Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century

F Art

I am pleased to announce the publication in paperback, and as an e-book, of my latest book, Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century.  

As I describe in the book, a great deal has been written about the Victorian fairy painters like Richard Dadd, Sir Noel Paton and Dickie Doyle, but there has been much less focus on their successors in the next century.  This may partly be because most of the art of the twentieth century was not ‘fine art’ (oil paintings hung in galleries) but was illustration instead- and that for children’s books.  The major artists of the genre, Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant (of flower fairy fame), Ida Rentoul Outhwaite and Mabel Lucie Attwell, have been the subjects of biographies and monographs on their work, but most of the other artists and their work is more neglected.  That many were women, who were dealing with ‘female’ subjects (i.e. drawing fairies for children) may have contributed considerably to this lack of attention.

In this book I try to begin to redress the balance by providing short biographies of all the artists I have been able to identify, along with descriptions of their work.  In addition, I put the fairy art of last century in the context of what preceded it and identify the main themes and styles used in fairy imagery.

Twentieth century fairy art was shaped by the Victorian pictures and, in turn, the way that all of us imagine fairies has been moulded by the vision of those twentieth century artists.  So many elements of fairy iconography that we tend to take for granted- flower fairies; round pixies dressed in green; female faes and male goblins and gnomes; pointy hats and shoes; tiny size and childish looks- all come from the twentieth century illustrators.  They created a fairyland that was, by and large, very safe and welcoming for children.  Not all of these artists were very talented, but even in their reduction of Faery to the lowest common denominators, they have something significant to tell us about the way that our parents, grandparents and great grandparents understood the fairy world.

Freda-Rose02
A card designed by Freda Mabel Rose, c.1930s

Fairy art evolved over the century, of course.  For at least decade it continued Victorian styles and themes before, after the First World War, new formats for children’s books and new media (most notably postcards) provided new markets and new design possibilities for artists.  This reorientation of the genre to purely juvenile audiences- and the need for images that were instantly attractive and commercially viable- had a major impact on fairy art.  Much of it lost the edge of threat- and sexuality- that characterised earlier representations. Critic Susan Casteras has remarked how painters like Tarrant, Barker and Attwell tried to ‘revive’ Victorian fairy painting, but did so only by portraying fairies who were winged, child-like and sometimes chubby- fairies who were adult neither in their form nor their behaviour.  (Casteras in M. Brown, Picturing Children, 2017, 139).

That fairy illustrations created for children’s books need not necessarily be devoid of darker themes is demonstrated by the work of Arthur Rackham, but after his death in 1939 the anodyne and the harmless took hold for several decades.

margetson snow drop
Hester Margetson, Fairy Snow-drop

It was only with the appearance of Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee that a more authentic atmosphere was restored to depictions of Faery.  This has continued since- alongside less challenging images.

These expressions of personal taste aside, the fact remains that twentieth century fairy art is rich and multitudinous. Because the artists created their works for reproduction on mass produced media such as postcards and greetings cards, there are far more images to absorb than was the case in Victorian times.  There’s a wealth of art out there, waiting to be discovered and appreciated.

Fairy Rings- in folklore and popular art

margetson
Hester Margetson, Welcome to Fairyland

In this post I return once again to the subject of fairy rings.  I add a little more factual and folklore information to what I’ve written before and then turn to consider how popular twentieth century art has chosen to represent rings.

Margaret Tarrant aka M W Tarrant aka Margaret Winifred Tarrant (English, 1888-1959, b. Battersea, London, England) - Four Fairies  Drawings
Margaret Tarrant

Fungi & Fairies

The origins of fairy rings were extensively debated in the late eighteenth century.  The Gentleman’s Magazine, for a decade from 1788, carried an exchange of correspondence in which readers described and theorised about these curious features in their landscape.  Charles Broughton, writing in 1788, remarked upon the semi-circular marks that appeared consistently in his pasture land.  They had a base of about four yards, he reported, and were half a yard thick (across their width).  Another writer (‘JM’) in 1790 described the circles that appeared in the meadow-land near his home.  They were 6-8 inches broad with a diameter of six to twelve feet and were covered in champignon mushrooms.  He noted that the land hadn’t been ploughed for 19 years and that the cattle were turned in annually to eat the aftermath (the stubble left after cutting the hay). Another letter from 1792 remarked upon the many large fairy rings to be seen in the meadows between Islington and Canonbury, north of London.  The present day inhabitant of the capital will smile wryly over this, as the area is now overlain by Georgian squares and terraces, built not too long after the letter was written.

