Cicely Mary Barker


A Fairy Orchestra*

Found in the Peter Haining archives this long piece from 1995 about the great Flower Fairy illustrator Cicely Mary Barker. It is likely to be the fruit of research by PH's good friend the amazing W.O.G. 'Bill' Lofts. Cicely Mary Barker's beautiful illustrations are still much loved and have become something of an industry. She also produced some deeply religious illustrations which are also of very high quality.


Wander into almost any stationers', gift or book shop, and you will see them - on cards and calendars, notelets and writing pads, diaries and address books, pencil tins and wrapping paper - even on tins of tea and Wedgwood china collectors' plates! The Flower Fairies suddenly seem to be everywhere.

They never really went away, of course - since they first appeared over 70 years ago, they have continued to work their magic on generations of children and adults alike. If all at once they seem more popular than ever before, it is because 1995 marks the 100th anniversary of the birthday of their creator, Cicely Mary Barker. To celebrate the centenary in June, and hand-in-hand with a big marketing campaign, Warnes are due to publish the first ever study of the artist: “Cicely Mary Barker and her Art” by Jane Laing. This superbly produced book, lavishly illustrated with colour plates of the artist's work and family photographs, is an absolute "must" for any collector of Barker's work, and guaranteed to add to her ever-increasing circle of admirers world-wide.

This widespread admiration is reflected in the prices for early editions of the Flower Fairy series of books, which have risen steadily over the past 5 years or so. These dainty little volumes are much sought-after; however, as every dealer in childrens' books knows, it is very difficult to be sure that a particular copy is a first edition. The publishers, Blackie, did not date them, and only the presence of an original dustwrapper bearing the price of either 1s or 1s6d is a certain indication of a First. One might expect to pay between £35 and £40 for any one of the seven original "Fairy" books in Very Good condition.

Of course, Cicely Mary Barker is not "just Flower Fairies" - although she is certainly best-remembered for them. Jane Laing's book reveals a gentle, deeply religious character who earnestly believed that her artistic gifts should be used to reflect and interpret the spiritual truths that were central to her life. A regular church-goer from her childhood days, she placed a higher value on the illustrations she did for specifically religious purposes - the child's hymn book, the book of Bible stories and the commissioned paintings and stained glass window designs. If, as Laing believes, the delicate charm of her work reflects her personality, the biography raises at least one interesting question. Cicely's over-protected childhood, the early loss of her father and her dependence on the support of her mother and older sister, the shadow of ill-health that never lifted - all these things do not explain a life apparently free from romantic involvements of any kind. We are left to draw the conclusion that all her emotional intensity was channeled into her art and her faith, both of which were the richer for it.

Cicely, or "Ciskin" as she was affectionately nicknamed by her parents, was born in West Croydon on 28th June, 1895, into an upper middle-class family. Her father, Walter, was a partner in a seed supply company, but he was also an artist and encouraged his younger daughter in her love of drawing and painting. Being a delicate child who suffered from epilepsy, Cicely was educated at home by a governess and missed out on the company of friends of her own age. Books were her substitute companions, and drawing her favourite pastime. Recognising her talent, Cicely's father enrolled her at Croydon Art Society, and in 1911 he took some examples of her work to Raphael Tuck, the printer. Tucks paid half a sovereign for four little drawings and asked to see more. In October of the same year, Cicely won 2nd prize in a poster competition run by the Croydon Art Society, the judges commenting that her design showed " a remarkable freedom of spirit ". At age 16, she was elected a life member of the Society - the youngest person ever to receive this honour.

The family was devastated by the early death ( from a virus ) of Walter Barker in 1912, and it fell to Dorothy, the elder sister, to pick up the pieces and become the main breadwinner. She set up her own kindergarten school, and when the family eventually moved in 1924 to a three-storeyed Victorian semi ( still in Croydon ), Dorothy taught the children every morning in the back room, while her younger sister painted in the afternoons in a specially constructed garden studio. During this time, Cicely had begun to make her own contribution to the family finances, selling both verses and paintings to such publications as "My Magazine" ( edited by Arthur Mee ), "Child's Own" and the Raphael Tuck annuals. She also exhibited work at the Croydon Art Society, and at the Royal Institute, where in 1918 she sold a painting entitled "A Fairy Song" for 6 guineas. Other commissions included postcard designs for J.Salmon Art Publishers, C.W.Faulkner & Co., S.Harvey Fine Art Publishers and the S.P.C.K. ( the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge ). Her work was well-received from the outset, remarkable ( as one friend put it ) not only for the quality of the draughtsmanship, but also for its"exquisite taste".

