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.
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.
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.
In a book published in 2017, American art historian Susan Casteras contributed a chapter on Victorian fairy painting. She perceptively remarked how nudity, which is very far from being an inherent element in folklore, became something that the Victorians chose to exaggerate in their visions of fairyland. Many paintings of the period, she rightly observed, were all about “flaunting nudity for its own sake rather than as a supposedly accurate transcription of faery lore.” (S. Casteras, ‘Winged Fantasies: Constructions of Childhood, Adolescence and Sexuality in Victorian Fairy Painting’ in Marilyn Brown, Picturing Children, 2017, c.8, 127-8)
Looking at John Simmons’ painting above, you cannot help but agree with the second part of Casteras’ comment- although Simmons was a particular offender, producing a number of ‘pin-up’ canvases. What about the folklore evidence, though? Victorian pictures- and more recently the work of Alan Lee, Brian Froud and Peter Blake– have habituated us to the idea of a Faery full of frolicking nudes, but how traditional is this?
The honest answer has to be that there’s very little sign of nudity in the older accounts of Faery. In my post on fairy abductions of children, I mentioned the story of a girl who temporarily went missing in Devon. A game keeper and his wife living at Chudleigh, on Dartmoor, had two children, and one morning the eldest girl went out to play while her mother dressed her baby sister. In due course, the parents realised that the older child had disappeared and several days of frantic and fruitless searching followed. Eventually, after hope had nearly been lost, the girl was found quite near to her home, completely undressed and without her clothes, but well and happy, not at all starved, and playing contentedly with her toes. The pixies were supposed to have stolen the child, but to have cared for her and returned her.
Now, this girl was a human infant and there may have been several reasons why the pixies might have taken off all her clothes. They may have objected to human things; they may have thought a ‘natural’ state was healthier and preferable. Whatever the exact explanation, it’s one of the few instances where there’s a suggestion that nudity might be the normal condition in Faery.
A calendar illustration by Mabel Rollins Harris
The other evidence is all qualified in one way or another. Mermaids don’t have clothes, but that’s for very obvious reasons. Men are forever falling in love at first sight with these creatures, but you may well suspect that coming across a uninhibited and naked female is a pretty strong draw in any case.
Some fairies don’t ‘need’ clothes at all because they’re naturally very hairy: the brownies, hobgoblins and the Manx fynoderee are all examples of these. Their shaggy pelts were covering enough. It’s almost always this kind of faery that is the subject of a story in which a reward of clothes for services rendered alienates the helpful being. Typically, a brownie or boggart with work faithfully on a farm, threshing grain, carrying hay and tending the livestock, all for very little reward except some bread and milk left out ta night. After a while, the curiosity of the farmer overcomes good sense and the creature’s labours are spied upon. It’s seen to be (at the very best), dressed in tattered rags and (at the worst) completely naked. Pity is taken and new clothes are made in recognition of its hardwork, but all that’s achieved is to offend the fae, who recites a short verse- and leaves forever.
Lastly, the only other definite example of bare fairy flesh is one I’ve discussed several times previously and one in which ulterior motives are very important. In the medieval romance of Sir Launval, the young knight is summoned into the presence of the fairy lady, Tryamour. She’s found in a pavilion in a forest, relaxing on a couch on a hot summer’s day.
“For hete her clothes down sche dede/ Almest to her gerdyl stede,/ Than lay sche uncovert; Sche was as whyt as lylye yn May, / Or snow that sneweth yn wynterys day, / He segh never non so pert.””
“because of the heat, she’d undone her dress nearly to her waist; she lay uncovered; she was as white as a lily in May, or snow falling on a winter’s day; he’d never seen anyone so pert.”
Tryamour’s plan is to seduce Launval and, plainly, lying there topless and available is a pretty good scheme for winning his attention. It’s not normal behaviour in Faery, though, anymore than it is on the earth surface. Most of the accounts we have of the appearance of fairies describe their clothes– their style and their colour; we are not told that they are provocatively naked.
Nude fairies, therefore, seem to be a Victorian obsession; they are the soft porn of their day. As has been described before, it was acceptable to display bare breasts in art, but only so long as it was justifiable and/ or distant from the present day. Painting classical nymphs, oriental harems and fairyland let artists get away with it. they seized the opportunity- regardless of the fact that the folklore provided almost no basis for this.
“Oh, the fairies!/ Whoa, the fairies.! Nothing but splendour,/ And feminine gender.”
The conventional conception of fairies is that they are female and that they are young and attractive. I am as guilty as others in perpetuating this: in both The Elder Queenand in the recent Albion awake!my central characters are fairy women, invested with strength, allure and passion. These are powerful and abiding archetypes; they make for good story lines, but they may also be a source of confusion in our correct analysis of fairylore.
