In Fairyland: The Beloved Work of Richard “Dicky” Doyle

Richard “Dicky” Doyle, 1824-1883, was one of the most beloved and prolific fairyland illustrators of the Victorian era. Though known for illustrating adult works commissioned by novelists Thackeray and Dickens, it was with the 1846 translation of Grimm’s tales, The Fairy Ring that first established him as a pre-eminent illustrator for children’s fairy tales. His oeuvre has been described as graceful, amusing, romantic, and frolicsome; Doyle’s sprites engage in playful communion with insects, birds, and nature, as in the illustration Poor Little Birdie Teased (below).

Poor Little Birdie Teased · Date: 1870 · Color engraving · 11.4 x 8.3 cm

The Fairy Queen Takes an Airy Drive · Date: 1824-83 · Lithograph · 27.5 x 38 cm

Doyle made his mark most notably in the exquisite In Fairyland, published December 1869 (yet post-dated 1870), featuring a collection of colored illustrations by Doyle joined with poems by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Keats, Tennyson, Yeats, and others. In Fairyland was designed for children, though it has been said that Doyle covertly addressed adult themes, and intended to attract all ages. From the folio: A fairy queen floating through the night in a carriage of leaf and butterflies explores anew Shakespeare’s popular “Queen Mab” soliloquy in his ethereal and dreamy The Fairy Queen Takes an Airy Drive in a Light Carriage (above, right).

A Rehearsal in Fairy Land · 1824-83 · Lithograph · 27.5 x 38 cm

Both books were expertly designed with the intention of family heirloom in mind. The fifteen wood-engraved plates were printed in color by Edmund Evans, many plates with three-four vignettes each. Also included: miscellaneous black and white line illustrations, including title-page. The book is considered a landmark in the art of color printing.

Its extravagant price, however, rendered sales inadequate; and having printed two thousand copies, few were sold. A couple of the more famous of the plates: A Rehearsal in Fairyland (above, right), and Triumphed March of the Elf King (below).

Triumphed March of the Elf King · Date: 1824-83 · Lithograph · 27.5 x 38 cm

Punch 37 · Date: 1859 · Wood engraving · 11 3/4 x 8 ¾ inches

Born into a family of artists, Doyle was homeschooled by his father, Irish satirical cartoonist John Doyle. He was one of seven children, with three brothers also gifted artists; James, Henry, and Charles, who had a son who became the best known or all — you might recognize his name: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle!

Doyle displayed an early strength for storytelling through drawing and painting in his teens. He was mentored not only by his father, but also by his uncle, Michael Conan, who helped land him a staff position with Punch Magazine at the age of 19. Richard designed the front cover of the magazine with a depiction of fairies and elves cavorting around the page borders.

The wood-engraved frontispiece by Richard Doyle from the first edition of The Fairy Ring by The Grimm Bros. (John Murray, 1846). Auctioned by Bloomsbury House, Mayfair, London. Nov 7th, 2008 Lot 422A

Sought after in high society as a man of wit and brilliance and a most eligible bachelor, he was considered by his colleagues to be an unreliable procrastinator and poor collaborator. His tardiness and lack of commitment ultimately stained his professional reputation and greater success as an illustrator. The blight to his reputation is a shame, as exquisite Doyle illustrations often depict elaborate narratives with fairies in procession or in large ritual gatherings such as in An Elfin Dance (above), and Triumphed March of the Elf King, (at end of article), inviting the viewer to study, explore, and let their imagination dance.

Nonetheless, he went on to illustrate three more books highlighting his delightful imaginings of pixies, trolls, and wood-sprites and his work has been admired by illustrators who came after him. Renowned children’s book illustrator Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), who shared a humorous flair for mischief and the grotesque with Doyle, has praised him as being “probably the best of them all”.

“Dicky” Doyle died at the young age of 59 from apoplexy and his sister preserved his studio, seeing to it that many of his works were published posthumously.

New editions of In Fairyland can be purchased at Amazon. A coloring book based on his illustrations is also available.

An Elfin Dance · Date: unknown · watercolor · 35 x 27.5 cm