In Fairyland

If you visit Leeds College of Art’s exhibition space in their Blenheim Walk site before 26th February, you will find a supernatural celebration dating back almost a century.

Based around the Cottingley Fairies series – photographs taken by two young girls near Leeds in 1917 in which they interact with ‘fairies’ – In Fairyland invites the viewer to explore multidisciplinary works in tribute and celebration of the mystic world of fairies and fairytales, by artist Tessa Farmer.

Visitors are greeted into the space by onlooking stuffed birds, and attention shifts to a cabinet in the corner, which features the 1915 copy of Princess Mary’s Gift Book, a popular children’s book from which the girls supposedly copied the images of dancers accompanying Alfred Noyes’ poem ‘A Spell for a Fairy’ for their famous photographs.

Farmer uses the dancers in her own work, intertwining them with her own vision of fairies, as miniature figures which are compiled from organic matter including wasp and butterfly remains. The difference between the two is striking – Farmer’s fairies are as macabre as the Cottingley fairies are sugar-sweet, and it is perhaps this combination which allows the exhibition to provide a fitting tribute to the fairytales of the early 20th century, which so often tread the line between dreamlike and nightmarish.

Here in the library, we’ve been inspired by In Fairyland to delve into our collection, to discover more about fairytales from around the time the original photographs were taken – and nothing captures the Victorian fascination with the strange and fantastic better than Andrew Lang’s colourful series of Fairy Books.

Lang’s first book in the series – the 1889 Blue Fairy Book – features familiar tales such as Beauty & The Beast, Aladdin, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, told in flowery tones. The other volumes tell lesser-known, but equally as enchanting tales of whimsy collected from around the globe, featuring mermaids, fairies, creatures and monsters, with intricate full-page illustrations of each tale.

Illustration from Andrew Lang's 1889 Blue Fairy Book
Illustration from Andrew Lang’s 1889 Blue Fairy Book

The collection consists of 5 volumes – blue, green, red, yellow and pink – and provides the reader with a fascinating glimpse into fairy and folk tales of the time. If readers consider that authenticity of the Cottingley Fairies series was widely unproven for a number of decades by photography experts – something which seems almost comical from the hindsight of the 21st century – it becomes apparent that society at the time was perhaps less cynical of the existence of the otherworldly.

In our Local Studies library, we have a book from one man who was very public in his belief of the Cottingley Fairies. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1922 ‘The Coming of the Fairies’ discusses the possibility of fairies, with theories on their nature and existence, including a chapter in which he visits the Cottingley Glen site with the girls and describes the strange and beautiful creatures they encounter there. Depictions of water nymphs and flower fairies with dreamy, pastel auras once again tie-in with the imagery on display at Leeds College of Art, particularly the large wall-mounted images reminiscent of traditional hand-tinted photography of the 20th century.

The Coming of the Fairies
The Coming of the Fairies

Farmer’s play on the supernatural by creating creatures and situations from gathered materials plays a fitting tribute to the power of imagination that is unlocked with fairytales, and her army of wasps and bees is echoed in the story of ‘Drakestail’ in the 1890 Red Fairy Book.

Illustration from the 1890 Red Fairy Book
Illustration from the 1890 Red Fairy Book

And as to whether fairies really exist or not, Lang provides us a suitably curious answer –

‘[I] never saw any [my]self, but know several people who have – and heard their music – in the Highlands. For these reasons, [I]think that there are certainly fairies, but they never do any harm; and, in England, they have been frightened away by smoke and schoolmasters.’

In Fairyland is on display until 26th February at Leeds College of Art, Blenheim Walk.

All books mentioned are available to read in the library, full reading list below:

  • Arthur Conan Doyle – Coming of the Fairies (Local and Family History Library Y COT 398)
  • Joe Cooper – The Case of the Cottingley Fairies (Local and Family History Library Y COT 398)
  • Edward L. Gardner – Fairies: A Book of Real Fairies (Local and Family History Library Y COT 398)
  • Andrew Lang – The Blue Fairy Book, Red Fairy Book, Green Fairy Book, Yellow Fairy Book, Pink Fairy Book (Information and Research Library 398.4 LAN)
  • Alfred Noyes – The Elfin Artist & Other Poems (Information and Research Library 821 NOY)

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