Since Victorian times the dominant trend in fairy lore has been to make the fairies more and more diminutive- especially in theatrical representations. We may blame J M Barrie and Tinkerbell for this, but the miniaturising theme was far wider than just one author.
There have always been small fairies, but in earlier times they were generally conceived as being adults of small stature rather than infants of normal height. It must be noted that the term ‘elf’ popularly denoted tininess from the late eighteenth century at least (for instance in Blake and Keats). That notwithstanding, until the early nineteenth century representations of fairies tended to treat them as adults. In the case of painter Henry Fuseli, indeed, his fairy maids are women of a notably self-aware and unsettling character.
However, it was during the Victorian period that the representation of fairies degenerated through childlike figures to cloying cuteness. During the same period, too, Victorian culture separated out ‘the child’ as distinct from adults and elevated the innocence of childhood. Previously children were merely small people; they have since become a separate social and cultural category. James Kincaid has argued that the modern concepts of sexuality were created by the Victorians as entwined with their notions of the uncorrupted infant. The result, he suggested, was that childhood and innocence have become idealised, fetishised and eroticised in everyday culture (Erotic innocence, Duke University Press, 1998). He asserts that writers such as Lewis Caroll and J M Barrie absorbed this erotic idealising of children and “drove [it] into our cultural foundations.”
I would suggest that there have been a number of consequences of these cultural trends for our perceptions of fairyland:
we have tended to lose sight of the former nature of fairies. As they have increasingly become little girls, some of the more sinister aspects to their characters have been elided;
despite what I have just said, a powerful tension has arisen between the ‘child’ fairy and the earlier imagery- for example the fairies of Shakespeare and, even more strongly, Keats. The result was the projection of adult emotions and motivations and (my key focus here) sexuality onto fairies who were now often conceived as infants; and,
the 19th century use of children as fairies in theatrical performances, giving public visibility to girls acting on stage and, perhaps, portraying inappropriate roles.
Let me address the last point in more detail. Advances in stagecraft enabled Victorian theatres to offer magical spectaculars, with fairies flying, disappearing and posing behind veils of magical mist. Actresses had a reputation for lax morals, already, and there was some public concern over the impact upon the young girls employed to portray fairies. Would the exposure “convert them into coquettes before they have even reached their teens?” asked the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885. Regardless of the impact upon the girls themselves, Eileen Barlee in Pantomime waifs (1884) fretted that they were “Dressed in the airiest and, alas!, the scantiest of costumes … and many were in flesh-coloured tights.” They were presented to audiences as nearly naked or apparently so. The verse at the top of the posting reflects this sense of sexualisation; it is taken from a music hall song quoted by Lionel Lambourne in the catalogue to the Royal Academy’s 1997 exhibition of Victorian fairy painting.
These stage performances may all have been perfectly innocent in themselves, but the reactions of the viewers are another matter. I am reminded of Graham Greene’s scurrilous and scandalous review of Shirley Temple in the film Wee Willie Winkie, published in the magazine Night and day in October 1937. He commented provocatively that Temple was being presented as “a fancy little piece” and a “complete totsy.” Her admirers, Greene alleged, were middle aged men and clergymen who would respond to her “dubious coquetry.” Their respectable predecessors of a generation or two earlier, the Dean of Barchester and Mayor of Casterbridge, may well have felt the same about Fairy Phoebe and her hosts whom they saw on stage. What is involved, perhaps, is a ‘sanctioned’ opportunity to regard the young actresses.*
Twentieth century fairies
This may all seem hyper-alert, but let me give a few examples. Firstly, an account of a supernatural encounter recorded by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The coming of the fairies (1922). He supports his case for the reality of the Cottingley fairies with other evidence of their existence. He relates how two respectable gentlemen visited a hill in Dorset:
“I was walking with my companion … when to my astonishment I saw a number of what I thought to be very small children, about a score in number, and all dressed in little gaily-coloured short skirts, their legs being bare. Their hands were joined, and all held up, as they merrily danced round in a perfect circle. We stood watching them, when in an instant they all vanished from our sight. My companion told me they were fairies, and that they often came to that particular part to hold their revels. It may be our presence disturbed them.”
In a more recent version of the same event, there are some telling differences. The walkers witnessed: “a group of about twenty young girls … naked except for a little gaily coloured short skirt that lifted up from time to time on the gentle breeze.” The changes may well be entirely unconscious, but it seems to me that the tone here has changed from being a mere account of a curious experience; indeed, the tenor of the second version is not unique. Geoffrey Hodson was a theosophist and fairy-hunter who discovered elves all over Europe. He wrote of his journeys in two books, The Kingdom of faerie (1930) and Fairies at work and play (1927). I will quote from each respectively.
Cotswolds, 1925- of devas he says that “The actual form and manner are those of a vivacious school girl.”