All through the '20's, '30's and '40's, Cicely attended evening classes at Croydon Art School, where she made lots of friends. A lifelong kindred spirit was fellow artist and illustrator Margaret Tarrant, with whom she stayed from time to time at Gomshall in Surrey. Collectors of both Tarrant and Barker may note the similarities of style; turn from any one of the Flower Fairy series to a copy of Tarrant's "Joan in Flowerland" and see how closely the one mirrors the other. The two artists occasionally dedicated their books to each other, underlining the bond between them.

Like Tarrant, Cicely Mary Barker never imitated commercial formulas, but readily admitted to being influenced by favourite artists such as Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott, and - most of all - by the Pre-Raphaelites, Millais and Burne-Jones. She admired the way in which they painted directly from nature, depicting the beauties of the natural world with exact and close attention to detail. Taking to heart the tenet of "truth to nature", Cicely set great store by total botanical accuracy when she painted her flower fairy pictures. If she couldn't find a growing example of the flower she wanted, she referred to her collection of books - notably "Wild Flowers as they Grow" by G. Clarke Nuttall. She was also helped by staff at Kew Gardens, who would bring her specimens to paint. Shape, form, texture - all had to be perfect. The only alteration she made was to make the flower the same size as the child-fairy. All her fairies were real children - models from Dorothy's kindergarten, or the children of neighbours. Gladys Tidy, the appropriately named girl who came to the Barkers every Saturday to help with the household chores, posed as the Primrose Fairy ( could those dainty hands ever have scrubbed floors? ) and was paid 2d or 3d for each sitting! The costumes worn by the models were Cicely's own creations - she made a new one for each fairy and re-cycled the materials once the painting was completed.

The paintings are remarkable not only for technical accuracy but for the fluid grace and delicacy of the figures and the luminous - almost incandescent - loveliness of the faces. Yet, as Jane Laing remarks, "her fairies are not ethereal fairies of the supernatural but portraits of real children, whose characters match the characters of the flowers."

In this they differed greatly from the fairies painted by other artists at the time. Fairies were much in vogue when Cicely Mary Barker's work first appeared in 1923. Arthur Conan Doyle's book, "The Coming of the Fairies", had been published the previous year, and the Cottingley "apparitions" had prompted Margaret Tarrant’s painting "Do you believe in fairies?" for the Medici Society in 1922. Other popular artists were the Australian Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, who had published "Elves and Fairies" in 1916, and, of course, Mabel Lucie Attwell, whose chubby Boo Boos were the cuddly antitheses to Arthur Rackham's disturbingly eerie and angular creations for "Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens". Fairy tales were also enjoying a resurgence of popularity. It was as if the increasing industrialisation and mechanisation of the period had created a yearning for the spiritual, the magical and the inexplicable.

Fairies being so fashionable at the time, it is surprising that Cicely Mary Barker's work was not snapped UP immediately: in fact, it went the rounds of several publishers before being accepted by Blackie in March 1922. Blackie then asked for eight more pictures to complete the first book, "Flower Fairies of the Spring", which was published in 1923 to a chorus of appreciative reviews. One critic rhapsodized: "The imagination of the artist........has linked together three ideas of beauty......and has here embodied them in one. Flowers, children, fairies - how well they go together.....There is a very real art in all of them, for they give the essential "truth" of each blossom in that heightened and blessed clearness that only imagination can supply."

Despite all this gratifying enthusiasm, Cicely received only £25 for the 24 illustrations and verses for "Flower Fairies of the Spring". However, on completion of the sequel, "Flower Fairies of the Summer", Blackie agreed that both books ( and any further volumes ) should attract a royalty. This was largely due to the intervention of Cicely's mother, who was determined not to see her daughter short-changed.

"Flower Fairies of the Spring" set the pattern for all the sequels, being produced 16mo size with distinctive check boards, coloured pastedown illustration and pictorial dustwrapper. A first edition of this, perhaps the most sought-after volume of all, is distinguished by having the words "Tiny Tots Series" printed below the onlay on the front board, and in red under the dustwrapper illustration. A Fine copy of this may now cost as much as £50. "Flower Fairies of the Summer" was published in 1925, and "Autumn" followed in 1926. Jane Laing comments that in the latter, Cicely began to make her fairies play a more active role - giving them additional human traits and really making them part of the plant. Hence the mischievous Beech Nut Fairy amuses himself by throwing nuts down from the tree - doubtless aiming at the heads of unwary passers-by.

In 1927 the three seasonal books were published in a single volume, "The Book of the Flower Fairies", this marking the end of the first series of flower fairies. For this volume, Cicely provided a lovely ink and wash endpaper design featuring a flower fairy from each season running across open fields. Produced 8vo size, with green cloth boards, a gilt vignette and a pictorial dustwrapper, the book has 72 colour plates and in Fine condition has attracted prices of between £150 and £170; even a 1940's reprint sold recently for £90.

