Fairies in Illustration @ the Heath Robinson Museum

It always amazes me how much factual information and how many beautiful pictures the Heath Robinson Museum manages to pack into such a relatively small space.

This exhibition manages to cover how the depiction of fairies, elves, sprites and goblins has changed and evolved over the past 200 years through some fifty drawings and illustrations hung on the walls and 17 or so antique illustrated books open in display cases. Over twenty illustrators are represented, from Sir Joseph Noel Paton RSA (1821 to 1902) to the contemporary illustrator and designed Brian Froud (b.1947).

The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Sir Joseph Noel Paton (1849)

Here were some of my highlights.

William Heath Robinson (1872 to 1944)

The great man is represented by seven drawings. In the first, Edwardian, part of his career, HR produced beautiful illustrations for luxury editions of classics. The most obvious source of fairies is his illustrated edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which has of course provided a pretext for artists down the ages to depict sprites and fairies) and five or so of the pictures here are from it.

I love Heath Robinson but I felt these black and white illustrations were just that – you needed to know what was going on in the story to really ‘get’ or understand them. Unlike the obvious highlight of his pictures here, and of the whole show, the wonderful Fairy’s Birthday, which just happens to be one of the most popular pictures in the permanent collection.

The Fairy’s Birthday (detail) by William Heath Robinson (1925)

The Fairy’s Birthday was one of a series of large, coloured ‘goblin’ pictures that Heath Robinson made for the Christmas editions of upmarket magazines such as The Graphic between 1919 and 1925. As the wall label suggests, the goblins and fairies have been given a ‘homely, bumbling’ appearance – look at the French pâtissier carrying the heavy cake, at the top.

Helen Jacobs (1888 to 1970)

Jacobs grew up in East London and studied at the West Ham School of Art. The four fairy pictures by her here are absolutely wonderful. What characterises them is the combination of extremely detailed depictions of the subject – with a very firm use of line and shade to create volume and drama – against wonderfully bright washes of background colour.

Look at the definition of the right arm and armpit of this fairy, but also revel in the midnight blue background. And note also the sprays of pearl-like baubles radiating out from the fairy’s diaphanous clothes. I like strong, defined outlines, so I loved all four of her pieces here for their clarity and dynamism.

A fairy on a bat by Helen Jacobs

Charles Robinson (1870 to 1937)

Robinson trained in lithography but began illustrating books from the mid-1890s and illustrated a trio of books with the collective title of The Annals of Fairyland (1900 to 1902). In 1911 Heinemann published an edition of Shelley’s poem The Sensitive Plant with 18 coloured plates and numerous vignettes.

Just one of these is included in the exhibition, and I found it one of the most haunting. In the centre is a baby with wings, more of a chubby Renaissance putto maybe, than a slender sprite. What I kept returning to enjoy was the way the delicate wash which created a fog, a mist, through which you can see the ghostly outlines of the autumn trees in the background. And the craggy, Gormenghast quality of the black branches, especially the one at the bottom. And then the wonderful spray of autumn leaves falling in a spray around the centre, behind the putto. I’m not sure how strictly fairylike this picture is, but I found it wonderfully wistful and evocative.

Illustration for The Sensitive Plant by Charles Robinson (1911)

Cicely Mary Barker (1895 to 1973)

The exhibition closes with a set of eight of the original watercolours for the Flower Fairy books by Cicely Mary Barker. Barker was born in Croydon and although she later attended the Croydon School of Art, she was largely self-taught. In 1922 she sent some of her flower fairy illustrations to Blackie and Son the publishers who published them as Flower Fairies of the Spring. She received just £25 for the 24 pictures in the book, but it sold well and she was able to secure a royalty for all its sequels.

The Hawthorn Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker (1926) © The Estate of Cicely Mary Barker

Eventually there were eight flower fairy books, containing 170 illustrations. The striking thing about them is their hyper-realism grounded in Barker’s immensely careful depictions of the flora each fairy is linked to. Her sketchbooks have survived and show what immense trouble she took to draw extremely accurate depictions of yew, sloe berries, horse chestnuts, elderberries and many, many more.

As someone who takes photos of English wild flowers, I was riveted by the accuracy of her botanical drawings. But she also used real children to model for each of the fairies. Hence the sense of super-reality.

And yet… There is something rather… cloying about her fairy paintings. Many of the previous fairy drawings and illustrations were notable for their whimsy and fantasy and lightness. There’s something in the very solidity and botanical accuracy of Cicely Mary Barker’s pictures which is a little… overwhelming, stifling almost. What do you think?

