Detail from Bother the Gnat by A Duncan CarseRobin: I don’t want you to be shocked at any of these pictures, Columbine. In art, fairies are just as imagined by humans, remember, and if they get it wrong sometimes, well, it is not entirely their fault. We have tried hard to keep out of their way, and some of us change our shape to disguise ourselves too, and some of us (you know who they are!) even deliberately try to frighten humans for fun. Not all the pictures will be as charming as Sophie Anderson’s picture of you.

Also, as Marcel Proust, the French writer, once said: “Thanks to art, instead of seeing a single fairy realm, our own, we see it multiply until we have before us as many fairy realms as there are original artists.” Or words to that effect. And in French, of course.

Columbine: I have heard that artists sometimes use children as models for fairies.

Robin: True! For the lovelier fairies, children, however they might behave, are more beautiful than grown-ups (even the boys). And for the naughty and mischievous folk, their cheeky expressions are spot on.

Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies are all based on real children, not even imaginary ones. It rather shows here, don’t you think? But a pleasing image anyway.

Apple Blossom Flower Fairies by Cicely Mary Barker

Columbine: Quite exotic. I’m sure the Queen would approve.

Robin: More recently some artists have combined photographs of babies and small children with paintings to make them look like tiny fairies with wings, standing on flowers. Sugary confections, though very cleverly put together.

But often fairies in art are more slender and graceful, or on the other hand more squat and grotesque, than anyone you are likely to meet in the human world.

Detail from The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli That reminds me of one of the earliest fairy painters – Henry Fuseli. He was Swiss but worked in England. This is a detail of his best-known painting The Nightmare which shows an ugly goblin sitting on a sleeper’s stomach. Henry Fuseli’s late eighteenth- century paintings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream started a vogue for fairies in art which lasted through the Victorian Age. Many fairy paintings such as those by Richard Dadd and John Anster Fitzgerald were exhibited at the Royal Academy, the ultimate accolade.

Columbine: But it wasn’t just paintings?

Robin: No, from the middle of the nineteenth century the twin explosions in illustrated periodicals and whimsical books for children gave minor artists like Arthur Rackham and Warwick Goble a chance to shine. And many of them were brilliant.

But though there were many exquisite and witty pictures published, there were also many which were bland and unoriginal. Worse, fairies in stories and in art were increasingly relegated to the nursery – and let’s face it, babies aren’t very discriminating. Fairy art was in a mist of cutesy dullness until the great revival of fantasy from the second half of the twentieth century roused a new interest in folklore.

Then in 1978 Brian Froud and Alan Lee’s fresh and far-from-cute pictures of assorted fairy-folk jumped off the pages of Faeries while the accompanying notes on habits and habitats fascinated readers of all ages. They even inspired several film-makers, who used new special-effects techniques to create their fairy characters.

Columbine: And nowadays?

Robin: Today fairies in artistic poses are darting through cyberspace, circling the globe in less than forty minutes, the previous record. These are the glory days of the amateur artists and cottage crafters, and their enthusiastic admirers.

Artists old and new for you to view

Read more about:

Victorian fairy painters – Richard Dadd, Noel Paton, John Anster Fitzgerald & others

The Rock of Fairies

Still to come:

Fairy illustrators: William Blake, Richard Doyle, Arthur Rackham, Margaret Tarrant, Cicely Mary Barker, Warwick Goble, Walter Crane etc.

Rackham sketch from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens Flower Fairies

Modern fairy artists

Mermaids in art: with a special look at mosaics

Three-dimensional fairies

Fairy Photographs

How to draw fairies: resources