A variation on the seasonal theme was "A Flower Fairy Alphabet", published in 1934, to the usual format with 24 colour plates and illustrated endpapers. Laing believes that this, of all the Flower Fairy books, shows Cicely's preoccupation with the Christian virtues of kindness, compassion and care for those weaker or less fortunate. Hence the Apple Blossom Fairy sits with an arm protectively around her baby brother, and Vetch comforts "Poor Little U" who has no flower to call his own.

The "Alphabet" completed, Cicely left the theme of fairies until the 1940's when the next trio of books was published: "Flower Fairies of the Trees", "Flower Fairies of the Garden" and "Flower Fairies of the Wayside". The war and air raids had interrupted Cicely's working schedule, but those dark days of uncertainty and disruption brought her new admirers among people who found her peaceful and pastorally idyllic fairyland world a welcome escape. The last book, "Flower Fairies of the Wayside", appeared in 1948, and in 1950 the second trio, like the first, was published in a single volume - "Fairies of the Flowers and Trees”. Again bound in green cloth with gilt lettering and 72 colour plates, the book featured endpapers showing a procession of fairies from all the series, many quite tiny but still easily identifiable. A Fine copy of this lovely volume was advertised recently at £185.

In 1985, 12 years after Cicely's death, Blackie re-issued the whole series in a different format. The books were now slightly larger, the check boards replaced by plain cloth and the endpaper designs altered both in subject and colour. Pictures and verses in the books were re-arranged and the picture titles re-positioned. For some reason, it was deemed necessary to retouch the original colour, and this makes quite a noticeable difference. Compare, for example, the original illustration of the Lilac Fairy ( "Flower Fairies of the Trees" ) with the retouched 1985 version; the former is altogether brighter, with pink rather than blue tones predominating. In 1985 Blackie also compiled "Flower Fairies of the Winter", using appropriate illustrations from the seven existing books. This new arrangement of eight titles now included a book for every season and proved very popular. The books continue to be published in this way today, and have been available in paperback since 1974.

The Flower Fairies took over Cicely's life for a considerable time in the 1920's and again in the '40's, but she continued with other projects, illustrating stories and poems in magazines such as "Child's Own" and designing covers for the Blackie Story Book Annuals. She also produced two collections of rhymes and stories - "Old Rhymes for All Times", which appeared in 1928, and "A Little Book of Rhymes New and Old" in 1933. The first edition of "Old Rhymes" is quarto size, bound in buff cloth with red and green lettering, an upper cover illustration and coloured endpaper illustrations. The book features an introduction by the artist, 12 large colour plates and numerous black-and-white line drawings. It was reprinted later in the smaller "Flower Fairy" format, minus the introduction by Cicely Mary Barker and with blue and white endpapers. The first (1928) edition has 59 rhymes - 13 more than the later book, and more line drawings. Copies now change hands for between £60 and £85. With this and "A Little Book of Rhymes New and Old", Cicely aimed to make what she considered the best of English poetry accessible to children, and her selection included such perennial favourites as Walter De La Mare, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll as well as Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Blake. Reviews were favourable, one commenting on the "delicate glamour" that Barker brought to the old rhymes and fables, making them somehow uniquely her own.

The timeless, rustic world of seemingly endless summer that had become Barker's trademark was also much in evidence in the little story "The Lord of the Rushie River", which first appeared in 1938. The heroine, Susan, is able to communicate with the swans who live on the river, and is herself as much a part of the landscape as they are. By the time this book was written, Cicely had moved from Croydon to Storrington, near Worthing, and in her illustrations the characteristic ink outlines and pastel washes are reminiscent of the gentle Sussex countryside she had come to love.

Still at Storrington in 1943, Cicely wrote the outlines for two new stories for Blackie. Only one was published straightaway - "Groundsel and Necklaces", which appeared in 1946. This was a tale set in the early 19th century, in a pre-industrialised landscape. As Jane Laing points out, it is a book full of "social concerns, reminiscent of Dickens in attitude and sentiment." Cicely had to make a number of cuts to the original version in order to meet Blackie's requirements and keep it to roughly the same length as "Lord of the Rushie River". The title was changed eventually to "The Fairy's Gift", and by 1991 when Frederick Warne re-issued it, it had become "The Fairy Necklaces”.

The second story, "Simon the Swan", has a still more chequered history. The final version was completed in early 1953, and intended as a sequel to "Lord of the Rushie River", but Blackie put it to one side and it was not published until 1988, 15 years after Cicely's death. It is not clear why it was neglected for so long - although Laing criticises the story for being less cohesive than "Rushie River" or "Groundsel", and believes that it suffers from an unsuccessful attempt to combine the fairytale and the real world. Readers may judge for themselves, but whatever the case the book is already highly collectable, a copy being sold recently for £35.

