Whimsical, ethereal, and mystical depictions of fairies from the Victorian era are an absolute delight to behold. The rise of spiritualism during this time gave way to an obsession with the supernatural. Clairvoyants, mediums, and all things mystical became topics of fascination among the Victorian people. These interests were in direct response to the fast-moving Industrial Revolution. Technological and scientific advancements were changing daily life so quickly that people sought something to ground themselves. They turned to the supernatural—not only as a way to return to a simpler, more spiritual way of life but also as a form of escapism. A genuine belief in the mystical and in fairies was not uncommon. The fairy fixation resulted in iconic works of art, from paintings to photographs to children’s book illustrations. Depictions of fairies during the Victorian age resulted in beautiful images that have stood the test of time.
A distinctive strand of paintings portraying fairies sprouted from these mystical fascinations. Many artists who painted fairies took inspiration from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This work popularized our current perceptions of fairies as being small, helpful, and kind. Prior to Shakespeare’s work, fairies were often categorized as mischievous and devilish and were often depicted as human in size. Shakespeare’s popularization of small, kind fairies is evident in the artworks of the Victorian age. Artists such as William Blake, Henry Fuseli, Richard Dadd, Joseph Noel Paton, Edward Robert Hughes, and Edwin Landseer all painted fairies and scenes inspired by Shakespeare’s work. Hughes is particularly well known for one of his works, Midsummer Eve, which was unsurprisingly inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most scholars agree that Midsummer Eve, painted in 1908, depicts the scene in which Hermia gets lost in the forest and ends up finding herself surrounded by fairies. In the painting, Hermia delicately leans over, holding the skirt of her dress so as to not accidentally hit any of the small fairies. A slight smile illuminates her face, which bathes in the warm light that emanates from the small lamps held by the circle of fairies beneath her. The fairies themselves are nude and almost cherub-like in shape. They have small colorful butterfly wings, and they seem to cheer and chatter animatedly up at Hermia. The scene transports the viewer to a warm and magical forest filled with the small, jovial voices of fairies.
Though still an emerging technology at the time, photography fell under the sway of the fairy fixation through a series of five photos that became known as the Cottingley Fairies. The Cottingley Fairies photos were taken by two young girls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths. These photos captured ethereal images of dancing and playing fairies. Elsie and Frances, who were 16 and 9 at the time, took the photos in 1917 near a river in Cottingley, England where they lived. The young girls told their parents that they visited fairies by the river each day. Elsie’s father, amused at such a tale, lent her his camera, with the promise of photographic proof of these fairies. To the father’s astonishment, the young girls returned the next day with a photo of Frances, head resting in her hand and softly smiling at the camera while four fairies pranced around her in flowing dresses. Elsie’s father was suspicious of the image, but the girls continued to bring back photos of them interacting and playing with fairies. Elsie’s mother, who was interested in spiritualism and Theosophy, was stupefied by the photos and took them to a Theosophical Society meeting to certify their authenticity. Seeing an opportunity to promote Theosophy, which espoused that humankind was undergoing a transformation that would lead to the perfection of all people, the society claimed that the images were proof of these changes and confirmed their veracity. The images gained widespread popularity. In fact, they became so popular that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself used the photos in his writings as proof that fairies existed. It wasn’t until many years later that it was discovered that the young girls had copied the fairies from a book, cut out their figures, added wings, and used hat pins to hold them upright to create their fairy photos. There is something particularly amusing and delightful about two young girls deceiving their entire community, while also creating the first photos of fairies.
The last few decades of the Victorian age also mark the beginning of the Golden Age of British illustration. One of the leading figures of this age was Arthur Rackham, whose rich pen and ink drawings colored with watercolors created striking works of art. Rackham was not immune to the fairy mania and created many beautiful works of fairies—some of which appeared in his best-known illustrations from the book Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. One of these illustrations is The Fairies Had Their Tiff with the Birds. This image shows two fairies, one who seems to be an adult, the other a child. Their backs are turned to four little brown birds, who have perched themselves on a thin tree branch. The fairies' heads are held high; their flowing dresses and loosely curled hair sweep behind them as they glide away from the birds. The painting is cloaked in muted tones, but the delicate blues and greens add to the ethereal and rather sophisticated feel of the work.
The Victorian age saw the production of fairy art across multiple mediums, and their resulting works are exquisite and filled with whimsy. A love for fairies lingers as the popularity of these works has influenced our modern perceptions of these cheerful creatures. This age gave birth to J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” first performed as a play in 1904, introducing us to Tinker Bell, one of the most famous fairies of all. Not to be forgotten are the beautiful illustrations of Cicely Mary Barker whose Flower Fairies are still commonly referenced in books about fairies today, including the iconic Fairyopolis series. So, to all those young children obsessed with fairies who grew into adults that remain obsessed with fairies, give your gratitude to the Victorians—whose love for these creatures inspired long-lasting lore and imagery of our magical winged friends.
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