Brian Froud (b.1947)

In a display case there’s a copy of modern fantasy artist Brian Froud’s brilliantly inventive and funny book Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book, with a couple of framed original drawings hanging on the wall above it.

This is a very modern, disenchanted, cynical but hilarious view of fairies and, indeed, of human nature, purporting to be the book in which the fictional Lady Cottington has heartlessly captured and pressed to death a wide variety of fairies. The fairies are slender naked females with long dragonfly wings, each caught in a posture of terror and horror as the pages of the collecting book bang shut on them.

A pressed fairy from Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book by Brian Froud (1994)

A frolic of fairies

Those are just five of my personal highlights, but there are lots of other images, by lots of other artists.

Some of them are well known (Rackham, Richard Doyle), many of them far less well-known – and it is fascinating to see just what a variety of imagery and mood can be sparked by ostensibly the same subject, some enchanting, some – frankly – grotesque:

  • from the stately Romantic paintings of Sir Joseph Paton (see above)
  • to the disturbing images of Charles Altamont Doyle who was hospitalised for alcoholism and depression
  • from the very Aubrey Beardsley-influenced, Decadent style of Harry Clarke
  • through to the big baby surrounded by little sprites and goblins painted by Mabel Lucie Attwell (Olive’s Night Time Vigil with the Fairies).

Get in touch with your inner child. Be transported back to all the fairy stories and fairy books of your earliest memories. Go and see this lovely exhibition.

Full list of illustrators and artists

  • Florence Mary Anderson
  • Mabel Lucy Attwell
  • Cicely Mary Barker
  • Harry Clarke
  • Walter Crane
  • Charles Altamont Doyle
  • Richard Doyle
  • Brian Froud
  • Florence Susan Harrison
  • Lawrence Housman
  • Reginald Knowles
  • Celia Levitus
  • Hilda T. Miller
  • William Heath Robinson
  • Helen Jacobs
  • Jessie King
  • Barrington MacGregor
  • Carton Moore Park
  • Sir Joseph Noel Paton
  • Arthur Rackham
  • Charles Robinson
  • Reginald Savage
  • Margaret Tarrant
  • Alice B. Woodward

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Peter Pan and Other Lost Children @ The Heath Robinson Museum

The exhibition title is a little misleading. It led me to believe the show would be about a range of old-style illustrators who’d all tried their hands at illustrating Peter Pan. In fact it is a small but beautifully formed exhibition devoted to the work of just two notable but very different Edwardian women book illustrators.

Alice Bolingbroke Woodward (1862 to 1951)

Alice Woodward was one of the seven children of Dr Henry Woodward, a geologist at the British Museum. From an early age she (and her three sisters) wanted to be artists and her parents were affluent enough to fund her training at the Westminster School of Art and at the South Kensington School of Art, before she went to spend three months at art school in Paris.

In other words, Alice received a lot of training and study, especially in life drawing. In 1895 she began her career as a commercial illustrator, and in 1897, was established enough to replace Aubrey Beardsley as illustrator of a magazine series titled Bons Mots of the Eighteenth Century. Between 1896 and 1900 she illustrated a series of children’s books.

In 1904 J.M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan debuted in London and was wildly popular. A publisher, G. Bell and Sons, had the idea of recycling the characters from the play into a large format, illustrated Peter Pan Picture Book (text by Daniel O’Connor) and asked Woodward to do the illustrations.

Woodward was thus the first illustrator to illustrate the Peter Pan stories, creating 28 coloured plates for the Picture Book which went on to become an international bestseller.

Illustration from The Peter Pan Picture Book (1907) by Alice B. Woodward

Illustration from The Peter Pan Picture Book (1907) by Alice B. Woodward

For the next thirty years Woodward worked for Bell, illustrating a wide variety of children’s stories, including a new edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The half of the exhibition devoted to Woodward presents 19 of the original watercolour drawings from her Peter Pan as well as seven watercolours from Alice, with two display cases showing ten or so original editions of other books for which she drew covers, end-papers and illustrations.

Alice in Wonderland by Alice B. Woodward (1913)

Illustration from Alice in Wonderland by Alice B. Woodward (1913)

To be honest, I wasn’t completely convinced. There’s a certain weakness about her faces. This is more obvious in the Alice illustrations than the Pan ones. The Alice pictures suffer by comparison with either the original illustrations by John Tenniel, or the version done a little earlier by Arthur Rackham in 1907.

On the evidence here Woodward is at her best with Peter Pan – such as in the beautiful image of Mrs Darling bending over one of her small children in his bed, or in more active scenes like the big crocodile waddling after Captain Hook or of Peter Pan fighting the captain (see below).

