Margaret Thompson- tile artist (and other pottery pixies)

Do You Believe? - WMODA | Wiener Museum
Fairies at a Christening

Back in October, we were out of lockdown long enough for a short holiday, which took us up to the West Midlands. We stayed near Ironbridge and visited the Jackfield tile museum there. Of all the early industrial sites amongst the complex of museums in the Ironbridge Gorge area, Jackfield is my favourite simply because it’s the most attractive- especially the reconstructed pubs and shops which were entirely tiled in Victorian and Edwardian times.

A new exhibit was the mural by Margaret Thompson shown above. It was very common in the early decades of the twentieth century to decorate children’s wards in hospitals with large, colourful tile pictures- bright, cheerful and very easily kept clean. Often they were themed on nursery rhymes and fairy tales; this design derives more from the artist’s imagination alone- at the same time, it is fairly typical of faery designs of its time.

Margaret E. Thompson trained in applied design at Goldsmith’s Art Institute in the late 1890s and became an artist and designer working in the Art Nouveau style. Her background was that of an artist rather than a commercial designer, but she was quickly recruited by Doulton’s pottery at Lambeth, London.

Thompson’s specialisms were faience murals and vases with fairy tale motifs. Her initial output for Doulton comprised unique vases with designs exhibiting many similarities to those of Arthur Rackham and Mabel Lucy Attwell (see below). In due course she moved on to work on ceramic tiles for children’s wards in hospitals across the world, for example in the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UCL Hospital, Bloomsbury, London and St Thomas’s Hospital, London. Other examples of her faery themed work are illustrated below; a number of Thompson’s works are held in the Victoria and Albert museum collection- most date from the period 1900-1905.

Mabel Lucie Attwell

Mabel Lucie Attwell (1879-1964) is perhaps one of the best known and popular artists of the inter-war period. In part this was due to her very keen business sense; in part because she diversified across a range of products. She is best remembered for her book illustrations and other graphic materials, but she also produced a range of pottery items, which is why she’s featured here.

I discussed Attwell’s career in my recent book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century. She was born in the East End of London and attended several art schools before launching into her commercial career. She started out supplying work to magazines and, because this proved very popular, was soon contributing plates for children’s books such as The Water Babies and Peter Pan, as well as designing postcards.

Attwell was a rapid and prolific worker and quickly became a household name. She honed her ‘brand’ further still when she devised the toy-like characters called ‘Boo-Boos.’ These were round little pixies in green, with pointed caps, antennae and ears. The Boo-Boos first appeared in story books, but Attwell went on to produce a range of themed products- pottery figurines, wall hangings and plaques, night lights, jigsaws, bed linen, dolls , biscuit tins, money boxes and such like.

Attwell was much influenced at the start of her career by the work of her close friend, Hilda Cowham, another fairy artist. Between 1924 and 1935, both women were both employed by Shelley Potteries, Stoke on Trent, who were producers of Art Deco style fine china. They provided the company with images and designs for nursery ware. The standing of these two artists is attested by these commissions, because previously potteries had relied solely upon their own in-house artists for designs. 

The cute and cuddly babies, little girls and pixies that Attwell churned out are not to my taste, but they are a significant example of mid-twentieth century perceptions of Faery, alongside the flower fairies of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant and the sometimes more sinister designs of Arthur Rackham. Whether we like them or not, and whether we regard them as great art, it can’t be denied that they shaped contemporary attitudes to fairies and made a significant contribution to the process in which our perceptions of our Good Neighbours shifted away from a dangerous and independent presence to a far more saccharine and approachable image.

A cup from the Attwell range for Shelley

As I’ve argued before, fairy art has been very influential upon us in the way we visualise every aspect of fairyland. See too my posting on the Wedgwood designs of Daisy Makeig-Jones and the details of my 2020 book, Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century.

Children’s encounters with faeries- folklore & art

time
Postcard, by Agnes Richardson

It’s frequently said that children are especially able to see the fairies- perhaps because of their innate innocence, perhaps because they are endowed with a sort of second sight and so are open to wonder and magic and are not closed off mentally by rationality and ‘good sense,’ as adults can be.

Children’s Second Sight

The folklore evidence as to the existence of special powers in children is equivocal.  The sheer number of accounts that could be analysed mean that a statistical test of this is impractical, so I rely on my anecdotal impression of all the reports I’ve read to say that there’s no special bias towards infants: any one of any age and any sex is liable to see the Good Folk, it seems from the folk stories.  However, we can be a bit more scientific about the more recent reports.  Consolidating the cases of sightings from the Fairy Census  and from Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies,  it’s possible to say that around a third of witnesses were children.  Of these, about 80% were girls.

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Margaret Tarrant, Fairy Secrets

girl with fairies, rabbits, and cupid  vintage postcard by Agnes Richardson

What do the above statistics tell us?  Well, for developed countries, the proportion of children seems high.  In the UK, those under 18 make up about 21% of the population; in the USA it’s 24%, whilst 14% of the German population are 17 and under.  It seems, then, that children are indeed now slightly more likely to experience a fairy encounter; and girls are obviously significantly more likely.  Whether this is reflective of genuine differences, or of a sexist tendency for it to be acceptable for female children to express such ideas, and for boys not to do so, is much less clear.

fairy parachutes

Acquiring Second Sight

On the whole, though, age appears to be much less a factor in seeing fairies than other influences.  Doubtless a pre-existing predisposition to belief- even an expectation that a fairy might be seen- must help.  In earlier generations, other explanations for being able to see supernaturals were advanced.  For example, those born on a Sunday were said to be more prone to second sight (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, p.81); others said that it was those born early in the morning who acquired the gift (Spence, British Fairy Tradition, p.160).  Some people might be genetically more likely to have these experiences; others may acquire the second sight as a gift from the fairies.Browse all of the Margaret Tarrant Fairies photos, GIFs and videos. Find just what you're looking for on Photobucket

by Margaret Tarrant (1888 - 1950) Little girl playing the flute with fairies and pixies.

