Cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths were aged 16 and nine when they took the first photos. Many years later, in the 1980s, they admitted it was a hoax, explaining that they kept up the pretence that the fairies were real a because they felt sorry for the middle-aged men, like Conan Doyle, that so wanted to believe. There was, at the time, a serious resurgence in spiritualism in the UK, with seances and attempts to contact the dead proving understandably tempting for the bereaved. Conan Doyle himself became interested in a spirit world after his son died in the war. And for believers, this wasn’t “woo-woo” nonsense – it was supposedly based in science. After all, scientific advances were genuinely explaining hitherto unknown and invisible aspects of our world.
“For Conan Doyle, it was all about a search for another realm of being that related to life after death, vibrations, telepathy, telekinesis – this fascinating world on the edge of the limits of human perception,” says Sage. “And obviously that’s connected to the loss of his son in World War One.”
Like the Flower Fairies, the Cottingley photographs further reinforced the association between children and fairies, as well as cementing what a fairy looked like in the public consciousness. Yet aside from Tinkerbell, Flower Fairies are probably the only image from the fairy-fever era still instantly recognisable today. Why, of all the fairy content out there, have Barker’s images endured so strongly over the past 100 years?
“They were [originally published] in full colour, and a lot of books were published in black and white,” begins Sage. What looked novel at the time, now seems charmingly period – but the delicacy, intricacy, and imagination of Barker’s pictures can still cast a spell. “It’s like dolls houses – things that are very miniaturised, but very detailed and realistic, scratch a certain itch,” suggests Sage. “They are absolutely beautiful, which helps.”
“It’s a real celebration of nature – there is a strong educational aspect to her work,” puts forward Slattery Clark, emphasising the botanical accuracy of Barker’s drawings. The educational argument might sound absurd given we’re discussing fairy art, but as a child who was obsessed with Flower Fairies, I can attest to the truth of it: all the wildflowers I know the names of I learned from these books.