These gently nostalgic tales taught Christian morality through an understanding of nature, and there is no doubt that the dividing line between Barker's "secular" and overtly religious work is a very thin one. She herself took greatest pleasure in the latter, and was proudest of the work she produced to commission for particular churches - notably the splendid panel for Norbury Methodist Church which measured 4 feet by 7, and which was hung over the communion table. Entitled "Out of Great Tribulation", it illustrated the idea of hope born out of sorrow, and many consider it to be her greatest devotional work. Others include the stained glass window she designed for St.Edmund's Church, Pitlake, in memory of her beloved sister, Dorothy, who died of a heart attack in 1954, a watercolour design for a cradle roll in the same church, and a triptych in oils of the feeding of the five thousand for the altar of the chapel at Llandaff House, Penarth, where her aunt was head deaconess.

Of great interest to collectors of Cicely Mary Barker are the various cards she designed - a set of eight national mission postcards for the S.P.C.K. which appeared in 1916, and from 1923 a series of five birthday cards ( also for the S.P.C.K. ), linked by the theme of a Guardian Angel taking care of a child for the first five years of its life. The children featured on these cards were, as always, drawn from living models, and the locations were places that Cicely had visited and sketched. On the Age 3 card, the setting is Waddon Mill, near her childhood home; on the Age 5 card, the angel leads the child through the south porch of the church at Beddington - also near Croydon.

If these images appear overly sentimental to the late 20th century eye, they found great favour at the time, and Queen Mary herself bought the original watercolour of one of a series of devotional Christmas cards Cicely designed for the Girls' Friendly Society during the '20's and '30's. The artist would have been pleased to make a gift of the picture, but the Queen insisted on paying 5 guineas for "The Darling of the World is Come", which depicts a blond, rosy-cheeked Christ child holding a flower in each hand and surrounded by an arched window frame of spring blossoms.

The card designs were not all plain-sailing for Cicely, who sometimes found herself in conflict with the publishers and their demands. She was often forced to make changes that she disapproved of, and the American firm of Barton-Cotton Inc. for whom she designed a set of seven Christmas cards greatly offended her by getting another artist to "embellish" her original pictures, often in a most inappropriate fashion. With her books, she was on safer ground, and she was delighted when Margaret G. Weed, a Sunday School teacher from Florida and an admirer of Cicely's work, made a special visit to England in 1926 to persuade her to take on the task of illustrating a childrens' hymn book. The "Childrens' Book of Hymns" was first published in 1929, with 12 mounted colour plates and line illustrations, and re-issued without the music as "The Little Picture Hymn Book" in 1933. Two separate editions were published, one for the American market ( in 1930 ), and one for the British, as the selection of hymns was different for each. The books were enthusiastically received on both sides of the Atlantic, Cicely earning royalties on the British version and Miss Weed on the American.

Perhaps Cicely's favourite project, though, was the book of Bible stories on which she collaborated for the first and only time with her sister, Dorothy. "He Leadeth Me", as the book was called, was first published by Blackie in 1933 and featured 16 lovely colour plates plus numerous decorative line drawings by Cicely, the text being written by Dorothy. Those in favour of a bit of gritty realism may criticise Barker for serving up the Scriptures with a sizeable dollop of syrup and saccharine, but the beauty of her illustrations is undeniable, and many of them are genuinely moving in the emotion they convey. A copy of this book inscribed "With love from Cicely Mary Barker, Easter 1936" was advertised recently at £55, but for an uninscribed copy one might currently expect to pay between £20 and £30.

During her final years in Storrington, Cicely's health - always fragile - deteriorated rapidly, and she spent long periods in nursing and convalescent homes. Worst of all, from her point of view, her sight began to fail - but up to the end she. was able to distinguish individual flowers and her mind remained alert and enquiring. When she died in February 1973, in Worthing hospital, an obituary published in "Outlook" magazine ( the journal of Croydon parish ) commented on her "gentle kindness", "unworldly viewpoint" and "delightful sense of humour", concluding that "hers was a life of courage, earnest endeavour and strong faith."

In accordance with her wishes, Cicely's ashes were scattered in Storrington's peaceful churchyard and her estate divided among various relations, with special bequests to her favourite charities and churches. Her true legacy, though, is for everyone to enjoy - a vision of a pastoral, unblemished world in which man and nature exist in perfect, joyful harmony.

*Most of Cicely Mary Barker’s artwork is still under copyright and so may not be posted legally on the internet. This work created before 1923 is in the public domain.

3 thoughts on “Cicely Mary Barker

  1. CMB admirer

    As far as I am aware NONE of Cicely’s work is in the public Domain it is owned by the Cicely Mary Barker Estates. None of her work may be copied and sold without permission.


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