The Kick-About #12 ‘The Cottingley Fairies’

The prompt for Kick-About #12 is the Cottingley Fairies! Remember those cheeky photographs that fooled everyone back in 1917? Hats off to Elsie Wright (16) and Frances Griffiths (9) for scoring a hit without the use of PhotoShop. Who needs PhotoShop when you have cardboard cut-outs and a camera?

By Frances Griffiths (died 1986) – Scan of photograph, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27119285

I think of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when this subject comes up, because I’m aghast that the man who created the most skeptical and scientific of fictional detectives, Sherlock Holmes, could be so gullible as to believe that these photos were authentic. But the truth is, if I had been around in 1917, I would very likely have been one of the people who was fooled by them, simply because I would have wanted to be.

In 2009, a friend Annabel Butler and I found a small ceramic gnome in an op shop*. From memory the original gnome was a ghastly thing; cheap and badly painted with a red slash of paint across his mouth that was about as accurately applied as The Joker’s lipstick. He was only about 10-15 cm tall. We sneaked him into the garden of a local friend and said nothing about it.

The friend was a bit of a trickster herself, so we responded with denial and polite curiosity when she asked us if we had put it there. We followed up by putting a few more in every now and then, and moving them around the garden. We were surprised when her local enquiries became a little frantic and she became spooked. So we confessed. But it turned out that her two children were not spooked but charmed by the gnomes and took to calling them fairies. They were convinced that the fairies were alive and moved around when nobody was looking.

Naturally, we couldn’t let the children down…

Here I am painting tiny gum nuts with silver paint to make Christmas decorations for the fairies’ Christmas feast.
Annabel strings the gum nuts to make garlands.

The fairies multiplied enormously, built huts, got married in various gender pairings, even wrote the occasional letter which had to be delivered to the letterbox via a tiny, tiny rope ladder that took Annabel ages to make. There was a Christmas feast with a musical stage show featuring some ugly clowns. Then the fairies departed because we felt they had overstayed their welcome.

But I received a note from Sass, whose garden it was:

‘I wanted to tell you how much we enjoyed our visit from the fairies and how much the girls are missing them. They are asking questions I am unable to answer and wondering if they will ever return for a visit. The garden seems so very quiet and boring now without them. So if they happened to reappear for any unforseen reason we would welcome them back with open leaves.’ 

They returned in a hand-made covered wagon, charred by dragon fire and set up camp again. I can’t quite understand or believe how we found the time in those days for such activities.

Christmas feast with musical performance in the background on a hand-made stage with seashell footlights..
The Covered Wagon.

Looking at these photos, I’m reminded again of how seemingly unconvincing the installations were. It was the Powerful Energy of the children’s imaginations that brought them to life. How I love that Powerful Energy! And as an adult, I regularly delve into books I read as a child in an attempt to recapture the Power. I am forever hammering on the back of the wardrobe, so to speak.

I’ve made a couple of new ‘fairies’ for 2020, the stranger-than-fiction year. Possibly due to the poisoning of my mind by doom-scrolling through US election news, my 2020 fairies are a pair of Dickensian style villains, sloping back into the forest after getting up to goodness knows what… (Perhaps he is carrying a sack?) The female figure, superficially posing as a pretty thing, with gossamer wings and a lacy apron, has overly long stick insect arms and carries a thorny crook/trident. The male of the species is wearing a lacy collar that droops down in a hairy way from his neck. But the rest of his torso is naked and a bit bloated.

I tried the image out with my viral pattern overlaid in the background. I like the way it makes the scale of the figures ambiguous. It could be dandelion seeds or similar, or perhaps it’s a light effect in the sky. But I think I prefer the image without it. It takes it a little too close to 1960s psychedelic picture book art, and I’ve always preferred the more restrained 1950s art.

Because I’m so minimalist. Yep.

*(translation: thrift store)

4 thoughts on “The Kick-About #12 ‘The Cottingley Fairies’

  1. Annabel

    Oh my goodness Judy! They truly were halcyon days. We were mothers of young children with very little time on our hands but a shared love of mystery, the magic of possibility, innocence, wickedness, coupled with rampant imagination and some pretty awesome craft skills! I will always treasure those times. We laughed until we cried and our belly’s ached. Truly magic in every way. My only regret is that we never followed through with the queens postcard with how sunglasss tan from the distant yon! Perhaps one final installment is now long overdue. Thank you so much for these memories.

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    1. Judy Watson Post author

      Gosh that’s a thought. We could send Sassy some lost postcards. I think most of the craft skills were on your side, Bella, but it was the most marvellous fun. Maybe we just need to make time for such activities. I suspect having young children is what sparks the degree of energy that goes into this stuff. No wonder people get to a stage when they long for grandchildren!

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  2. bespokeshespoke

    Where have I been???? Living under a pile of discarded PPE clearly!!! This is brilliant – when is it being published? Have you read The Folkkeeper by Franny Billingsley – one of my fave books of all time!!! One of the covers, I’ll try to tag you in it – reminds me of this intuitive line work you do x

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    1. Judy Watson Post author

      Hi Sarah. How lovely to see you here! Thanks so much. Nothing on this particular post is for publication. I joined a ‘Kick-About’ over at Phil Gomm’s blog (Red’s Kingdom) because it seemed like just what the doctor ordered. Phil’s approach resonates perfectly with me. No strict rules. No demands. Open-ended. Inclusive. Positive. I was craving a distraction from the work pressure (and Covid Brain), something that would spark off new approaches, new ideas and new art. It has done exactly that. I can spend a day or two on a passing challenge and it acts as a lovely breath of fresh air before I go back to my current book project, which is a picture book by Sofie Laguna. I will be finished illustrations for that project before Christmas and I have no idea what the publication date will be. I have not read Franny Billingsley’s The Folkkeeper. So I will look it up now! x

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