Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Cicely Mary Barker

“Why do you want that book?” my mum asked me, as we paused in WH Smiths on a wet Saturday afternoon some 27 years ago. (That faint sound you just heard was an age-related wince, please ignore it).

My reply was that the drawings were pretty, and I guess I have never updated that thought when it comes to the illustrations of Cicely Mary Barker. But they are definitely more than pretty, she created a world (again, a very popular theme) of fairies that looked after nature, at just the time when the world and Arthur Conan Doyle were going fairy mad

Cicely was born in 1895 in Croydon, London, and suffered from epilepsy so was unable to go to school, resulting in a lot of time spent on her own, reading and drawing. Hmm, sounds uncannily like ol’ Beetroot Potter, doesn’t it? At least this lass didn’t take her rabbit for walks around Kensington…

Her parents at least encouraged her art, and put her forward to join the Croydon Art Society at 13 years old, and she was elected a life member at just 16, the youngest person ever to receive this honour. Her father again submitted some of her work to a printer, who bought the drawings for greetings cards, and since then she was always able to sell her work, which came in handy for the family fortunes.

Her flower fairies began in when she was 28 years old, and she was paid £25 for 24 illustrations and verse, which became her first book, Flower Fairies of the Spring. She based her fairies on children, using real-life models from the nursery her sister Dorothy ran, and would ask the child to hold the flower, twig or blossom and then enlarge the plant to be the same size as the child. Her flowers are botanically accurate; she used to enlist the staff at Kew Gardens to help her if she could not find the plant herself.

She didn’t publish many of these books during her lifetime, which is surprising considering how much related merchandise seems to appear in shops. There is an anthology you can buy, and my favourite would probably be Flower Fairies of the Wayside, as I guess the word ‘wayside’ conjures up a romantic image of sauntering along a country lane. Considering I am city born and bred, it is amazing how you can feel nostalgic for something you never had.

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