Take a wander in fairyland

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.

Doyle's Punch magazine cover

Example of Doyle's Punch cover, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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.

Triumphal march of the elf king

Triumphal march of the elf king from In fairyland

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’.

Butterfly chariot

A butterfly chariot from In fairyland

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.

Asleep in the moonlight

Asleep in the moonlight from In fairyland

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.

Courtship interrupted

Courtship interrupted from In fairyland

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.

Dawn chorus 

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

Elf king asleep 

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

 Fairies at play

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!

A facsimile edition of In fairyland: a series of pictures from the elf world is on display during August 2016 in the Library’s Special Collections Reading Room.

These stories are great for carrying us from the drudgery on every day to a nice place that is fun. <a href="http://valuestockplayers.com/">Andy</a> _______
I'm delighted you enjoyed this little foray into the realm of fantasy and the imagination Nancy. I had a great deal of fun and wholeheartedly agree that these lovely illustrations are wonderful for putting away the cares of the world for a while!
What a delightful distraction you've proferred here. I recognise some of these pictures, firstly from an exhibition I saw in London, some 17 years ago, one of which - Asleep in the Moonlight - I still have in a postcard from the show. Also the Metropolitan Museum of Art NY published a book (which I fortuitously found second-hand) Fairyland In Art and Poetry (2001), Illustrated with art by Richard Doyle, accompanied by classics of thematic verse, with the entrancing Butterfly Chariot as above, gracing the cover. The 1870 book is in their collection at the Dept of Drawings and Prints. Thank you for the reminders, and the story about those connections was so interesting.
I'm very pleased this brought back some fond memories for you Nicole, and that we share a love for some of the same illustrations. It really does show the power of art to evoke feelings and make connections between strangers. I'm sure Doyle would have been thrilled to know that people were still appreciating his work after more than a century.
It ought to be added, at the risk of spoiling Richard Doyle's whimsy, that he later became insane, and, confined to an asylum, his art continued to explore an increasingly bizarre and often menacing fairy world, sometimes with a weirdly skewed point of view.