Enchanted Encounters in Post-Victorian Fairy Tale Illustration

Examples of well-crafted small-format paintings are plentiful in post-Victorian fairy art, no doubt due to how many volumes of children’s fairy tales were published during the first 50 years of Victoria’s reign, a period Michael Hearn, author of The Victorian Fairy Tale Book, dubbed to be a golden age for the literary British fairy tale. Hearn points out that after a half century,

The new fairy tales were cleansed of the savagery and ethical ambiguity that had characterized many traditional stores: here there were no ogres who cut off children’s heads, as there were in Perrault’s “Hop o’ My Thumb”, and no rewards for the liar, as in “Puss in Boots.” Even when not overtly moralizing, these tales were always moral. Good always triumphed over Evil in these optimistic fantasies…

As a result, post-Victorian illustrators who were children themselves in the last decades of the nineteenth century, charged with the task to illustrate a specific point in a scene, tended to fill their small allotment of space—either specifically for book illustration, or for the then wildly popular color postcard market—with cheerful and safe moments of friendship. Two such examples can be found in the work of Post-Victorian illustrators Kathleen Wallis Coales (1892-1982) and Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1888-1960), each artist painting an encounter between a fairy and a woodland animal in less than ten inches square.

At merely 8.62 inches wide, Coales’s 1920 watercolor Cock Robin and Flower Fairy is sized for book inclusion, but no accompanying title could be found, and there is no fairy in the ancient poem “Who Killed Cock Robin?”

But the painted vignette is so clearly a bit of dialogue that it was mostly likely originally painted for a book, though possibly left out of a publication at the last minute (perhaps included in Coales 1932 title, The Monkey Patrol?). Or maybe simply painted in small-format with an eye for postcard sales, Coales’ painting nevertheless lets us in on a quiet moment between a girl-fairy and a protective-looking robin.

Cock Robin gets all the color: the earthy reds and browns in his plumage emphasize his link to the natural, terrestrial world. Flower Fairy, by contrast, is made up of airy pencil lines. She is detailed and delicate as befits a creature spanning the space between imaginary and visually real. The ethereal fairy, as well as the misty-white cloudscape background, was possibly influenced after the style of Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), whose signature style often incorporated a washed-out effect that can be seen in several of his pieces (see end of this article for examples). In Coales piece, the two creatures stand out from one another, but their gestures toward each other, as well as their posture and proximity suggest a close and warm friendship. Not an ominous spot on the page.

Specifically painting for her sister’s Annie’s book The Little Green Road to Fairyland (1922), Ida Rentoul Outhwaite‘s subject is similar to that of Coales: a fairy and a woodland creature, this time a frog. Outhwaite’s small-format piece also provides a visual summary of an encounter narrated in the accompanying fairy tale text. The title of the piece is even in quotes, so we know exactly what is being said in the moment: “I am Kexy, friend of fairies.”

But the Australian painter’s work portrays a different sort of relationship than that of the close Cock Robin and Flower Fairy. The moment is still private and the two characters are still located in the center, but they take up much less space comparative to the whole, even separated by a stretch of pond water. As the title of the watercolor suggests, we are seeing the first meeting of friends as they sit in the utter safety of their wooded area, a contrast to the rather non-descript setting surrounding Coales pair.

Neither does Outhwaite appear to have been as influenced by Rackham’s work as Coales was, as every inch of her background is filled in with saturation—purple flowers and forest greenery. Nevertheless, both Outhwaite’s and Coales’ fairies each draw upon the color around them, one vibrant, the other essentially transparent.

And though Outhwaite’s fairy and frog are not as close as Coales’s pair, the vibrancy of the life around Kexy the frog and the purple-winged fairy and the intensity with which they look at each other suggests a promise of a rich and non-threatening friendship, bound by the morals of trust, safety and honor—that common theme of the Victorian and post-Victorian evolution that Michael Hearn alludes to—cleansed interpretations of earlier, much darker versions of fairy tales. And as such, well-suited to fit in a child’s hand.

Examples of Arthur Rackham’s work as described above: