Cicely Mary Barker was an English artist who is most well-known for her work depicting fairies, flowers, and the forest. Her work, highly influenced by childhood whimsy, is revered for its fantastical elements. Her most notable works are those depicting fairies, and she is still remembered today for her Flower Fairies books. Read on to find out more about her life, influences, artistic process, and legacy.
Young Cicely Mary Barker
Cicely Mary Barker was born in Croydon, Surrey, England, on June 28th, 1895. From an early age, art was a vital presence in Barker’s life: from her father’s own art to the illustrated storybooks she read as a child. In her adolescence, Barker would prove to be a promising student, becoming the youngest member of the Croydon Art Society at age sixteen.
By 1923, her very first book would be published and would receive a positive and lucrative response, launching her illustration career. Cicely Mary Barker’s work contains all the whimsy and charm of the Art Nouveau aesthetic, as well as the precision and fine detail of the Pre-Raphaelites. Her most famous works, the Flower Fairies books, were created with such careful observation you would think she was a fairy botanist. It’s no wonder that Barker’s Flower Fairies books are still being published today, and her art is adored by those of all ages.
Art Movements That Inspired The Flower Fairies
Cicely Mary Barker, an English native, born at the end of the 19th century, grew up during a unique period of art history. After the short reign of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, several other artistic and literary movements sprouted from those initial seeds. The Pre-Raphaelites were initially rebels to the elite art world and the Royal Academy, creating art that directly contrasted what was considered “fine” by the art establishment. Although the PRB was only active for a couple of years, their ideas about art and creativity stoked the fires of many artists, poets, and craftspeople. The Aestheticism Movement, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and eventually, Art Nouveau, would all grow out of the ideas that made the PRB so radical and different.
All of these intersecting art movements shared a few key elements: observation and representation of natural environments, mythological and fairytale subjects, and attention to detail. It’s no coincidence that all of these traits can be found in Barker’s work: it is said that she grew up reading the illustrated storybooks of artists Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott, competing illustrators who were both affiliates of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Barker’s Art Style And Process
In Cicely Mary Barker’s painting, The Lilac Fairy, one is immediately struck by the minute details of the lilac itself: tiny purple flowers clustered together surrounded by fat green leaves. Of course, the most defining quality of a lilac is its perfume, and so Barker pays homage to this by having her little fairy take a deep inhale. Barker is said to have made every effort to paint and draw from life.
Whether on her visits to Kew Gardens, (the Royal Botanic Gardens in Richmond) where staff members would share plant samples with Barker for studying or during vacations at her family’s summer home in Storrington, inspiring environments were never too far. All of Barker’s Flower Fairy illustrations are made with this professional botanist quality and could be included in a botany textbook if not for the little winged creatures interacting with the floral specimens. In Flower Fairies of the Wayside, Barker writes,
“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.”
In addition to observation of the plants and their natural environments, Cicely Mary Barker also had the children who attended her sister Dorothy’s school dress as fairy models. She even went so far as to craft the costumes, complete with fairy wings, and posed the children in fanciful scenes. The fairy wings of Barker’s fairies are all reminiscent of insects such as dragonflies, butterflies, bees, and moths, and are often purposely paired with a specific flower to create an environmentally aware illustration, such as the willow fairy with her dragonfly wings who plays in the water of a pond.
All of these steps of Cicely Mary Barker’s process come together for the enchanting result that thousands have adored for decades. It is a carefully balanced blend of realism and Romanticism alike. The thorough studies of plants, insects, and people are exhibited on a fanciful composition, creating an educational and imaginative experience.
“The Fairy Craze” Of The Early 20th Century
Peter Pan, or, Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie, was first performed as a play in 1904 in London and published as a novel in 1911. Although not without skepticism, the play was generally received with warmth and a communal sense of child-like wonder. Although Barrie’s work is not the direct cause for it, perhaps it acted as a catalyst for a long-suppressed sense of wonder and imagination in Edwardian England. With the new modernization promised by the Industrial Revolution, there seems to have been a societal pushback or revival for the “old ways”, manifesting itself in the Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau, and the demand for fairy stories.
“Here we go round the Mulberry bush!”
You remember the rhyme, oh yes!
But which of you know
How Mulberries grow
On the slender branches, dropping low?
Not many of you, I guess.
Someone goes round the Mulberry bush
When nobody’s there to see;
He takes the best
And he leaves the rest,
From top to toe like a Mulberry drest:
This fat little fairy’s he!
In Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies books, there is a poem she wrote alongside every illustration. Each of these whimsical verses offer playful explanations for natural phenomena, such as the leaves turning in autumn, the falling of acorns, or perhaps your missing sock. Fairies are painted as mischievous but harmless creatures who are caretakers of the natural world but are also constantly at play. Barker’s fairies specifically are always modeled after children, so this is in line with England’s general association of fairies being silly child-like beings.
Legacy Of Cicely Mary Barker
Cicely Mary Barker died in 1973 at seventy-seven years old. She spent her life creating art and poetry and finding magic in the mundane. Barker’s Flower Fairies are a harmonious pairing of realism and Romanticism, creating in viewers a sense of child-like wonder no matter how old they are. Her work continues to be published to this day, and that is perhaps a testament to the enduring desire for enchantment in readers from all over the world.