At Geneva he tells us that “A particular fairy I am observing is a fascinating and charming creature … The face resembles that of a very pretty young country girl.” Another deva had the form of a “a fresh young country girl.”
In Lancashire in 1921 he was surrounded by dancing fairies, the leader of whom has a “form … perfectly modelled and rounded, like that of a young girl.” We are assured that “There are no angles in the transcendently beautiful form.”
A deva met in a pine forest near Geneva in 1926 was “like a lovely young girl, in thin white drapery through which the form can be seen.” Another such is “definitely female and always nude… Her form is always entrancingly beautiful.”
Hodson in his writing repeatedly discloses a sexualised response to the visions he experiences, in one cases admitting that it was only by an effort of will that he did not allow himself to be seduced by the allure of one rounded young spirit.
We may seem more aware of sexuality in texts now, but as Diane Purkiss warns us in her 2000 study, Troublesome things, “We in the post-modern world are apt to be convinced that sex is at the bottom of everything, that we know far more about sex than the Victorians did, and that we can read their unconsciousness like a book. These are all dangerous thoughts. Just because sex seems to us at the bottom of everything, does not mean that this is equally true for all others; just because we know a lot more about our own sexualities (and do we really?) does not mean we know a lot about Victorian sexualities; just because we read something in a text doesn’t mean it is there for everyone.”
Despite these words of caution, Purkiss concedes that some artists of the period trod an uncertain line between eroticism and harmlessness. She proposes, for example, that some of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower fairies hover in this uncertain interstice. Mostly, these are demure illustrations, although sometimes perhaps Barker does allow what may be interpreted as some risque off-the-shoulder looks. This hint of the other world of faery did not escape Barker’s biographer, Janet Laing; in her book, Cicely Mary Barker, (Penguin, 1995), Laing describes one alphabet fairy as follows:
“The more mystical and sensual side of fairy land is epitomised by the Jasmine fairy. In the heat of the summer the ‘cool green bower’ and ‘sweet scented flowers’ are particularly seductive.” (p.55)
As I suggested in an earlier post, Arthur Rackham too appears to have taken advantage of the ‘value-free’ environment of Faerie to indulge in pictures of girls in see-through frocks and careless deshabille; witness this illustration of Midsummer Night’s Dream.
As discussed in that previous post, depicting fairies seems to have been treated by many artists as a licence to adapt classical nudes to a more domestic scene, a wisp or two of gauze maintaining an illusion of modesty and decorum.
Furthermore, it may be worth remarking that all these child like ‘forms’ (whether presented as ‘art’, on stage or in the Cotswolds) are simultaneously naked or scantily attired and independent of adult society. Those factors combined may well have served to liberate the response of some observers from the normal social and moral restraints. Without doubt, the consequence has been that we have ended up confused and uncomfortable with aspects of our fairy lore.
The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries weren’t all irredeemable tweeness amongst fairies. For example, Christina Rossetti wrote the strange and disturbing Goblin Market, a poem that, as Diane Purkiss neatly expresses it, “restores fully a sense of the otherness and menace of the fairy world.” More recently, the huge international popularity of Tolkien’s stories of elves and dwarves has helped to provide a much needed corrective to the saccharine flower fairies of the Edwardian nursery. Legolas and Arwen have revived the Norse and Celtic traditions of human sized and mature fairies. Their robust combativeness and sexuality are a welcome reminder of older visions of the supernatural and are redressing the balance of imagery in the popular imagination.
We are left with a puzzling dichotomy in the conventions as to representations of faery in the twenty-first century. A short search on the internet readily confirms this. On the one hand we have the sexy faery babe, as represented here by a picture created by Bente Schlick.
In contrast, there are the images of fairies as the embodiment of childhood innocence, for which I have selected an image ‘Caught by a sunbeam’ by artists Josephine Wall.
Lastly, there are the mature, self-possessed and possibly dangerous fairy women found in Brian Froud’s work. Fairy maids in corsets with heaving cleavages are not rare, but they are hugely outnumbered by the more fey images, it has to be admitted. The newly established convention that fairies are perfect manifestations of physical attractiveness and/ or innocence stand in stark contrast to older conceptions. Fairies maidens were renowned in folk-lore for their alluring beauty, but they often suffered defects that betrayed their real nature: they might have cow’s tails, cloven feet beneath their long dresses, fingerless hands or hollow backs. These aspects of fairy nature are very seldom found now in the idealised portrayals that are so prevalent- Froud’s pictures being something of an exception in their honest naturalism and occasional disturbing honesty about the ‘average’ physique (pot bellies and drooping breasts). The main problem with these paragons of prettiness is that they are one dimensional. Deprived of the darker, more dangerous aspects of traditional fairy nature, they become merely decorative- charming but devoid of deeper meaning.
