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The Wonderful World of Cicely Mary Barker

The Wonderful World of Cicely Mary Barker

Valentyna Sushchova

Nothing seems to tickle the imagination of children more than visions of the fairy world. Almost 100 years ago, world-renowned artist and poet, Cicely Mary Barker, created an amazing world of illustrations and poems bringing flower fairies to life. She painted dozens of Flower Fairies. Some were part of a Flower Fairy alphabet. Others were Flower Fairies of the garden, of the forest, and of spring, summer, and fall. Her fairies recreate the beauty of nature as well as the joy of childhood. The books of Cicely Mary Barker (1895 – 1973) have enjoyed an enduring popularity with adults and children alike. Her pictures of nostalgic children and floral sprites are charmingly delicate in detail and exhibit her Christian morality and understanding of nature. Learning about Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies can actually open doors to the world of horticulture, botany, natural science, and ecology as well as poetry. Below is a biography of Cicely Mary Barker. I hope you enjoy it with some of her poems and drawings I have placed on this page.

Childhood

Cicely Mary Barker was born on 28 June, 1895 in Croyden, a town near London, England, to Walter Barker and Mary Eleanor Oswald. Walter Barker was descended from a long line of wood carvers, a profession which he also pursued. In 1909, he donated a hand-carved pulpit to the family church, St. Edmund’s in Croyden. His daughter also showed an innate sense of creativity early on, engaging in hours of drawing and painting as a child. She suffered from epilepsy as a child, a condition which disappeared after World War I and never afflicted her again. Because of her illness, she was treated as the baby of the family and overprotected her whole life. In part, this may have contributed to her understanding and portrayal of children in her artwork.

Education

Due to her delicate condition, Cicely was unable to go to school and her parents thought it best to have her educated at home by governesses. For the child was schooled at home by a governess, fairies were tiny companions, the unknown childhood friends of a girl living small, in a society of adults. Besides she largely taught herself to draw and paint, encouraged by a supportive family. Her loving father encouraged her work and paid for her to study art through a correspondence course which she continued until at least 1919. It provided her with details and the constructive criticism that she needed but this was not her only training. He also enrolled her in an evening class at the Croyden School of Art when she was thirteen, which she continued to attend into the 1940’s, eventually earning a teaching position there.

Professional Career

At the age 15, her father submitted some examples of her work to the publisher Raphael Tuck. They were bought by him and published as a set of postcards. And from that time she devoted her career to painting. The next year, she won second prize in a poster competition run by the Croyden Art Society. She was soon elected a life member of the Society, becoming the youngest person ever to receive this honour. From this time onwards, she was able to sell her works to magazines, to postcard and greeting card manufacturers, and later to book publishers. This was very helpful to the family finances. The art critic for the Croyden Advertiser commented: "Her drawings show a remarkable freedom of spirit. She has distinct promise.” Barker had a special relationship with her father. He was proud of her and fond of calling her "Ciskin”. After her father’s untimely death in 1912, her older sister, Dorothy, tried to support the family with her small teaching salary. Barker also tried to help by selling poetry and illustrations to magazines such as My Magazine, Child’s Own, Leading Strings and Raphael Tuck annuals.

The year is 1920, and a young (and as yet unpublished) Cicely Mary Barker is staying at a friend’s cottage in Storrington, West Sussex, for the spring and summer. Over the months as she sketches and writes in the gardens and grounds, she starts to suspect the presence of fairies in the flowers all around her. Her journal reveals her thoughts and musings, and includes sketches, research into general fairy folklore and many more extra items, as she searches for evidence that the Flower Fairies exist! Barker is best known for her Flower Fairy series of books. Flower Fairies are the product of this English illustrator. No one has ever drawn fairies as Cicely Mary Barker has. The Flower Fairies created by Cicely Mary Barker have brought magic and joy to children and adults alike for many, many years.

