Collecting Fairies

The first written record of fairies in English Literature was in Shakespeare’s play ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, which later inspired the Victorian painters in their portrayal of fairyland and led to fairies becoming very popular.

The images were taken from the ballet, which caused such a sensation in the 1830s. The etherial, white draped ballerinas who tip toed and glided around a limelit stage, as though on wings, inspired a world of delicate, coy fairies.

The heyday of fairy painting was from 1840-1870.  Richard Dadd is recognised as the most superior of the Victorian fairy painters.  His well known paintings such as ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke’ and ‘Contradiction, Oberon and Titania’, allow us to view a detailed world full of fairies. 

Other established artists such as Landseer soon realised the popularity of this type of painting and produced their own versions.  Fairies also appealed to the Pre-Raphaelites, who were drawn by the naturalistic settings, mythological, narrative themes and delicate characters.

Later, the Victorian demand for illustrated reading matter, caused illustrators such as George Cruickshank and Kate Greenaway to produce further images, and soon fairies crossed the boundary from the adult world to that of children.  Many Victorians thought this was the rightful place of fairies and children’s illustrated collections of fairy tales were popular.

In the 20th century Arthur Rackham had joined the fairy illustrators, completing over 3,000 works which were a mixture of the sweet, dainty, etherial and exotic as well as the gruesome.  For ‘The Tempest’ he drew a naked Ariel, for Rip van Winkle, mymphs huddle in the fairy mountains.  His illustrations to Grimm’s fairy tales are as terrifying and grotesque as the stories themselves.  As well as illustrating the classics and English and European literature, he also produced fairy pictures for contemporary works such as JM Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

By the turn of the century fairies had found their way onto ceramics.  Doulton embraced the fairy image with their tiled fairy panels which reflected the growing concern for child health and brightened up the new specialist hospitals with wards for children.  Fairies and gnomes were used for their ceramics too, some taken from Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of gnomes and fairies.

Some of the images of fairies most familar to us today are very different from Rackham’s emotional, mischievous and sometimes evil creatures.  Mary Cicely Barker’s flower fairies could not be more different.  The paintings of her fairies included botanical studies of flowers and are very much aimed at children.  Mary Cicely Barker’s books are still produced and the images are found everywhere.

Around the time that the enchanting flower fairies were being produced a ‘true’ fairy tale emerged when fairies were said to have been photographed in 1917.  Maybe it was the old myth that whoever sees a fairy will have a long life, that encouraged the popularity of the fairy image.

Into this background Wedgwood introduced Fairyland Lustre.  It proved to be a formula that has been a winner even to the present day with prices rising higher than for any other post 18th century Wedgwood products.

It was Daisy Makeig-Jones who designed Fairyland Lustre for Wedgwood.  Her richly lustered and brightly coloured pieces gave a glimpse of a fantastic world where imps and fairies played among shimmering waterfalls and delicate cobwebs.  Her ruby, violet and flame colours covered plaques, bowls, vases and plates with names like Bubbles, White Pagodas, Willow Fairyland and Stuff that Dreams are Made Of.

By the 1920s fairies wwere here to stay, present not only on our tables and in our display cabinets but also in our gardens as statues tip toeing across the lawn and on accessories such as silver powder compacts and powder bowls and on tins which once contained sweets or tea.

Fairies are very collectable and there are plenty to choose from.  Apart from illustrated books and magazines there is antique Wedgwood and Royal Doulton china and ceramics.  If you fancy something more contemporary you might try the Dezine range which includes trinket boxes, brooches and photographs as well as fairy figures.

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