Both the writers just named ascribed the rings to mushrooms, but subsequent correspondents blamed the effect of horse dung, moles, lightning and, even, the Ancient Britons, who had dug defensive trenches on the sites.  What we can tell, certainly, is that these very noticeable features in the landscape excited public interest and speculation because they were so common and so distinctive.

Attwelll Changeling
Mabel Lucie Attwell, Fairy Changeling

Folklore

The learned gentlemen musing on the formation of the rings all dismissed the fairies as a cause, naturally.  Nonetheless, for generations it had been well-known that the Good Folk were in fact the makers of the marks.  In Devon it was said to be the hoof-marks of ponies that the fairies rode round and round in circles at night that made the circles;  generally though, across Britain, it was the action of dancing feet that was blamed.  For instance, Evans-Wentz (Fairy Faith p.181) was told about a spot near St Just in the far west of Cornwall, called Sea-View Green, where the piskies could regularly be seen dancing on moonlit nights, looking like little children dressed in red cloaks.  Another witness told Evans Wentz that the piskies preferred to ‘play’ in marshy locations and that these round places were locally called ‘pisky beds’ (p.184).

The rings were dangerous places, that was for sure.  Dew should not be gathered from them (as was sometimes done to improve the complexion) and the faes would counteract any magical quality it possessed anyway.  Anyone who stepped accidentally into a ring could be abducted by the fairies.  Great fear about this danger was instilled by parents into children, who retained the dread into their own adult years (see, for example, Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, p.103 for just such a warning from an old Glamorganshire man and also Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, p.91).  The rings might be a place to which a person was ‘pixy-led’ and then trapped, as was recounted in the story of Einion ac Olwen (Evans Wentz p.161).  The same story notes the distinctiveness of ring too: “a hollow place surrounded by rushes where he saw a number of round rings.”

Margaret Tarrant-Midsummer Night
Margaret Tarrant, Midsummer Eve

Twentieth Century Popular Art

The consensus was that, for many reasons, fairy rings were perilous places.  The best thing was to avoid and respect them.  However, a child would never have learned that serious lesson from the pictures aimed at them in the early twentieth century.  The illustrators of children’s books, as well as printed ephemera such as postcards and greetings cards, all used toadstools as a convenient signifier of the presence of magical beings in their scenes and treated fairy rings- and their occupants- as benign and friendly beings, who only wished to play and dance with children.  Many of the most significant faery artists of the period, such as Margaret Tarrant, Hester Margetson and Ida Rentoul Outhwaite,  propagated this simpler and happier version of Faery.  The Good Folk themselves were reduced to girly winged fairies in dresses and cheeky pixies/ elves in pointed hats and almost all the complexity, peril and moral ambiguity of traditional faery lore was effaced.  Their pictures (and the whole race of flower fairies) remain attractive art even today, but as a guide to folk belief they are misleading.

Do You Believe in Fairies by Margaret Tarrant (1888- 1959)
Margaret Tarrant, Do you believe in fairies?

Further Reading

See my recently released book, Faeryfor more discussion of fairy rings and other fairy places.  For more on the art of Faery, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century

Fairies Margaret Tarrant - Elfen & Boeken

Illustration by Margaret Tarrant  From "In Wheelabout and Cockalon"

Vintage Children's Print - Margaret Tarrant - Alice and her Fairy Dream - Fairy…
Tarrant, Alice’s Fairy Dream
Hester Margetson
Vintage Hester Margetson book illustration, via Etsy
Hester Margetson

 

Vintage Postcards 706
‘Animated mushrooms’ by Hilda Miller
Chocolate Rabbit Graphics:  Fairyland postcard Beryl Haig 1920.  Free to download for personal use. #free #children #fairy #fairies #fairyland #postcard #vintage #image #graphics #illustration #moon
Beryl Craig (one of a series of very similar images)
Illustration - 'Uninvited Guest' by Florence Mary Anderson c1930 Lots more vintage goodies at vintagebookillustrations.com
Florence Mary Anderson, Uninvited Guest
Grace Jones - "The Fairy Dance" (с.1920) by sofi01, via Flickr
Grace Jones, Fairy Dance, c.1920
画像
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
Rosa Petherick  Goblins
Rosa Petherick, Goblins

*~❤•❦•:*´Molly Brett`*:•❦•❤~*

And lastly, a cigarette card from W D and H O Wills’ Cigarettes:

-fairy-ring-card

What causes Fairy Rings, from an antique cigarette trading card.