Illustration for the Peter Pan Picture Book (1907)

Illustration from The Peter Pan Picture Book (1907) by Alice B. Woodward

Edith Farmiloe (1870 to 1921)

Edith was born Edith Parnell, the second of ten children (ten!). In stark contrast to the opportunities given Alice Woodward, Edith had little or no formal art training.

In 1891 she married Thomas Farmiloe who was vicar of St Peter’s church in Great Windmill Street, Soho. It was a very deprived area in the 1890s and Edith started writing stories about the children of the poor who thronged the streets. It was only a small step to start illustrating them herself. Lacking Woodward’s training in life drawing, shading and depth, Edith developed a style based on clear black outlines.

Edith’s earliest pictures were picked up by children’s magazines and then, in 1897, she was asked by the publisher Grant Richards to illustrate a large picture book titled All The World Over, with each page devoted to (rather stereotypical) depictions of children around the world, from Eskimos to Australians, alongside verses about them written by the freelance writer E.V. Lucas.

Greenland - Waiting for the sledge, illustration for All The World Over by Edith Farmiloe (1898)

Greenland: Waiting for the sledge, illustration for All The World Over by Edith Farmiloe (1898)

In 1898 Grant Richards requested a follow-up book and suggested the subject be the children of London. It was titled Rag, Tag and Bobtail (1898). Although aimed at children, the pictures are notable for some occasionally unflinching depictions of the real poverty of of London’s most deprived children. The exhibition brings this out by displaying next to the Farmiloe pictures, contemporary photos of children’s street activities.

Photos from Some London Amusements published in Living London by George R. Sims, Cassel and Co (1901)

Photos from Some London Amusements published in Living London by George R. Sims, Cassel and Co (1901)

This was followed by another picture book, Picallilli, in 1900, the same landscape format but this time Edith wrote the text as well. The first 15 of the 30 colour plates depict the Italian immigrant community in London, hence the title.

Out from School, illustration for Rag, Tag and Bobtail (1899) by Edith Farmiloe

Out from School, illustration for Rag, Tag and Bobtail (1899) by Edith Farmiloe

In 1902 Edith illustrated a picture book, Young George – His Life, for a new publisher, William Heinemann. Unlike the previous three, this picturebook was in portrait format and explicitly depicted the lives of London’s street children. The family in question has no father, so George is in charge of all his younger siblings. The children have to fend for themselves, and feed themselves from the street, since their mother locks them out of the house every morning when she goes off to work.

London (East) the Diamond Jubilee by Edith Farmiloe

London (East) the Diamond Jubilee by Edith Farmiloe

Compare and contrast

It is really interesting not only to a) learn about two illustrators I’d never heard of but b) to be able to compare and contrast two such very different styles of illustration.

Woodward is interested in depth of perspective and richness of colour. The polish and ambition of her technique is exemplified in the visual complexity of an illustration like this.

Mermaid Combing Her Hair by Alice B. Woodward, illustration from The Peter Pan Picture Book

Mermaid Combing Her Hair by Alice B. Woodward, illustration from The Peter Pan Picture Book

Some of her illustrations I would like to own, but many are marred by a kind of infelicity of composition, especially in her inability to draw faces really accurately. I think she aims ambitiously high, and sometimes gets there with sumptuously luxurious pictures… but not all the time.

By contrast, Farmiloe was from the start a far more stylised illustrator, making the most of her lack of formal training by concentrating on strong outlines and simplified figures.

I found Edith’s pictures easier to assimilate and more entertaining to look at. They are winning. Her children may be cartoon-like (the friend I went with said some reminded him of the Peanuts cartoon by Charles M. Schulz) but they immediately evoke a strong visual response, in a way the Woodward pictures don’t – for me, anyway.

And also the stories, texts, ideas and inspiration for Farmiloe’s illustrations are new and inventive. Woodward is illustrating stories we already know and love; there’s a strong sense of familiarity, even of déjà vu in some of her pictures, and she suffers a bit in the inevitable comparison with the famous illustrators who had gone before her (in the case of Alice, at any rate) or with other illustrators of these classic works who came afterwards.

In contrast to the crowded field Woodward was working in, Farmiloe creates a new visual language for entirely new stories, situations and poems, and so has the benefit of freshness.

This explains why there are more wall labels about Farmiloe than about Woodward in the exhibition – because each of her book projects needs to be explained in a way that Peter Pan or Alice don’t. And these explanations – especially concerning London street children and poverty – are often as interesting and absorbing as the pictures themselves.