Fairies were a popular topic at this time. Queen Mary was fond of the fairy-themed work of the Australian Ida Rentoul Outhwaite and did much to encourage the vogue for fairy paintings during the 1920’s by frequently sending postcards depicting fairies to her friends. It was also a time when people wanted to escape the harsh realities of progress, and return to a simpler and more innocent pre-scientific age.

When in 1923, Cicely Mary Barker, created the first of her Flower Fairies books, this unassuming artist could have little idea of the immense popularity that the flower fairies series would enjoy. Her originality and skill as an artist continues to charm and delight a world-wide readership. All collections of her fairy works offer a nostalgic glimpse into the romantic age, each illustration suggesting that beyond the natural world there might co-exist another, invisible world of the fairies. Cicely was industrious and determined. She sent her flower fairy paintings to several publishers before Blackie accepted them for publication in 1923. She was paid only £25 for a total of twenty-four illustrations and verses in Flower Fairies of the Spring, the first of the Flower Fairy series. Seven more little books about Fairies were to follow. Published in 1923, Flower Fairies of the Spring was well received by a post-industrial, war-weary public who were charmed by her vision of hope and innocence, which seemed to evoke a less aggressively modern world.

Devoted to her mother, Cicely presented her with a first edition of Flower Fairies of the Spring, with this respectfully loving poem:

To mother,

This tiny cup of first fruit wine,

I call it mine,

But it is yours.

And why – because

You are the vine,

And I am yours,

And this is mine.

Thus, tendril-like, the words,

Entwine,

The wine, the wine,

The "mine”, the "yours”,

Yet in one world they do combine.

I and my vintage

All are THINE.

With love from Cis,

September 1923

What is a Flower Fairy?

Flower Fairies are tiny creatures (the biggest is only 20cm tall) that live in the bottom of gardens, the middle of grassy meadows, and on the edge of distant marshes. Wherever and whenever a seed sprouts, a Flower Fairy baby is born. Each Flower Fairy lives and sleeps in their chosen flower, plant or tree, and as this grows the fairy grows too. Each and every Flower Fairy is in charge of looking after their flower or plant; keeping it strong and healthy by making sure it has plenty of sunshine and water to drink, sweeping away dead leaves, and polishing flowers and stems.

How to Find Flower Fairies

The best times of the day to see a fairy are at twilight, midnight, just before sunrise, and midday. And the best time of the year to see a fairy is on Midsummer's eve, as this is the most magical time for all fairies. Flower Fairies love music and dancing, and hold many balls and parties throughout the year, but on this special night they throw the most wonderful party of all, and every fairy in Flower Fairyland is invited! Fairies don't like to be discovered, and are very good at disappearing quickly (with the help of their magical fairy dust), so you must be very careful and very patient if you are to see one.

Flower Fairies are very shy creatures, and are especially wary of humans - who they find very big and loud! Each fairy has extra-sensitive ears, so if they hear someone coming close to them they are careful to flutter into their flower and curl up tightly. Each fairy wears an outfit made from their own leaves and flowers, so it is easy for them to hide.

Cicely Mary Barker painted them as beautiful wide-eyed children and adolescents, with absolutely amazing accuracy on the accompanying flowers. The poem for each flower fairy describes the characteristics of the flower with such grace it sends chills up my spine. Wonderful books for parents to read to their children, as well as a great book for adults who want to stay children at heart. Cicely Mary Barker always used real-life models for her paintings. Most of the models came from the kindergarten her sister Dorothy ran in the back room of the house in which they lived. She also painted her relatives. One of her models was Gladys Tidy, the young girl who came to the house every Saturday to do the household work.

Cicely always asked the child model to hold the flower, twig or blossom of a particular fairy, for she wanted to be sure of the accuracy of her depiction of the shape, texture and form of the plant. Her only alteration was to the size, she enlarged the flower to make it the same size as the child.

Cicely’s flowers are always botanically accurate. If she could not find a flower close at hand, she enlisted the help of staff at Kew Gardens, who would often visit with specimens for her to paint. Cicely’s Fairies are not ethereal fairies of the supernatural, but portraits of real children, whose characters match the characters of the flowers.