 

For more on faery rings and the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

“With white wands swinging”- fairy queens and magic wands

hester margetson

Magic wands

Wands have been symbols of power for millennia.  They denote civic office and, since at least the 1300s, they have symbolised and conveyed magic power.  In the grimoire The Oathbound book of Honorius, hazel and laurel staffs are used for magical operations such as summoning demons.  They are four sided with names and figures written upon them.  In the fourteenth century Italian text, The Key of Solomon, demons are conjured and lost items are found with procedures which involve the use of wands and staffs.  The former are made from hazel or other nut wood, the staffs from elder, cane or rosewood.  They must be of one year’s growth only and must be cut with a single stroke on a propitious day at sunrise.  They should be inscribed with figures on a similarly suitable day and at an auspicious time.  The text recommends that wands should be long enough for a person to draw a circle around themselves.

In the ballad of the same name, the witch Allison Gross makes her magic with a conjurer’s staff:

“Then out she has taken a silver wand
She’s turned her three times round and round
She muttered such words till my strength it did fail
And she’s turned me into an ugly worm.”

In the ballad The Laily Worm and the Mackerel of the Sea, a silver wand is used to reverse the spell and to turn the worm back into a gentle knight.

Both William Lilly and Elias Ashmole, whose rituals for conjuring fairies have been preserved for us, make ample reference to the use of wands in their ceremonies.  Reginald Scot records similar practices in Discourse on witches.

iro- fair flys through night sky

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, A fairy flies through the night sky.

Fairy wands

Given these magical associations, it was inevitable that those fairies being summoned should acquire their own wands too and this image has certainly become embedded in our iconography and therefore, so it would seem, in our visions of them.

Wands are not mentioned very much in traditional British folklore, but Evans Wentz mentions a Breton tale in which a white fairy wand is used to enter Faery: it is struck twice against a rock in a cross shape in order to open the portal to fairyland. Wentz also suggests that the faes’ wands may be derived from those believed to have been used by druids.  (Fairy faith pp.202 & 343-4; Luzel, Contes popularies, vol.1, p.3 ‘La fille qui se maria un mort’)

The fairy wand makes a central appearance in the traditional story ‘Kate Crackernuts’ which is from Orkney.  Princess Kate was victim of a jealous stepmother, who used magic to cover her good looks with a sheep’s head.  Her stepsister, also called Kate, was angry at what her mother had done; together the two escape from their palace and go to live in another kingdom.   There stepsister Kate discovers that the prince of the realm lies sick in his bed because he goes to dance under the hill with the fairies every night and, even more importantly, that a fairy child in the knoll possesses a wand which will cure her sister.  By rolling hazelnuts, she is able to distract the little boy and seize the wand, enabling her to free her sister of the sheep’s head.  Faithful Kate then cures the elf-addled prince and everyone (of course) then marries and lives happily ever after.

However, Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies provides us with a dozen modern examples of faes wielding wands.  The wand is often the attribute of an individual fairy identified as a fairy queen by witnesses, a distinguished person who will often wear a crown or coronet as well- though in one sighting in a Nottingham dentist’s surgery, a group of ballet dancing fairies each waved a wand.  It should be remarked that the crowns and tiaras seen on the brows of these faery queens may be another human interpolation: as with wands, there’s no necessary reason why the fays should imitate our indicators of rank- nor that these regalia should signify the same things to them, even if they do.

The wands seen by Johnson’s witnesses are noted as being made of silver, gold or crystal; a couple emit light; a quarter of them have stars on the end.  In one case, the wand produces magic- a twist of it by the fairy queen fills a room with other dancing fairies.

The wand seems to have become inseparable from the fairy in the minds of many.  Literature, art and supernatural experiences all reinforce each other.  We perhaps expect to see a wand, meaning that- whatever the fae may actually be holding- there’s a tendency for it to be labelled as a wand regardless.

Here’s Fairy led by English poet Mary Webb (1881-1927) as a closing example of what has shaped our perceptions so powerfully:

“The fairy people flouted me,
Mocked me, shouted me–
They chased me down the dreamy hill and beat me with a wand.
Within the wood they found me, put spells on me and bound me
And left me at the edge of day in John the miller’s pond.

Beneath the eerie starlight
Their hair shone curd-white;
Their bodies were all twisted like a lichened apple-tree;
Feather-light and swift they moved,
And never one the other loved,
For all were full of ancient dreams and dark designs on me.

With noise of leafy singing
And white wands swinging,
They marched away amid the grass that swayed to let them through.
Between the yellow tansies
Their eyes, like purple pansies,
Peered back on me before they passed all trackless in the dew.”

52857-lilac

There’s more on faery magic and its deployment (and a great deal less about pretty girls in lip gloss and eye shadow wielding wands) in my Darker Side of Faery (2021):

darker side