For example, one of the picture books on display is open at the wonderful children’s poem A Make-Believe Margate. This is based on the bitter-sweet idea that even in the poorest slums, inner city children play a game of pretending they’re by the seaside.

The Jinks ‘ave gone to Margit.
Oh! They spends their money free!
From Saturday to Monday
They’ll eat their s’rimps for supper
An’ they’ll sniff the salt-sea spray,
As they swagger down the Jetty
When the band begins to play.

The Jinks ‘ave gone to Margit.
But we doesn’t care – oh no!
Though we felt a little chokey
As we stud and watched ’em go.
And Ameliar started cryin’,
But young ‘Enery, sez ‘e
‘I tell you what, you kiddies,
Let’s purtend we’re by the sea.’

So we all began purtendin’.
Oh it was a bit o’ fun!
An’our court looked jest like Margit
When the sport was well begun.
There was paddling for the babies
(For we emptied lots o’ pails)
And they looked for shells and lobsters,
Round the dustbin and the rails.

And the Jackson boys were donkeys,
Runnin’ races on the shore,
While our washin’-tub, the Skylark,
Made excursions past the door;
Then the Muggins blacked their faces,
(They was never werry clean)
And you should ‘ave ‘eard ’em bangin’
On their (tea-tray) tambourine!

Yus’, the Jinks ‘ave gone to Margit,
But they needn’t think we mind,
Though they larfed as they were startin’,
When they saw us left be’ind.
If we’re cooped up ‘ere in Hoxton,
Yet we’ll never sigh or groan,
For we’ve got a little sea-side
Of our werry, werry, own!

And here’s Farmiloe’s illustration of the poem.

A Make believe Margate by Edith Farmiloe

A Make-Believe Margate by Edith Farmiloe

So it’s not only the illustrations, but the novelty and interest of the ideas behind them – the novelty and cleverness of this poem, for example – and the very idea of depicting slum children with sympathy and humour – all these factors go to make Farmiloe, for me, a more interesting, entertaining and emotionally engaging artist. I admired many of the Woodwards; but I wanted to own many of the Farmiloes.

Go along and decide for yourself!

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A Curious Turn @ the Heath Robinson Museum

The Heath Robinson Museum must be one of my favourite places. It never fails to put a smile on my face and prompt happy laughter from all the visitors around me.

Its latest exhibition is actually not a home-grown product, but has been curated by the Craft Council and is finding its London home at the HR Museum as part of a tour round the UK.

A Curious Turn is a collection of 30 intricate and imaginative automata, beautifully made, complicated and entertaining contraptions. Heath Robinson didn’t, apparently, turn any of the thousands of ridiculous contraptions depicted in his cartoons and illustrations into actual three-dimensional models, but his spirit hovers over the whole show, and it includes a couple of wonderful illustrations by his characteristically convoluted inventions. But this is first and foremost an exhibition of moving machines.

A Busy Day at No.12 West Street (2012) by Fi Henshall

A Busy Day at No.12 West Street (2012) by Fi Henshall

What is an automaton?

The dictionary defines automaton as:

  • a moving mechanical device made in imitation of a human being
  • a machine which performs a range of functions according to a predetermined set of coded instructions

According to the wall labels, the post-Newtonian vision of the world, indeed of the universe, conceived of as an enormous machine following the clear mathematical laws which Newton had discovered, helped to make the 18th century the Golden Age of Automata, characterised by high-end mechanical devices constructed of expensive components, designed to entertain the rich, such as the Writer made by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in 1774.

The Writer by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in (1774)

The Writer by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in (1774)

During the 19th century cheaper, more accessible devices were created to entertain the masses at circuses and fairs. However, at the turn of the 20th century new mechanical marvels came along to entertain the people, not least the cinema. Watching an elaborate machine recreate a small circuit of human actions paled into insignificance compared to the watching the Keystone Cops or Charlie Chaplin’s madcap adventures at a penny a go.

The taste for, and the manufacture of, automata went into a steep decline. The exhibition singles out two exceptions – the moving sculptures Alexander Calder made in the early 1920s (and which I was lucky enough to see for myself at the 2015 Alexander Calder retrospective at Tate Modern) and the elaborate contraptions devised in the 1950s by the inventor Rowland Emett.

Emmett is best known nowadays for creating the elaborate inventions of Caractacus Potts in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) but a number of newsreels from the 1950s and 60s capture him and his world of elaborate contrivances.

The 1970s revival

It was only in the 1970s that automata began to undergo a revival. Instead of expensive toys for the rich, or gewgaws for Victorian gawpers, the revival was associated with folk and craft elements from traditional sources.

