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Fairy Book

The Fairy Book provides a charming insight into the imaginative world of well-to-do Victorian childhood, domesticity and recreation.

It was drawn by Mary Georgina Sutton, later the wife of Coningsby Charles Sibthorp of Sudbrook Hall, and painted by her younger sister Mabel Albinia, later wife of Montagu Richard Waldo Sibthorp of Canwick Hall and mother of three daughters, Esther Mary, Mable Janetta and Evelyn.

Mary was born in 1848, marrying Coningsby in 1876. She died in 1902. Mabel was born in 1854, marrying Montagu in 1876 and living until 1937.

They were the eldest and third daughters respectively of the Reverend Robert Sutton of Scawby Hall, Brigg.

Coningsby and Montagu were sons of Gervaise Sibthorp and grandsons of the colourful Charles de Laet Waldo Sibthorp, ‘Colonel Sibthorp’, who inherited the estate (and went on to take the parliamentary seat) after his brother Coningsby Waldo died in a carriage accident.

Mabel painted her sister’s drawings at the age of sixteen, and it is an intriguing example of that period’s enthusiasm for fairy painting.

The Fairy Book is just one of the items held by The Canon Foster Library, at Lincolnshire Archives, shelf reference ‘R Box L.750’.

The Fairy Book is just one of the published items held by the Canon Foster library, one of the largest local record offices with over 30,000 printed volumes, chiefly of general and local history. Its primary purpose is to provide information to readers and staff to supplement their research and assist in the interpretation, use and care of the documents.

The Foster Library provides a comprehensive collection of reference books and periodicals relating to Lincolnshire, adjacent counties and the ancient Diocese of Lincoln. The library holds many journals, calendars, newspapers, marriage indexes, annual reports, directories, names indexes and theses.

About Victorian Fairy Painting

The fairy imagery of Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘Tempest’ already provided inspiration for artists who wanted to explore the imaginative and fantastical in their work, but the immediate origin of the Victorian interest lay in the 18th century and the Romantic era. Artists like Henry Fuseli and William Blake wove folklore elements into their art, with diminutive figures closely associated with the world of flora and fauna.

The heyday of Victorian fairy painting was the 1840s, establishing a popular genre that included elements of landscape, history, narrative and fantasy that appealed to a growing middle-brow middle class. Nonetheless, artists such as Edwin Landseer, William Etty and Joseph Turner experimented with it, and the pre-Raphaelites, intrigued by the boundaries between greater naturalism and fantasy content, would find it promising ground. The disturbed Richard Dadd, incarcerated for over forty years as a criminal lunatic, would even create an association between fairy painting and the onset of madness.

Jeremy Mass, writing in 1969, sought to comprehend the genre:

“Fairy painting was close to the centre of the Victorian subconscious. No other type of painting concentrates so many of the opposing elements of the Victorian psyche; the desire to escape the drear hardships of daily existence; the stirrings of new attitudes towards sex, stifled by religious dogma; a passion for the unseen; the birth of psychoanalysis; the latent revulsion against the exactitude of the new invention of photography”.

From the 1860s the genre began to look out of date, but it persisted on into the 20th century and was popularised in book illustration by artists such as Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac. Today, fairy art still informs our popular culture, in posters and postcards, fantasy and computer games, providing escapism and metaphor for our primal desires and need for the natural world.

A history of Victorian fairy art, the inspiration for Mary and Mabel’s Fairy Book, can be seen on the Victorianweb website.


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Last updated: 21 December 2016

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