In conclusion, it may be argued that our ‘use’ of the fairy myth has changed in recent centuries. Whereas fairies were originally the causes of unexplained events and a source of supernatural protection and help, they have increasingly become the vehicles for our fantasies- a convenient way of expressing issues that might not otherwise be tackled.
* By way of a footnote: as a result of the comments in his review, Graham Greene was sued by Fox Entertainments and by Shirley Temple’s parents. They demanded damages for his libellous insinuations and a trial in the High Court concluded that the images were entirely decent and innocent and that the claimants were therefore entitled to an award of £3500 compensation from the magazine and the author. Night and day went into insolvency; Greene fled the country for Mexico, where he wrote his most admired work, The power and the glory. Literature’s gain, perhaps…
As I suggested in the previous post on fairies in John Keats’ poetry, sex and sexuality are strong elements in (adult) fairylore. Maureen Duffy, in her extensive and detailed study of fairies in literature, The erotic world of faery (Cardinal, 1989), describes how fairies are an embodiment of repressed desires. Folk culture favoured greater sexual freedom than the church could sanction, and fairy tales allowed writers to deal with taboo subjects and taboo desires in an indirect way. Duffy notes that malignant spirits are more common than benevolent ones and she links the latter to a cheerful and open sexuality.
Fairy folk appear to have some kind of role as facilitators or instigators of human sexual relations. In my next post on Queen Mab I note her apparent role in instructing innocent virgins. Ben Jonson hints that house elves have some sort of role in enabling wenches to spend time with their lovers: in his Masque of Love Restored one of Robin Goodfellow’s roles is to sweep hearths, clean houses and generally do the chores for the maids “whilst they are at hot-cockles.” I do not think this is merely a reference to them playing the children’s game akin to Blind Man’s Bluff! Even more explicit is John Lyly in Act II of The Maid’s Metamorphosis. The ‘third fairy’ recounts his pastimes:
“When I feel a girl asleep,
Underneath her frock I peep,
There to sport, and there I play.
Then I bite her like a flea,
And about I skip.”
It is certainly undeniable that there is often close sexual dependency between fairies and humans. Fairy women often seek out human partners, a theme I borrowed in my novel The elder queen, and the literary and visual representations of fairies are frequently more or less sexualised. In this post I want to examine fairies in art in a little more detail, making particular reference to the twentieth century artists Arthur Rackham and Brian Froud. In Victorian Painting (Phaidon, 1999, p.194) Lionel Lambourne describes how “many paintings … [were] saved from indecorum by the pretence that the women depicted were not scantily dressed real women but innocuous fairies, tastefully ‘veiled’ in the trappings of allegory or myth.” This allowed artists to show naked and attractive young women without (once again) violating social taboos. I want to discuss Rackham and Froud as successors of this approach.
Both artists depict goblins in very much the same way- as grotesque, mischievous beings. They also both depict fairies as being quite distinct- as female and human like. Nevertheless, there are significant differences in their portrayals. Rackham’s fairies are young women with long hair- coy, slim, alluring- semi-naked or in see-through clothing. An example of this preference of Rackham’s is an illustration to the story of Rip van Winkle, titled ‘These fairy mountains.’ It depicts a scene on a peak in the Catskills range. I cannot help but notice that, whilst the ‘goblin’ figures are fully clothed, in a manner suitable to the altitude and climate, the fairies are posed partially and only very lightly dressed, giving the illustrator a good opportunity to show us some juvenile semi-nudity (see below). This apparently provides confirmation of Lambourne’s observation on some of the parameters within which Victorian artists worked..
Brian Froud‘s fairies are often young, but not always, and they seem much more self-possessed or even self absorbed. They engage with the viewer, they have their own sense of humour and their sexuality is their own.
Of course, there is nearly a century separating the pictures and Brian Froud’s art is likely to be ‘post-feminist.’ I’d argue there is more, though. Before there was sci-fi, there was fairy art, and the aim of both is to depict unreal things- generally as if they were actually real- either because the artist or the viewer (or both) wish to imagine it so. Fantasy art can portray things that are impossible (such as Froud’s half-frog fairies) or it can present idealised images- how we would wish ‘faery’ to be; and it is often overtly sexual or suggestive of sexuality. Fairy maids were in the past allowed to be sexy because they were outside the structures of family and society (for example, they could independently choose human partners). They were allowed to express what would otherwise not have been permitted to the artist or to a young woman at the time. Those constraints are much diminished now and I think that explains the difference in atmosphere between Rackham’s work and Froud’s. The art of both is attractive, but the messages are very different.
Brian Froud, ‘Here we are, what can you see?’
An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017). I consider the changing image and gender stereotypes of fairies in a later post looking at developments since Victorian times.