The exhibition attributes a lot of this revival to the work of Sue Jackson, the founder of Cabaret Mechanical Theatre. Apparently, she encouraged makers in Falmouth, Cornwall, to build automata to sell at her local craft shop, Cabaret and, as you read on and progress through the exhibition, you come to realise that almost all the artists and model-makers included in the show are or were associated with Sue and the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre. It’s not an international show. It’s very much about this one lady and the group of model-makers she gathered around her.

Sue Jackson and Paul Spooner outside Cabaret, Falmouth, 1983

Sue Jackson and Paul Spooner outside Cabaret, Falmouth, 1983. Image courtesy of Cabaret Mechanical Theatre

This new generation of automata moved away from the 18th and 19th century pleasure of machinery for its own sake, and placed it much more within the context of contemporary art and sculpture, of folk motifs, incorporating craft techniques with wood and fabric.

A little later, from the 1980s onwards, there is the growing influence of the Steampunk movement in comics and novels.

So not only are almost all the works on display associated with the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, but almost all the automata on show are MODERN – there are no examples from the 18th or 19th century. Almost all of the 30 or so examples on display date from the 1980s onwards and, I didn’t count but I’d guesstimate that about half of these date from the 2010s.

This is not an overview of the History of Automata: it is an exhibition of very modern-day moving machines, which display a very modern range of subject matter and often dry, ironic temperament.

Dia de los Muertos (2016) by Wanda Sowry

Dia de los Muertos (2016) by Wanda Sowry

Influenced by the creaky contraptions of Emett and Heath Robinson, modern-day artists like Keith Newstead, Tim Hunkin and Jan Zalud explored how you can use the form or genre of mechanically moving human or animal puppets to make sculptures which satirise, explore or glorify the weird and wonderful world around us.

Certainly there’s a lot to bewitch and amaze the visitor. Bring children. Almost all of the displays have BUTTONS to push which make the contraptions perform in exotic and imaginative ways. Possibly the most compelling of all the devices is this wonderfully ornate flying machine by Keith Newstead. Press the button and all manner of cogs and cams whir and click to make the driver pedal, the wings flap and the wheels go round.

Transports of Delight (2010) by Keith Newstead

Transports of Delight (2010) by Keith Newstead

But there’s also a wide range of looks and styles. Since the turn of the 21st century the style has moved away from a folk-craft style. The influence of Steam Punk is just one among many diverse trends, some artists returning to the elaborately metallic roots of the automaton but combining this with an expansion into a much broader range of styles and techniques.

Many of the works coming into the ambience of contemporary fine art, becoming interesting sculptures in their own right as well as clever or entertaining ‘toys’.

Take this piece by John Grayson, which initially looks like something from the Victorian era because of the use of porcelain and the dresses, hair and beard style of the figures. But it was in fact made in 2016 and, if you read the texts in the newspapers which are flowing down in front of the main figure, you realise that they are about Brexit and the Leveson Enquiry and all kinds of contemporary issues which fill the headlines.

This very knowing use of ceramics combined with an up-to-the-minute text or pretext reminded me very much of Grayson Perry.

The Discombobulated Brexiteer (2016) by John Grayson

The Discombobulated Brexiteer (2016) by John Grayson

A different spin is given to the form by artist Melanie Tomlinson who uses a great deal of illustration to decorate her sculptures. In her work the complex machinery so obvious in works by someone like Keith Newstead is completely concealed beneath a metal carapace which is itself printed with beautifully intricate drawings of folklore and fairy tales, images which gently come to to life when the sculptures move.

Among the smallest works of art I’ve ever seen is the tiny series of circus acrobats by Laurence and Angela St Leger, which are only a centimetre or so high, and hand made in exquisite detail.

Two Acrobats (2016) by Laurence and Angela St Leger

Two Acrobats (2016) by Laurence and Angela St Leger


The making of automata, or mechanical moving models, is an area on the border between art and craft which you rarely hear about.

You sometimes see odd examples of old automata in local museums, but it’s extremely rare to get the opportunity to see the work of contemporary artists who are developing and expanding this old format into ever-more inventive, more earnest or more comical channels – artists like Keith Newstead, Melanie Tomlinson, Paul Spooner, Sam Smith or Tim Lewis. Which makes this a rare and fascinating exhibition.

It’s also funny. It’ll make you laugh. It’ll make you marvel at the intricacy of the workings and the cleverness of the conceits. You’ll get to the end and wish, like me, that there were more buttons to push and more automata to watch whirring and moving.

A Curious Turn is another thought-provoking, inspiring and above all happy-making triumph for the Heath Robinson Museum.

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