I’m actually talking about someone else, named Bernard Sleigh.”
Sleigh (1872–1954) was an English muralist, stained-glass designer, illustrator and wood engraver; in late 1917 he created a remarkable fantasy map that constitutes his best-known legacy today. An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland, Newly Discovered and Set Forth is large, colourful and ambitious, being crammed with a multitude of characters from legend and fairytale.
In this post I want to explore the making and meaning of that chart. I pored over the maps of Middle Earth as a boy and such plans have now become a staple of fantasy writing, but Tolkien did not initiate this fashion, nor are his maps as loaded with meaning as some.
‘Here they do magic’
Gaskin, Kilhwych, the king’s son (illustration to the Mabinogion)
Born in 1872, the first difference between Sleigh and Tolkien is that the former was twenty years older, which meant that he did not serve during the First World War. Their education was also utterly different. Aged fourteen, Sleigh left school and was apprenticed to a wood engraver. As part of this training, he studied at the Birmingham School of Art, where he was a student of Arthur Gaskin, a painter, illustrator and craftsman, who had in turn worked with Edward Burne-Jones. Whilst attending art school Sleigh came under the influence of the Birmingham Group, an informal collective of Arts and Crafts painters and craftsmen. All of these influences can be seen in Sleigh’s work, the medieval style of which echoes Burne-Jones, William Morris and Walter Crane.
Sleigh, Phylis and Demoophoon, illustration from George MacDonald’s Phantastes
Sleigh was especially skilled in wood engraving and soon found commissions illustrating books. One of his first major projects was engraving one hundred of Gaskin’s illustrations for a two-volume edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s Stories and Fairy Tales. Sleigh was also published in The Yellow Book, The Dome and The Studio and illustrated Piers Plowman, several novels by Morris, George Macdonald’s Phantastes, Legrand d’Aussy’s Fabliaux and an edition of the romance of Tristan and Iseult, all titles suited to his style and tastes.
Sleigh went on to have a highly distinguished and successful career, designing furnishings and internal decorations for a wide range of private clients. He also taught at Birmingham School of Art, published several design and craft manuals and was a member of several artistic societies.
In the context of Sleigh’s professional life, the map of fairyland looks like something of an aberration, but it was in fact an expression of much deeper personal interests that persisted throughout his life.
Sleigh, The harbour of the Holy Graal
“I believe in Faeries”
Sleigh is celebrated today not for his handicraft design but for the Ancient Mappe of Fairyland. This is not, in fact, unfitting. As a young man, Sleigh was greatly inspired by the mythical writings of MacDonald and Morris and the map clearly reflects their influence. Indeed, by the time he retired in 1937, Sleigh’s imagery had turned from romantic medievalism entirely to a world peopled by supernatural beings. His writing, too, changed from the practical to the mythological, for example Witchcraft (1934), The dryad’s child (1936) and two fantasies for children, The boy in the ivy (1955) and The tailor’s friends (1956).
The map’s immediate success encouraged Sleigh to produce further fairy works. In October 1920 he published The faery calendar, in which illustrations for each month of the year were paired with a piece of prose or verse. In his Preface Sleigh confessed that-
“I believe in Faeries. It is very natural and not a bit foolish; for in these days we are quickly learning how little we know of any other world than our own. It is no more difficult for me to believe that a wild rose, or a daisy, has personality, consciousness of life- a spirit, in short, than that a human being has.”
He was, of course, in very good company at this time, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle promoting the veracity of the Cottingley fairy photographs and espousing very similar Theosophist beliefs.
Sleigh’s next book, A faerie pageant, appeared in 1924; it was a limited-edition volume resembling the Calendar. Lastly, in 1926 Sleigh wrote a volume of stories about fairies, The Gates of Horn: Being Sundry Records from the Proceedings of the Society for the Investigation of Fairy Fact and Fallacy. Although intended for adults, his publishers J. M. Dent marketed it as a children’s book, resulting in its commercial failure. This makes copies extremely rare today, although the stories are highly regarded by those fortunate enough to have been able to read them. As a footnote to this, we should note that in 1927 Sleigh was instrumental in establishing a real Fairy Investigation Society, which still operates online today.
‘The other end of nowhere’- making the map
Sleigh’s daughter, the writer Barbara, recalled in her childhood memoir that:
“One wet holiday my father drew a Map of Faeryland for us. On it were marked the sites of all our best-loved fairy-stories. There is Peter Pan’s House, and the palace of La Belle Dormante and the Bridge of Roc’s Eggs, and such succinct entries as ‘Here be bogles’ and ‘Warlocks live here’. It has fascinated several generations of children.” (The smell of privet, 1971, pp.51-52.)
It is reported that Sleigh got the idea for the map after seeing a production of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. If this is correct, it is a further interesting parallel with Tolkien who recorded in his diary the profound effect that seeing the play had upon him. Nonetheless, fantasy maps have always been created, although the growth in fantasy literature in the twentieth century seems to have led to a marked rise in the number produced. Early examples include the playing board for ‘The Prince’s Quest: A Fairy Race Game’ from 1890 and A map of fairy land (Alan Wright, 1909). Sleigh’s map was therefore not unique, but its scope and scale were new and inspired others, such as Czech artist Jaro Hess’ 1930 map of The land of make believe, a map of ‘The land of nursery rhyme’ drawn by Charles Folkard as an endpaper to the 1946 book of that name by Alice Daglish and Ernest Rhys and, lastly, a 1973 map to accompany William Goldman’s Princess bride (not forgetting Tolkien and George R. R. Martin, of course).
The prince’s quest
The Ancient Mappe of Fairyland was first published in December 1917 as a full colour scroll with wood ends, rolling out to nearly a metre and a half in width and thirty-five centimetres in height. With it Sleigh produced a small sixteen-page pamphlet, A guide to the Map of Fairyland. In 1926, because the map had continued to be a good seller, the publishers Sidgwick and Jackson issued a second companion volume: Travels in fairyland is an anthology of the nursery rhymes, stories and poems mentioned on the map or listed at the end of the Guide.
Alan Wright, Map of fairyland
The map is hand-drawn and seems to be a combination of coloured pencil and watercolour wash. It is somewhat reminiscent of Tolkien’s illustrations of The Hobbit– but plainly rather more accomplished. Less highly finished than many of Sleigh’s full-colour illustrations, there is a childlike or playful quality to the draftsmanship which is part of its appeal.
After Sleigh retired from teaching in 1937, the map was turned into a Rosebank Fabric by the well-known Lancashire company. This, in turn, led to many other commissions for textile designs, thereby providing a source of income over and above his meagre teaching pension.
Hess, The land of make believe
This posting will be continued. Another description of the Mappe can be found on The fairy page blog. There are a few interesting articles on this blog (plus a great deal about Harry Potter) but it seems to have run out of steam in April 2017.
 Douglas A. Anderson, ‘Fairy elements in British literary writings in the decade following the Cottingley fairy photographs episode,’ Mythlore 32.1, Fall/Winter 2013.
 George Allen, 1893.