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Cicely Mary Barker: An Enchanting World of Flower Fairies and Magic

Step into the enchanting world of Cicely Mary Barker, an early 20th-century artist whose art is inspired by nature, botany, and a little bit of magic.

cicely mary barker flower fairies
The Dog Violet Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker (left); with The Honeysuckle Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker (center); and The Acorn Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker (right), via the Flower Fairies Website

 

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 portrait
Young Cicely Mary Barker, via the Flower Fairies Website

 

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

pia de tolommei dante gabriel rossetti
La Pia de’ Tolommei by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1868. via Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence

 

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

the lilac fairy flower fairies
The Lilac Fairy, from Flower Fairies of the Trees by Cicely Mary Barker, 1940, via the Flower Fairies Website

 

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.”

 

red clover fairy flower fairies
The Red Clover Fairy, from Flower Fairies of the Wayside by Cicely Mary Barker, 1948, via the Flower Fairies Website

 

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.

 

willow fairy flower fairies trees cicely mary barker
The Willow Fairy, from Flower Fairies of the Trees by Cicely Mary Barker, 1940, via the Flower Fairies Website

 

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

rose four flowers cycle alphonse mucha
Rose, from the Four Flowers Cycle by Alphonse Mucha, 1898, via Mucha Museum, Prague

 

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. 

 

mulberry fairy cicely mary barker
The Mulberry Fairy, from Flower Fairies of the Trees by Cicely Mary Barker, 1940, via the Flower Fairies Website

 

“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

 

flower fairies book
Flower Fairies of the Autumn by Cicely Mary Barker, 2018 edition, via Penguin Random House (left); with Book of the Flower Fairies by Cicely Mary Barker, 1927 (possibly 1st edition), published by Black and Sons Limited, via AbeBooks (right)

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.

 

 

cicely mary barker flower fairies
The Dog Violet Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker (left); with The Honeysuckle Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker (center); and The Acorn Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker (right), via the Flower Fairies Website

 

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 portrait
Young Cicely Mary Barker, via the Flower Fairies Website

 

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

pia de tolommei dante gabriel rossetti
La Pia de’ Tolommei by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1868. via Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence

 

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

the lilac fairy flower fairies
The Lilac Fairy, from Flower Fairies of the Trees by Cicely Mary Barker, 1940, via the Flower Fairies Website

 

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.”

 

red clover fairy flower fairies
The Red Clover Fairy, from Flower Fairies of the Wayside by Cicely Mary Barker, 1948, via the Flower Fairies Website

 

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.

 

willow fairy flower fairies trees cicely mary barker
The Willow Fairy, from Flower Fairies of the Trees by Cicely Mary Barker, 1940, via the Flower Fairies Website

 

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

rose four flowers cycle alphonse mucha
Rose, from the Four Flowers Cycle by Alphonse Mucha, 1898, via Mucha Museum, Prague

 

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. 

 

mulberry fairy cicely mary barker
The Mulberry Fairy, from Flower Fairies of the Trees by Cicely Mary Barker, 1940, via the Flower Fairies Website

 

“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

 

flower fairies book
Flower Fairies of the Autumn by Cicely Mary Barker, 2018 edition, via Penguin Random House (left); with Book of the Flower Fairies by Cicely Mary Barker, 1927 (possibly 1st edition), published by Black and Sons Limited, via AbeBooks (right)

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.

 

 

Frances Dilworth
Frances Dilworth
Frances is a senior at Rutgers University pursuing a major in art history and a minor in English. Among their many interests, medieval art, culture, and literature come to the front. Currently, they are researching how medieval art inspired different art movements in history; such as late 18th to 19th century Gothic, the Pre-Raphaelites, and Art Nouveau. As a nonbinary scholar, Frances is passionate about researching and writing about underrepresented and marginalized groups such as the LGBTQIA+ community in art history. One day, they hope to publish a book that examines a more inclusive and cross-cultural perspective of medieval art.

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