Take a wander in fairyland
Enjoy some lovely illustrations from the Victorian era
31 July 2016
What do Punch magazine, Sherlock Holmes and fairyland have in common? Yes, there is a connection, and that link is Richard Doyle.
Richard Doyle (1824-83) was an illustrator, printmaker, and humourist, son of Irish political cartoonist John Doyle. In 1843 he joined the staff of Punch and in addition to many cartoons and articles, designed the famous version of the front cover that first appeared in January 1849 and remained unchanged until 1956. A remarkable run, and a testament to his skill. The cover has cornucopia of fairies and elves swirling around the masthead title, a very appropriate representation of the magazine's irreverent, mocking style. It also demonstrates Doyle’s interest and facility in depicting the fairy world.
So where is the Sherlock Holmes association? That logical detective would seem to be far removed from elves and fairies. Well, his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was Richard Doyle’s nephew.
In 1846 Doyle's illustrations for The fairy ring, a translation of Grimm's tales, first made his name as a fairy story illustrator. He then went on to illustrate a series of fairy and fantasy tales among other works. His final, most impressive work was In fairyland, a series of pictures from the elf-world, dated 1870 but actually published in late 1869 to appeal to the Christmas market. His watercolour illustrations were masterfully engraved on coloured wood blocks by Edmund Evans and printed in a beautiful elaborate binding designed by Doyle. We have a lovely facsimile edition of the original work, published in Tokyo by Holp Shuppan in 1982.
He originally intended the work to be a standalone series of illustrations of his favourite fairy characters. However the publisher Longmans thought an accompanying text was required to link the images together with a narrative tale. They commissioned Richard Allingham to write a poem to include with the illustrations. Allingham’s verse takes the form of a love story in the fairy world divided into sections set over a single day, such as ‘Dawn’, ‘Forenoon’, and ‘Near Sunset’.
Apparently Allingham was rather disappointed with his poem and contemporary reviewers were also quite critical. There was no consultation between Allingham and Doyle during the writing of the poem, and this lack of collaboration is reflected in the way the poem is presented in the book on separate pages to the illustrations, bearing no relationship to the scenes and characters depicted in the illustrations. In fact, Doyle included his own short captions or descriptions alongside the illustrations, and you can sense his irritation at the publisher’s insistence on including Allingham’s poem. I’m sure he must have felt that it detracted from his art.
In fairyland was designed to be a treasure. Its high price of 31 shillings and 6 pence meant that it was far too expensive for all except the most middle-class of households. Two thousand were printed, but records in the University of Reading's Longman Archive show that relatively few were sold. This led to the sale of remainders, in the form of a reissue with a revised title-page, in 1875.
The book is regarded as highly significant, bringing together the Victorian interest in the fairy tale and developments in the creation of illustrated works in this period. It is said to have shaped the Victorian imagining of fairies, which continues to influence contemporary representations.
Doyle’s work is however far more than just a charming depiction of innocent elves and fairies at play with the plants and animals around them. There is a slightly darker side hinting at more adult concerns with relationships, such as male suitors being turned down by their lovers, or having their courtship interrupted, and some cruelty with elves pulling the legs off insects and teasing butterflies.
I like to think that Doyle meant his audience to enjoy his beautiful, sometimes quirky illustrations and use their imagination to conjure up their own stories. I must say I couldn’t resist the temptation, so have indulged myself with creating the following little verses for three of my favourite illustrations.
Through a window dawn chorus sounds sweet in my ear
Many birds harmonising in voices so clear
Little do I suspect that my pleasure derives
From a fairy baton and twinkling young eyes
The elf king is missing! Oh where can he be?
Is he lost, is he ill, or just gone on a spree?
High and low they all seek their much revered head
Till sleuth black beetle tells of his soft shady bed
No need for equipment to keep them amused
Don’t build slippery slides or trapezes or pools
Fairy folk have found much better ways to all play
Midst the fragrance of fuschias they cavort and sway
Now it’s your turn. Have some fun writing your own little stories or verse to accompany the illustrations. Perhaps something special to tell your own children, or ask them to create a story for themselves. Enjoy!