Fairies in Art & Culture Throughout Time

Over the years I’ve created several fairy sculptures. Some have been humblingly popular such as my fairy on a swing and my oak fairy. They’re all very different from each other but also all share certain characteristics we’ve come to expect of fairies. That is, a peaceful, ethereal expression and wings. Did you know though that image of a fairy is only a very recent interpretation of what fairies look like? As an artist, I’m fascinated by this. If you are too, join me for a quick history of fairies in art and culture!

sculpture of a fairy offering an acorn to a tree

Earliest Fairies

Every culture has its own version of a fairy and – as with many things – it isn’t possible to track fairies back to a single point of history.
It’s likely though that western fairies had their origins in Greek nymphs, satyrs, and sirens. We’re going to make a massive leap from there though and pick up with the earliest recorded mentions in England. That’s generally thought to be in the 12th– 14th centuries when Gervase wrote about fairies in his travel writings.

Detail of three Nymphs and Themis from a painting depicting the procession of gods attending the wedding of Peleus and Thetis.
Greek nymphs, satyrs & sirens are thought to be the ancestors of British fairies

Fairies in Art & Culture: Middle Ages

Fairies first became a popular subject in England after Gervase wrote about them in ‘Otia Imperialia‘. He called them ‘magical creatures’ and described them as being small, tall, ugly, beautiful, good, evil – a whole range of characteristics! Depictions in art reflected this, and fairies basically looked like humans.

fairy sculpture carved in wood by artist simon o'rourke
This fairy sculpture placed second in the 2019 English Open.

Fairies in Art & Culture: Tudor Period

Somehow, during the Tudor & Stuart periods, fairies took on a very different personality. This meant the way they were depicted in art changed significantly too. Robert Kirk described them as “middle nature betwixt man and angels” – beings that weren’t good enough for Heaven or bad enough for Hell! During this period there were references to all kinds of fairies with different roles. For example, brownies and hobgoblins were guardians. Banshees were more sinister, There were pixies, elves, goblins, trolls, imps and more who all came under the banner of ‘fairy’. And all were mischievous and feared for their ability to curse humans. They were even said to drink blood!

Such was the fear of fairies that people wouldn’t use the word ‘fairy’ in case they summoned one, and they even designed their houses and walked specific routes that would help them avoid upsetting these mythical creatures.

As you can imagine, depictions of fairies at this time were very different to today! And you’ll notice no mention of flying or wings!

a picture of a hobgoblin demonstrating how the depiction of fairies in art and culture has changed over time
A Tudor depiction of a hobgoblin (guardian fairy)

Fairies in Art & Culture: Stuart Period

By the time Shakespeare wrote Midsummer Night’s Dream at the end of the 16th century, fairies were a little less feared. They were still however largely miniature, magical humans with the power to curse and a tendency towards mischief and trouble-making. And still no wings in sight! A big shift at this time however, was the idea that fairies mingled more freely with humans. The sculptures below would have been much more recognisable as a fairy to the people of Shakespeare’s day than the feminine, ethereal, winged sculptures I’ve made!

Tree stump with two large branches. One of them is carved into a sculpture of a pixie. It features in a blog about the history of fairies in art and culture
wood sculpture of a pixie leapfrogging over a toadstool
rear view of a pixie leapfrogging over mushrooms

Fairies in Art & Culture: Victorian Era

The Victorian era saw a MASSIVE growth in interest in fairies as a subject for literature and art. Fairy paintings even became a genre of their own thanks to the likes of Dadd and ‘Fairy’ Fitzgerald. So what were fairies thought to be like by this time?

Whimsy had well and truly begun to creep into depictions of fairies in Victorian art and culture, and it’s around this time we see the addition of wings more and more often. They became something of a motif for ‘other worldly’ experiences and were often shown against idyllic landscapes. They were impish, amoral, and hedonistic – something of a reprieve from the puritanism of Victorian society. Fitzgerald even painted one piece that showed fairies in an opium den. A long way from the fairies of Disney movies, children’s stories, Christmas tree toppers and visits from the tooth fairy! How then did we get to the fairy image we have today?

three wood sculptures showing fairies and imps, part of a blog about the changing appearance of fairies in art and culture over time
My client chose for her fairy sculptures to be more pixie-like and feature the faces of her grandchildren.

Fairies in Art & Culture: J M Barrie to Current Day

There were two works published at the start of the 20th century that are credited with changing the way we think of fairies: J M Barrie’s “Peter Pan“, and Cicely Mary Baker’s “Flower Fairies“.

Baker created an enchanting fairy world full of charming and innocent children’s characters. They had wings so they could fly and were based on children from her sister’s nursery school. They were no longer tricksters and hedonists either. Rather, they spent their days tending the flowers they were named after. Her illustrations are delicate and airy – far removed from the darker fairy images of the past. Fairies had always been able to communicate with nature, but now this was in a sweet way rather than cursing or controlling it for trickery. The Flower Fairies captured people’s hearts and so a very different image of fairies became popular. If you know Baker’s Flower Fairies you can probably tell they were part of the inspiration for my oak fairy.

sculpture of a child depicted as a fairy with a bird in her hand
This fairy memorial sculpture has an innoncence that only came to be associated with fairies in the 20th century

J M Barrie’s Peter Pan was published about a decade before Baker’s Flower Fairies, and again, represented a shift in the way fairies were depicted. In one line of the book they’re associated with the laughter of children and so fairies lost their malevolence and found their place in the nursery.

Disney then produced a movie version on Peter Pan in 1953 and the idea of playful, kind, flying fairies was solidified. Disney’s Sleeping Beauty followed with Flora Fauna and Meriwether, along with other authors and illustrators and we’ve never gone back!

And so, although I’ve created the occasional imp or pixie with a hint back to the earliest fairies, most of my fairies now fit into this later image.

Fairies in Art & Culture – What Do You Think?

We’ve done a flying visit through two centuries of fairies, so what do you think? Which image of a fairy do you like best? Do you prefer the early, ugly, fearsome fairy? Or a winged protector? Cute like Disney or something more graceful like Tolkien’s elves? One thing is for certain, with so many different ideas and concepts of ‘fairy’ throughout time to draw on, it will always be fun to explore a new fairy commission with a client!

If you would like to commission a fairy (or any sculpture!) contact me via the form at www.treecarving.co.uk/contact.