Flowerful Stuff

Secrets and Seasons – the world of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies

Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairy books and illustrations have enchanted generations of children. And they can teach you something about life too, as Misti Traya explains…

I first discovered them as a child, in the most unlikely of places. In a secondhand bookshop in a sleepy farming town in the American Midwest was a pile of paperbacks, and at the bottom, buried like treasure, was a copy of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies.

The hardback spine caught my eye but it was the illustrations that drew me in. Do you remember that song from Sesame Street?

Three of these things belong together
Three of these things are kind of the same
But one of these things just doesn’t belong here…

These pictures really didn’t seem to belong here. They had a timelessness that my seven year old self could not place. Fairies are full of magic but these didn’t look like any fairies I had ever seen.

PearBlossomFairy -Trees
FLOWER FAIRIES™ Copyright © The Estate of Cicely Mary Barker, 2017

 

Their faces and clothes belonged to another world. And indeed, they did: the England of the 1920s, as that’s when and where Miss Barker created them.

 

Miss Barker

Cicely Mary Barker was born in 1895 into a relatively comfortable middle-class family in West Croydon, Surrey. An epileptic, she spent much of her childhood confined to her bed, amusing herself with painting and picture books illustrated by the likes of Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott. She showed early promise as an artist, selling her first drawings at the age of sixteen to a maker of greetings cards, and the same year she became the youngest-ever life member of the Croydon Art Society.

In 1918 Cicely created a postcard series featuring elves and fairies. Fairy-folk were all the rage in this period (see the famous Cottingley Fairies hoax, which fooled Arthur Conan Doyle).

Cicely’s sister ran a nursery in the garden of the family home, and many of the young students modelled for her as did the children of family friends. In 1923 she sold images and accompanying verse to the publisher Blackie and Son. The book Flower Fairies of the Spring and subsequently Flower Fairies of the Summer (1925) made Cicely’s name.

Twelve more fairy books were to follow – and Spring and Summer, along with Autumn and Winter are still in print. Penguin Random House currently publish beautiful editions – including a Complete Book of the Flower Fairies compendium.

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FLOWER FAIRIES™ Copyright © The Estate of Cicely Mary Barker, 2017

 

Atmosphere and nature

Cicely drew particular inspiration from the John Everett Millais and the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. She said, ‘I am to some extent influenced by them—not in any technical sense, but in the choice of subject matter and the feeling and atmosphere they could achieve.’

One of the declarations of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood was to study nature attentively; Miss Barker’s Flower Fairy illustrations exemplify this. Attention to botanical detail was very important to her. She painted from life whenever she could but if she needed help identifying flora or fauna, she sought help from the Kew Gardens staff.

ScillaFairy - Garden
FLOWER FAIRIES™ Copyright © The Estate of Cicely Mary Barker, 2017

 

WhiteBindweedFairy - Wayside
FLOWER FAIRIES™ Copyright © The Estate of Cicely Mary Barker, 2017

 

My Weekend Primrose Fairy

In my Flower Diary I mentioned that my daughter Helena has the middle name Primrose. This is definitely in part because of my affection for Cicely Mary Barker’s Primrose Fairy (painted in 1923 and modelled on one Gladys Tidy – the family’s housekeeper).

Each spring when I see these perennials wake from their winter slumber, it makes me feel like it does when my daughter smiles at me. My father sent her a print of The Primrose Fairy when she was born. For five years it has been hanging over her bed. When she was very young she would talk to it. I suppose it was her first imaginary friend.

Primrose Fairy
The Primrose Fairy — FLOWER FAIRIES™ Copyright © The Estate of Cicely Mary Barker, 2017

 

Sometimes when we visit my in-laws, I do nothing but make flower crowns for Helena, who fancies herself a Weekend Primrose Fairy. Once she has her crown on, her whole persona changes. She goes to the far end of the garden, past the lettuces and the flower beds. There she conjures magic for wounded ladybirds with camellias and the crumbs of custard tarts. It’s clear that this edge of the garden is her flower fairy world and we are not to intrude.

 

The cycle of the seasons

Miss Barker’s books encourage children to look for fairies in the treetops, the flower floor, the garden, the wayside, and the marshes. Helena takes this instruction seriously. Last week when we were walking home from school, she tugged at my arm, pointed to a drain in someone’s garden wall, and shouted, “Look, mummy! It’s a fairy door!” Who’s to say it wasn’t?

Helena has always believed in fairies. Even at age two, she would wander through thickets looking for them. She often wears wings so they, the fairies, know that she is a believer and an ally. Have you noticed how upside-down tulips look like fairy skirts? Helena has. She has also noted that the green bells from Freddie’s would make excellent slippers.

PineTreeFairy - Winter
FLOWER FAIRIES™ Copyright © The Estate of Cicely Mary Barker, 2017

 

Cicely Mary Barker died in February 1973 at the age of seventy-seven, leaving a legacy of dozens of books known and loved around the world.

For me, the joy of the Flower Fairies is that they are a celebration of the cyclical. Spring means snowdrops and crocuses. Summer smells of roses. Autumn brings blackberries. Winter brims with holly. And so it goes, just as it always has.

 

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You can read more about Cicely Mary Barker here – and buy beautiful editions of Flower Fairy books and colouring books from Penguin here.  And you can even follow the Flower Fairies on Instagram and Facebook!

 

 

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