Cicely Mary Barker carefully studied plants; flowers, insects and butterflies, and her artistic studying of children is evident in her work. Barker managed to integrate accurate botanical details, the physical beauty and the personality of a flower into every fairy. Each is a remarkable and captivating creation. The delightful poems or "Songs” of each fairy always use the specific characteristics of the plant as the basis of the verse. What better way could be found to get children to appreciate the finer details of nature, or for adults to rediscover them?

Her Flower Fairies series of books which she both wrote and illustrated were very successful and she created seven more. 

Barker’s fairies were based on her knowledge of plants and flowers and her artistic studies of real children, each dressed to represent a different flower.  Barker created a new costume for each of the fairies, carefully taking them apart when she was done in order to reuse the fabric. She never compiled a book of winter flower fairies. It was not until 1985, 12 years after her death, that Flower Fairies of the Winter was compile from illustrations and poems in her other seven Flower Fairies books.

In 1924 Barker had a studio built in the garden of her home at 23 The Waldrons, which also housed her sister’s kindergarten school. In 1961, she told a Croyden Advertiser reporter, "My sister ran a kindergarten and I used to borrow her students for models. For many years I had an atmosphere of children about me-I never forgot it.” Cicely used the children in the school as her models, matching the character and appearance of the child to the character and appearance of the flower. For example: Lavender loves to sing and play. One of her favourite things to do is twirl around and around a lavender stem until she feels quite dizzy! She is friends with the white butterflies that flutter around her flowers, and they often play games of chase, darting back and forth amongst her sweetly scented fronds. She provides her scented flowers to the other fairies to make their clothes smell delicious. Outgoing and friendly, Buttercup likes nothing better than to skip through the summer meadows, visiting friends and singing to herself in the sunshine. She fills the fields with her yellow flowers, which she polishes until they shine like gold, which give pleasure to all her fairy friends and human children too.

Likewise, every fairy costume echoes the characteristics of the flower featured in a meticulous way, and the fairies themselves range from the cheeky little Heather boy racing over the moors to the graceful Willow fairy, dreamily gazing into quiet waters. Never sentimental, each picture fuses fantasy and reality in a unique portrait of fairy child and flower. Many of these students appeared as her Flower Fairies until 1940 when her sister closed down the school. After Dorothy died in 1954, Barker designed a stained glass window for St. Edmund’s Church in memory of her sister.

Barker was a devout Christian, contributing designs for postcards and greeting cards over the years to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, the Girls’ Friendly Society, etc. In 1925, one of these paintings, "The Darling of the World is Come” was purchased by Queen Mary. In addition, she also made paintings for churches, as well as donating paintings to help raise money.

She continued to paint until her eyesight began to fail her towards to the end of her life. She died on February 16, 1973 t the age of 77. Cicely Mary Barker died in 1973 but her remarkable talent lives on, her gentle Flower Fairies touching the heart still in our harsher modern age. Coincidentally, it was the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of her first Flower Fairy book that year.

Influence, Style & Technique

As a child, Barker was exposed to the books of Kate Greenaway. She spent many hours in bed colouring or painting meticulously in her many Kate Greenaway painting books. Although her children don’t seem as melancholy as Greenaway’s, they wear similarly nostalgic clothing in idealized settings. Like Beatrix Potter she studied flowers with a botanist’s eye. Barker’s style of painting and modeling of her subjects is similar to that of Potter’s. Barker was also good friends with Margaret Tarrant, another children’s book illustrator. Yet Barker gives credit to the Pre-Raphaelites for being her greatest influence.” I am very much interested in the Pre-Raphaelites. I have been, all my life, and I’ve tried to see as much of their work as I possibly can… I am to some extend influenced by them – not in any technical sense, but in the choice of the subject matter and the feeling and the atmosphere they could achieve. I like very much, for example, the early paintings of Millais and though he is later, the wonderful things of Burne-Jones.”

Two of Barker’s most cherished books were the two-volume set Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones that she received for Christmas in 1920 from her mother. The family also owned The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais which she enjoyed reading.

