‘And then I said, “Those fairies we see – let’s take a picture!”‘
In the summer of 1917, cousins Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright claimed to have seen fairies by Cottingley Beck. The photographs they took would later be described by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as having the potential to ‘mark an epoch in human thought.’
In the hundred years since the creator of Sherlock Holmes endorsed the pictures in his 1922 book The Coming of the Fairies, the story of the Cottingley Fairies has continued to fascinate, sparking discussions about truth, photographic trickery, fake news, grief, spiritualism, and belief versus scientific rationalism, hinging on a single question: do you believe in fairies?
Artist and folklorist Elizabeth Dearnley, with Amy Cutler and Tamsin Dearnley have created an immersive installation where visitors can step back in time into the bedroom shared by Frances and Elsie, listen to their story, and watch it transform into an eerily magical space as the light changes. FAIRY LIGHT will contain elements of interactive recorded sound, projected film and deceptively glimmering lights and invite you to take another look at an apparently familiar tale – things aren’t always what they seem.
The installation will run from 28 May – 8 July in Central Library, Room 800.
On display from our collections will be the two books that will forever be linked to the story of the Cottingley Fairies.
The Coming of the Fairies, Arthur Conan Doyle (1922)
This year marks the centenary of Conan Doyle’s Coming of the Fairies which claimed the photographs taken by Elsie and Frances were authentic. Until his death he was convinced the photographs were genuine.
Conan Doyle is best known as the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories but was also a devout spiritualist. His first article was published in The Strand in 1920 which included two photographs taken by the girls in 1917. This sold out within days of being published. In 1921 he produced another article for the Strand using later photographs. This article was then expanded into the book The Coming of the Fairies. There was some suspicion that the fairies looked like traditional fairies of nursery tales and had very fashionable hair.
Princess Mary’s Gift Book, Mary Princess Royal, Countess of Harewood (1914)
This Gift Book was published in 1914 to raise money for ‘The Queen’s Work for Women Fund’. This fund was dedicated to initiating and subsidising projects employing women during the First World War. It contained a collection of children’s stories by well known authors and illustrations from famous artists, like Arthur Rackham. The sale of the book raised over £100, 000.
In 1977 Fred Gettings was researching book illustrations and he observed that the Cottingley Fairies bore a striking resemblence to the ones in the Princess Mary’s Gift Book. Elsie Wright later admitted that the fairies seen in the photographs were in fact paper cut outs that she had drawn herself. The Gift Book had inspired her sketches.
Ironically amongst the stories contributed by authors, such as J.MBarrie and Baroness Orczy is a story called Bimbashi Joyce which was submitted by none other than Arthur Conan Doyle himself!
This project is supported by a grant from Leeds Inspired.