The fact seems to be that some people are lucky enough to have the second sight and the majority of others are not.  The ability does not discriminate by any physical factors.  For example, Martin Martin, touring the Hebridean islands in the eighteenth century, reported the local belief that not only children, but horses and cows as well, were all believed to be endowed with the ability to see the sith folk

The Brownie's Dream - M W Tarrant Print
Tarrant, Brownie’s dream

MARGARET TARRANT The Magic Pool Original Vintage Children's Print 1927 - 87 year old - Matted - Ready to Frame
Tarrant, Girls and fairies at magic pool

The differential nature of the gift is demonstrated very well in an account from Sutherland in the far north of Scotland.   In 1937 an old woman told a folklorist how, as a small girl, she had gone out with her mother one summer evening to tend the cows in the field.  The little girl was able to see small green people playing near the cattle, although her mother saw nothing.  Very possibly, however, if the mother had held her daughter’s hand, she would have seen the Good Folk- it’s very common for the sight to be easily transferred by contact in this manner.

Margaret Tarrant, On Primrose Hill
Tarrant, On Primrose Hill

Sightings by Children

Now, to turn to my illustrations, which are largely taken from postcards and books of the 1920s and 1930s.  What will be apparent instantly is that the authors and artists of this period were quite blase about the experience of contact with the faes.  Although, as I have explained several times in previous postings, people (especially children) are very vulnerable to abduction, you might know nothing of this danger from these pictures.  Instead, it’s all rather charming and lovely.  Kids- and in particular girls- are encouraged to hope for these encounters and to plunge into them without hesitation.

The Elfin Band - M W Tarrant Print
Tarrant, Elfin Band

Suggesting to anyone, especially guileless infants, that a free and easy approach to fairy contact is advisable seems- in light of all the folklore evidence- to be extremely unwise, even reckless.  Clearly, by the interwar period, the fairies had been reduced in the minds of many to harmless and probably unreal little beings- just perfect for amusing little girls.  Margaret Tarrant- presumably in a play upon the name of the junior girl guiding organisation, the Brownies, and the domestic fairies of British tradition, also called brownies– seems to actively promote contact as a harmless pastime for young Guides. The human Brownies were so-called (I assume) because they were encouraged and expected to undertake lots of little household chores for mother (just like their supernatural counterparts); the risk is, of course, that they’ll be kidnapped and made into slaves for the fairies.

The Brownie's Clock by Margaret Winifred Tarrant
Tarrant, Brownie’s clock

There’s seldom a hint in all these images that any wariness is required.  A few suggest a hesitation on the child’s part, or a sensible inclination to spy from a place of concealment, but most of the subjects make no attempt to protect themselves, or appear to experience any apprehension.  All I can say is- you have been warned….

Nearly There - M W Tarrant Print
Tarrant, Nearly there

Queen of the Brownies by Margaret Tarrant. Margaret Winifred Tarrant was an English illustrator specializing in depictions of fairy-like children and religious subjects. She began her career at the age of 20, and painted and published into the early 1950s. Wikipedia
Tarrant, Queen of the Brownies

Last thoughts

The fairy themed children’s books and postcards that were so abundant during the interwar period enriched our visual culture immensely- I’m thinking especially of the work of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant and their flower fairy illustrations but, as this post shows, many other artists were active during those decades as well.

However, these artists showed little awareness of or respect for British folk tradition and the fairies they promoted to the card buying public were almost exclusively sweet and harmless.  Nevertheless, others (such as Marjorie Johnson) maintained actual contact with Faery and, as some of the recent encounters in the Fairy Census demonstrate, the Good Folk are still temperamental and potentially perilous.

For further discussion, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century and also follow the links to earlier posts in the text and see too chapter 12 of my book Faery.

adorable Margaret Tarrant picture. I loved Margaret Tarrant books when I was young! Wish I'd kept them!
Tarrant, Angelina in the garden

Florence Choate

I wonder where Angelina is? - Counted cross stitch pattern in PDF format by Maxispatterns on Etsy
Hilda Cowham, I wonder where Angelina is?

Fairy Playdate Greeting Card
A ‘Fairy Playdate’ invitation card by Dorothy Wheeler

Fairy home. Dorothy Wheeler I had never seen this but she is just like my shining face in the tree
Fairy Home by Dorothy Wheeler

Vintage
‘The Fairy Queen’ from the ABC Book

Muriel Dawson

Beatrice Goldsmith (1895-1947), "Little Girl with Fairy"
Beatrice Goldsmith, Little Girl with Fairy

1940s Vintage Fairies by Helen Jacobs
A fairy abduction, by Helen Jacobs

"A Moonlight Party" F. Harrison (Artist), The Story Hour Book , Blackie and Son Circa 1922
Florence Harrison, A Moonlight Party

In the Fairy Ring, frontispiece by HARRISON, Florence Susan - Jonkers Rare Books
Florence Harrison, In the Fairy Ring

Florence Harrison / Elfin Song
Florence Harrison, Elfin Song

Susan Beatrice Pearse (British, 1878–1980), "A Girl Meets the Fairies"
Susan Beatrice Pearce, A girl meets the fairies