Happy Birthday, Fairy Godmother!

Fairies, flowers and a genuine sense of fun is what the illustrations of Cicely Mary Barker have offered fans for years. On her 120th birthday, we take a closer look at her small-scale world.

The Rose Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker

It would be tough for the even the most expert of experts to keep count of all the numerous ringforts pitted throughout Europe. It’s even been said that Ireland alone has more than 40,000 of them. And as most of us know, these mysterious old places are often linked with stories of even more mysterious creatures – sometimes they’re referred to as ‘The Good Folk’, but most of us know them simply as ‘the fairies’.These otherwordly figures have long held a place in popular imagination. They’ve inspired illustrators from Arthur Rackham to Duncan Carse, and writers from William Shakespeare to W.B. Yeats. And if the growing popularity of woodland fairy trails and fairy doors is anything to go by, they have continued to enchant and inspire wonder in children and adults alike, right into the present day.

The source of much of this enthusiasm comes from a shared imagination of the fairy folk’s appearance and character: they’re viewed as beautiful, magical creatures whose perpetual youth fills them a child-like enthusiasm for mischievousness and play. This popular view is partly a result of the influence that one fairy illustrator in particular has had – Cicely Mary Barker, the creator of the Flower Fairies.

Birth and Beginnings of a Fairy Godmother

Barker was born on 28 June 1895 and began studying art when only 13 years old. At just 17 she was selling images and poems to help support her mother and sister after her father’s death in 1912, but it was not until some years later that she would begin the series that would later make her name as a hugely popular illustrator and artist.

 The Beechnut Fairy

Her Flower Fairy series came into being as a result of a mixture of creative talent and old-fashioned luck. While she honed her art through dedicated hard work, the success of Barker’s vivid, colourful fairy illustrations was helped along by forces beyond her control. For one thing, the timing was perfect: fairy lore and imagery in Victorian England was in high demand. This was probably a response to the rapid industrialisation and technological innovation of the time as people sought to hold onto some of the romance and magic of a parting world. And if that was what they wanted, Barker was happy to oblige. Not only had she the imagination and artistic talent, she also had the perfect source material – the children she and her sister Dorothy took care of in the kindergarten they ran from home.

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

When we think of fairies we often imagine them as figures so small that could easily slip through a keyhole or use a teacup for a bathing pool, but this wasn’t always the way things were. In fact the shrinking of fairy folk is often attributed to their appearance in Shakespeare’s famous play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which fixed their pint-sized form in the public consciousness.

Barker added to this popular idea of them by shrinking the child models from her sister’s kindergarten so that they could sit side by side with garden insects or hide among the flowers.

Illustration from A Midsummer Night's Dream by Arthur Rackham


Flower Power

Just as herbs and flowers could be used to treat physical ailments at the time, some also believed that they could likewise influence one’s relationship with fairy folk, sometimes making them visible to regular people or even offering them protection from fairy enchantment. In Barker’s illustrations both flowers and fairies are brought together, thereby making the plant world (which she was careful to represent as accurately as she could) as mysterious and alluring to viewers as the tiny folk that occupied it. Her message was clear: there is magic and wonder to be found in the most seemingly ordinary of places, no matter how small – from the petals of a rose to the golden leaves of a beech tree in autumn.

A Small World with a Big Impact

Barker’s Flower Fairies may appear to some to be over-idealised creations – even to the point where they seem somewhat divorced from the traditional beings of fairy lore. Yet her creations helped preserve a measure of innocence and wonder at a time when the world seemed to be growing up much too quickly. They did it then, and they do so now. It’s like being placed under a spell, however briefly, by a real fairy godmother.

To look into the magical mini-world that Cicely Mary Barker created, visit our large selection of gorgeous Flower Fairy products.


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