A Fascination with Fairies: Atkinson Grimshaw & the Cottingley Photographs

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Elation / Historical feature / John Atkinson Grimshaw / KatherineCaddy / Painting / Victorian Painting / Yorkshire Art Journal

‘There are fairies at the bottom of our garden!
They often have a dance on summer nights;
The butterflies and bees make a lovely little breeze,
And the rabbits stand about and hold the lights.
Did you know that they could sit upon the moonbeams
And pick a little star to make a fan,
And dance away up there in the middle of the air?
Well, they can.’
– ‘Fairies.’ Rose Fyleman, 1917.

Fyleman’s words allude to the Victorian fascination with fairies. During an age of progressive scientific discovery and wonder, society became increasingly preoccupied with what might bethe ungraspable, invisible, and otherworldly. Darwin’s eighteenth-century findings created a new sense of possibility, while the increasingly popular use of microscopes and photography led to a whole new engagement with things invisible or fleeting to the naked eye. The Victorian exploration of invisible existence is evident within the enchanted Atkinson Grimshaw paintings this article addresses. While considering his fairy works, it is interesting to reflect upon the Cottingley cousins’ story; both are linked in their provenance and themes.

Fairy painting was popular particularly between 1840 and 1870, coinciding with the ‘Golden Age’ of children’s literature, which was influenced by mythical themes within Shakespeare’s plays and by the Grimms’ traditional folktales (2). The depiction of fairies offered the painter artistic freedom aside from realism, enticing the viewer to step into a boundless mythical world, full of possibility and wonder. Like classical painting, it also enabled the painter to paint nudes without caution; the fairies have no real identity, their names are usually floral, emphasising their attachment to the natural and mythical worlds so emphasised by Arthur Wardle’s ‘A Fairy Tale.’

Atkinson Grimshaw’s ‘Iris’ hovers in the light, placed high atop a large Egyptian-blue wall within the eighteenth and nineteenth century room at Leeds Art Gallery, its details near-impossible to decipher. Seeking to understand Atkinson Grimshaw’s artistic style, its placement is disappointing. Yet the work’s gracefulness remains, its mysticism perhaps furthered by such lack of visibility. Looking at a detailed copy of the work, we see the artist’s canvas consists of multiple colours and shimmering golden light. ‘Iris’ lightly floats above a delicate river complete with lily pads, the background consists of glittering trees; a perplexing area of green light pushes our wonder as to what lies beyond.

The fairy’s body is sensuous and classical in its stance, surrounded by transparent drapery. Iris’s face is represented in profile, her hair flows behind rainbow wings, suggesting motion. She becomes the main light source of the painting; her face is surrounded by a bright circle of light, while her pose marks this as a fleeting moment. It is as though we have just stumbled across her in the wilderness, and soon she will vanish into the forest beyond. She is distanced from us, she is not concerned with our presence, making it feel as though we are catching a glimpse of a forbidden world that we will never truly be part of.

With another Atkinson Grimshaw work, entitled ‘Dame Autumn Hath a Mournful Face’, there is a sense that we have been acknowledged. Created a few years after ‘Iris,’ this work again presents us with a classically stylised nude. This time though, the fairy stands upright, her form alluding to antique sculpture in its poise. The fairy’s arm stretches above her head, diminishing some of the bright golden light that surrounds her face. She pulls her transparent drapery upwards, creating a sense of motion, of flowing fabric that becomes a sort of faint autumn cloak that eases the starkness of her nudity.

The landscape appears as though aflame with the ethereal burnt-orange light given off by this fairy. Looking closely, we see that the artist uses a dazzling array of colours in order to achieve this effect, and yet again a neon-green light to the left implies that something supernatural lies ahead. In both canvases, abrupt black fauna creates a barrier between the fairy and the viewer, furthering a sense of distance, and reminding us of our existence within this natural world. Victorian painters paired depictions of fairies with the seasons. Here, Atkinson Grimshaw creates an autumnal feeling through the abundance of rusty and gold shades; there is a sense that the leaves are about to fall. This pairing is seen in Arthur Wardle’s An Idyll of Summer‘, in which a small mythological boy lays in the sunshine, looking to three swans who have arrived on the river bed.

During an age in which some scientists theorised that fairies may exist as “the reclusive remnants of a widely dispersed race of dwarves” (2), these paintings imply a sense of Victorian bewilderment, that they could not say with certainty that these beings did not exist. In the case of artists, the intangible and folkloric allowed for imaginative works that appealed to a vast array of people who enjoyed contemplating what could exist beyond their vision, spurred by realisations that there is more out there than meets the eye.

‘Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather!’
– ‘The Fairies.’ William Allingham, 1850.

Society’s sense of the possibility of stumbling upon these mythical beings was heightened by two little girls in Cottingley, Yorkshire in 1917. Elsie and Frances used the family camera to create images of themselves surrounded by fairies. Today we see these in relation to illustrations found within the girls’ fairytale story books, such as ‘Princess Mary’s Gift Book,’ which the girls subsequently confessed to have copied from in the creation of these photographs (3).

The girls maintained that they had seen fairies, and to her death, Frances claimed that the fifth photograph was a true image. Interviewed on the ‘Antiques Roadshow‘ in 2009, Frances’ daughter said that the cousins took the photographs to prove to their father that fairies existed. The antiques expert emphasised that during this period, the camera was a scientific instrument, thus photographs were viewed as factual and believed without question to be truthful representations. Nowadays, we expect to be deceived. The beck close to the girls’ residence (top image) emphasises the influence of the natural world and its mystery on their imaginations and creativity.

Regardless of whether the images are truthful, these photographs are beautiful artworks in themselves, and can be interpreted as examples of the power of distorted images to astonish and cause us to daydream, in line with the fantastical Fyleman poem. Allingham’s poem was highly popular with children, and represents material that enhances the imagination, while sparking a wish to seek out what is not at once apparent.

Artists, writers and photographers of this period revelled in creating beguiling works that explored the sense of the unknown, the hidden and the fleeting, inspired by the elusive contents of the natural world around them.

Noted Works
John Atkinson Grimshaw, Iris. 1886. Oil on canvas, 121.9 x 81.3 cm. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds, North Yorkshire. Source.
John Atkinson Grimshaw, Dame Autumn Hath a Mournful Face. 1871. Oil on canvas, 91.9 x 61 cm. Location unknown. Source.
Cottingley photographs – Source.
Poems: Fyleman. Allingham.

Katherine April Caddy, 23rd February 2014.

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