A new exhibition at the Garden Museum will celebrate Cicely Mary Barker’s magical and botanical Flower Fairies collection
One hundred years ago Cicely Mary Barker sold her first piece of work: a set of illustrations that were printed as postcards. Featuring the fairies for which she would later become famous, this first foray into the art world makes up part of the collection of her drawings exhibited at the Garden Museum in London this summer.
Barker’s first book, Flower Fairies of the Spring, was published in 1923 and it’s fair to say the public has been fascinated by her drawings and poetry ever since, with more than seven million books sold in the last ten years alone. Her work even has its own official Instagram account, bringing her illustrations to a modern audience by posting every week using the hashtag #fairyfriday.
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But what is it about these depictions of childlike fairies nestled amongst flowers and plants that continue to beguile, almost a hundred years since they first appeared?
The exhibition’s curator Emma House believes the magic of fairies will always excite people’s imagination, but apart from the quintessential Englishness of Barker’s work, she says the botanical accuracy in her drawings, that has cemented her appeal.
“She was quite serious about getting the correct identification of the flowers she used and she would ask Kew Gardens to identify any plants she was unsure of, particularly for her Flower Fairies of the Wayside book which focussed on hedgerows rather than garden flowers,” she says.
“It’s the combination of this accuracy with her imagination which makes her illustrations so unique.”
Barker’s sketchbook shows how just serious she was about precision, with her returning to the same flowers each season: drawing them first in bud, then as a flower and finally as a dried-up seed head.
Living in the English countryside, flowers seem to have been an interest of Barker’s throughout her life. She had a large collection of English folklore about flowers, which no doubt inspired some of the poetry that accompanied her drawings.
Barker first started trying to sell her work after the unexpected death of her father in 1912. Then, aged 17, she helped support her mother and sister through small commissions of illustrations and poetry, but it wasn’t until a decade later that her work was accepted for publication.
Her first book was an immediate success, and publishers Blackie encouraged Barker to produce more throughout the interwar period. Seven Flower Fairies collections were published in her lifetime and one posthumously – the complete collection now comprises 170 illustrations.
At the time of publication of her first book, J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan had been a huge hit, the Cottingley Fairies – the schoolgirl photographic hoax which fooled the experts – was still heavily in the public consciousness, and spiritualism was gaining recognition following the grief that surrounded the First World War.
“Part of the success of the books,” suggests House, “is perhaps in that they provided some escapism.”
However Barker herself was no believer in the supernatural, writing in the foreword to Flower Fairies of the Wayside: “So let me say quite plainly, that I have drawn all the plants and flowers very carefully, from real ones; and everything that I have said about them is as true as I could make it. But I have never seen a fairy; the fairies and all about them are just pretend.”
Although pretend, the fairies, too, were often drawn from life. Barker would dress up the children at her sister’s kindergarten in homemade costumes to make sketches which formed the initial outline of the fairies. Until recently, the family would still hear from people who had attended the kindergarten as children, saying: “I think I’m the Nasturtium fairy!”
Another reason for the fairies’ appeal lies in their intergenerational charm, says House.
“Kids love fairies and grandparents remember them from their childhood. The books still feel relevant today because they are so beautifully drawn. They combine the magic of fairies with the English countryside.”
One thing is for sure, the continued popularity of the books is assured; since Penguin Random House acquired the Flower Fairies, they have been translated into 20 languages and are internationally successful. Japanese and US audiences have particularly taken the drawings to heart and the illustrations have been merchandised onto giftware, plus two new book series have been published using Barker’s original drawings.
Visitors to the Garden Museum exhibition will see the genesis of this worldwide phenomenon via original illustrations for more than 40 of her Flower Fairies designs, unseen sketchbooks and drawings together with her research materials.
The exhibition will be held alongside a number of family events, including cookery workshops which explore the use of edible flowers in food, and garden workshops where children can make fairy gardens.
Flower Fairies: Botanical Magic is at the Garden Museum, London from August 8 – September 30 2018
London, Greater London
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