Enchanting Victorian Fairy Tale Art

Link - article by Avi Abrams

On the Way to Wonderland: Rare and Beautiful "High Fantasy" Illustrations

Victorian fairy tale art is definitely worth a look if you are trying to get inspired, start a new creative project, or just want to clear your head from modern influences of gritty realism, pessimism and post-everything cynical worldview. Many of vintage books of this nature were collected by the University of Florida, as part of The Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature - many of them lavishly illustrated, beautifully designed and so gloriously otherworldly that it seems they've dropped straight from the Fairy Kingdom itself.

(images credit: University of Florida, The Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature)

Above: illustration from "Once Upon a Time: A Book of Old-Time Fairy Tales" by Margaret Evans Price. Chicago: Rand McNally & Company, 1921.

(images credit: University of Florida, The Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature)

Hans Christian Andersen's "Fairy Tales" editions in particular feature beautiful cover art and wondrous inside illustrations, see for example such tales as "The Nixie (Mermaid)" and "Thumbkinetta":

(images credit: University of Florida, The Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature)

Brothers Grimm's Fairy Tales editions from the 1890s are no less enchanting:

(a medieval scene painted by Alice Mary Havers, 1850-1890; images via)

Margaret Evans Price's quiet, understated art

Margaret Evans Price was a children books illustrator with a very distinctive style: spare lines, minimum Victorian embellishments, great sense of composition and wide use of pastel colors. She started selling her drawings in 1900 and later became equally well-known for co-founding the Fisher-Price Toys company in the 1930s. Her art perfectly communicates the peace and quiet of Old English countryside and is imbued with a sense of understated beauty:

Above: "The Frog Prince" from "The Big Book of Fairy Tales", published by Blackie and Son Limited in 1911.

Truly, the "less is more" approach is evident throughout the Margaret Evans Price' art: check out these elegant lines and pale colors -

Above: illustration to "Diamonds and Toads", via

This was the time of transition from Art Nouveau to Art Deco, and Margaret Evans Price's art falls into this territory with its soft colors and elegant lines.

left: Margaret Evans Price art from "Once Upon a Time: A Book of Old-Time Fairy Tales", 1921; right image: art by Arthur Gaskin, via

Edmund Dulac: Light & Dark Magic

Victorian art also had a place for some dark fantasy, as seen here in Edmund Dulac's "Buried Moon" from his 1916 Fairy Book:

Edmund Dulac also effectively used brighter colors, see for example this piece illustrating the "Fire Bird" tale:

(images via)

Babes in Wood: The Ultimate in Children's Fairy Art

Fairies and High Folk (as elves are sometimes named) were still lingering in England (we mean the old merry English countryside) at the end of the 19th century, it seems. Flower fairy art was extremely popular with children and adults alike, and books were written about various contacts with Fay creatures in the "Twilight Realms" (one highly-recommended modern example of such fairy fiction is Ursula Le Guin's "The Beginning Place", check it out).

The rare and beautiful "Babes in Wood" 1890s edition (also found at The Baldwin Library) contains perhaps the richest and unabashedly wondrous illustrations from that era:

This edition was created by Edith Nesbit in 1896 - really evocative and innocent piece of art:

(images credit: Edith Nesbit, publ. by Ernest Nister, London, 1896, via)

German Fairy Tales: high elves, dwarfs, trolls, and even a "winged wolf"

King Laurin of Tyrol was one of the magical folk (the ruler of a thriving race of dwarves) inhabiting the Swiss/German Alps back in the day - don't forget that Tolkien's Rivendell (an Elven outpost in Middle-earth during Third age) was partly based on Lauterbrunnen valley in Interlaken, truly spectacular location in Switzerland. Some of that Old World grandeur can be tasted in early German fairy tale book editions, full of mysterious, half-hinted magic and glorious events:

"The South Tyrol saga of King Laurin is also a popular explanation of the optical phenomenon of Alpenglow (Ladin: Enrosadira), by which the summit of the mountains change their color to shades of red and purple during and after sunset" - read more:

(images via)

"The Winged Wolf" fairy tale is especially fascinating, though perhaps slightly too weird for modern tastes:

The Winged Wolf and Other Fairy Tales. Collected by Ha Sheen Kaf. Illustrated by Arthur Layard. Edward Stanford, London, 1893

Beautiful maidens magically appear and, sadly, equally magically disappear in many fairy tales (by turning into other creatures, or taken by evil overlords), and the late Victorian romanticism used this to great effect in popular printed editions:

Magical birds, angels, butterflies, pixies inhabit "Legends from Fairy Land":

(images via)

Masterful black & white illustrations by H. J. Ford

Henry Justice Ford was especially famous for illustrating Andrew Lang's Fairy Books (twelve collections of fairy tales, published between 1889 and 1910). The books were named by various color - The Blue Fairy Book, Red, Green, Yellow, etc. - but the inside illustrations were black and white, beautifully realized and infused with magic and romanticism by H. J. Ford:

(images via)

Magic & Romance, Illustrated

Beautiful romance is a cornerstone of many Victorian-era fairy tales, and its various aspects are wonderfully expressed in illustrations by Walter Crane, Arthur Layard, and Margaret Evans Price

(left image below: Margaret Evans Price; right: illustration to Brothers Grimm's fairy tale "The Six Swans"

This one is from "The Red Fairy Book": Graciosa and Percinet - read it here:

"The Sleeping Beauty", illustrated by Walter Crane, from "Household Stores from the Collection of the Bros. Grimm":

(image credit: Walter Crane)

The prince rode to the castle:

Above right: illustration from "The Terrible Head" from The Blue Fairy Book by Andrew Lang - read it here.

"All's well that ends well" - a romantic couple on a horse, depicted by Eleanor Vere Boyle (1825-1916):

Hopefully this collection has been the source of inspiration and encouragement for those who still appreciate pure magic and grand values of Victorian romanticism-era fairy tales and Merry England's idyllic pastoral way of life. We are going to return to "high fantasy" subject in the future, trying to uncover more inspirational gems.

Left: "Cinderella" illustration by Elenore Abbott, from Grimm's Fairy Tales, 1920; right image via)

"Home is behind, the world ahead,
And there are many paths to tread
Through shadows to the edge of night,
Until the stars are all alight.
Then world behind and home ahead..."
-- J. R. R. Tolkien




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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The 1910's, 20's and 30's were not "Victorian" and Art Deco was never "Victorian" art.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

very true.


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