She worked mostly in watercolor with pen-and-ink and sometimes in black-and-white. She was also proficient in oils and pastels. She was in the habit of carrying a sketchbook with her and would quickly sketch any interesting child for future use. "I have always tried to paint instinctively in a way that comes naturally to me, without any real thought or attention to artistic theories.”

Cicely Mary Barker is possibly the one person that has influenced the most people of the 20th century that fairies could and do exist.

Her many paintings of different flowers, with these little fairies standing, sitting, or dancing by, was done with the accuracy which would make one think that she may of actually have seen these little guys among the flowers she painted. But she denies of ever seeing one as she states in her foreword to Flower Fairies of the Wayside, "So let me say quite plainly, that I have drawn all the plants and flowers very carefully, from real ones: and everything that I have said about them is as true as I could make it. But I have never seen a fairy; the fairies and all about them are just "pretend”. This unique blend of accuracy and fantasy established popularity for her books and drawings that still lives on today.

Barker also produced a lot of Christian art over the years. She donated art and designs to Christian mission and charity groups and created art for churches as well. However, she is most remembered for her Flower Fairies.

Hundreds of Flower Fairies work and play in every garden, wood and meadow caring for flowers and trees. They only reveal themselves to those who believe in them. So, leave your disbelief behind, and prepare to enter the secret world of the Flower Fairies.

The Song of the Rose Fairy

Best and dearest flower that grows,

Perfect both to see and smell;

Words can never, never tell

Half the beauty of a Rose-

Buds that open to disclose

Fold on fold of purest white,

Lovely pink, or red that glows

Deep, sweet-scented. What delight

To be Fairy of the Rose!

The Song of the Daffodil Fairy

I’m everyone’s darling: the blackbird and starling

Are shouting about me from blossoming boughs;

For I, the Lent Lily, the Daffy-down-dilly,

Have heard through the country the call to arouse.

The orchards are ringing with voices a-singing

The praise of my petticoat, praise of my gown;

The children are playing, and hark! They are saying

That Daffy-down-dilly is come up to town!

The Song of the Forget-Me-Not Fairy

So small, so blue, in grassy places

My flowers raise

Their tiny faces.

By streams my bigger sisters grow,

And smile in gardens,

In a row.

I’ve never seen a garden plot;

But though I’m small

Forget me not!

The Song of the Buttercup Fairy

‘Tis I whom children love the best;

My wealth is all for them;

For them is set each glossy cup

Upon each sturdy stem.

O little playmates whom I love!

The sky is summer-blue,

And meadows full of buttercups

Are spread abroad for you.

The Song of the Fuchsia Fairy

Fuchsia is a dancer

Dancing on her toes,

Clad in red and purple,

By a cottage wall;

Sometimes in a greenhouse,

In frilly white and rose,

Dressed in her best

For the Fairies evening ball.

The Song of the Lavender Fairy

”Lavender’s blue, diddle diddle” –

So goes the song;

All round her bush, diddle diddle,

Butterflies throng;

(They love her well, diddle diddle,

So do the bees);

While she herself, diddle diddle,

Sways in the breeze!

Lavender’s blue, diddle diddle,

Lavender’s green

She’ll scent the clothes, diddle diddle,

Put away clean -

Clean from the wash, diddle diddle,

Hanky and sheet;

Lavender’s spikes, diddle diddle,

Make them all sweet!

The Song of the Snowdrop Fairy

Deep sleeps the Winter,

Cold, wet, and grey;

Surely all the world is dead;

Spring is far away.

Wait! The world shall waken;

It is not dead, for lo,

The Fair Maids of February

Stand in the snow!

The Song of the Wild Rose Fairy

I am the queen whom everybody knows:

I am the English Rose;

As light and free as any Jenny Wren,

As dear to Englishmen;

As joyous as a Robin Redbreast’s tune,

I scent the air of June;

My buds are rosy as a baby’s cheek;

I have one word to speak,

One word which is my secret and my song,

‘Tis "England, England, England” all day long.




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