Childhood and Growing Up
Cicely Mary Barker was born in West Croydon on 28 June 1895, the second and younger daughter of Walter and Mary Eleanor Barker. Her sister Dorothy had been born two years earlier.
Cicely was physically frail throughout her life, and suffered from epilepsy as a child. As a result, she spent much of her early life in bed, where she entertained herself with painting books, and a nursery library that included the works of Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott.
Born into a family at the lower end of the upper-middle class, Cicely’s parents were moderately well off, which afforded her the opportunity to have a nanny, a governess, and a cook to prepare special meals. In addition to her home education, Cicely’s father – who was an accomplished artist himself – encouraged her to pursue her artistic talent, and at the age of thirteen she entered an evening class at the Croydon School of Art.
Cicely’s artistic abilities were recognized early and by age sixteen she became a life member of the Croydon Art Society, which made her the youngest-ever person to receive this honour. The art critic for the Croydon Advertiser commented, ‘Her drawings show a remarkable freedom of spirit. She had distinct promise.’
It was at this time also that she sold her first piece of work – a set of images for greetings cards. Shortly afterwards she decided to devote her career to painting, and sold her work to magazines, manufacturers of postcards and greetings cards, and later to book publishers. Industrious and determined, Cicely was able to assist with the family finances. This was especially helpful following the death of her father when she was only seventeen; her sister also set up a kindergarten at home to help bring in funds.
In the early twentieth century, in part thanks to the success of books such as J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, fairies became a popular theme in art and literature; this was further aided by the royal family, when Queen Mary sent fairy-themed postcards by the artist Ida Rentoul Outhwaite to her friends. Cicely created a postcard series featuring elves and fairies in 1918, and in 1923 sold images and verses to Blackie and Son, who published them as Flower Fairies of the Spring. The publication of Flower Fairies of the Summer two years later saw Cicely earning royalties for her work for the first time. Several more fairy books were to follow.
The Pre-Raphaelite painters were a major influence upon Cicely and she believed as they did in ‘truth to nature’. To this end, her flowers and fairies were painted from life wherever possible. The fairies were modelled on the children who attended her sister’s kindergarten, complete with fairy costumes and wings created by Cicely; and the plants – always botanically accurate – were often painted with help from the staff at Kew Gardens, who assisted her in finding and identifying plant specimens.
Cicely wrote in the foreword to Flower Fairies of the Wayside, ‘So let me say quite plainly, that I have drawn all the plants and flowers very carefully, from real ones; and everything that I have said about them is as true as I could make it. But I have never seen a fairy; the fairies and all about them are just “pretend”.’
Cicely’s family was deeply religious, and Cicely used art to express her own devout Christian beliefs. In her art, nature and her spiritual beliefs shaped much of her inspiration.
In 1916 Cicely designed eight mission postcards, and in 1923 she painted a series of birthday cards featuring angels and babies for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. She also worked on a number of Christian books such as The Children’s Book of Hymns and (in collaboration with her sister) He Leadeth Me.
Cicely also painted a number of large works for religious buildings around the United Kingdom. These works included a number of works panels for St Andrew’s Church in South Croydon, a church she attended while living in Croydon and where she was described as “one of the pillars’. Works for the church included oil panels of the seven sacraments and baptismal rolls for the wall behind the font. One of her paintings of the Christ Child, The Darling of the World Has Come, was purchased by Queen Mary.
Cicely died at the age of seventy-seven on 16 February 1973. Her ashes were scattered in Storrington churchyard, after funeral services were held in Storrington both at the church and in Cicely’s home.
Cicely’s Flower Fairies books are known and loved around the world. They were created by a quiet, unassuming and dedicated artist, who was nevertheless remarkably successful, spending her life illustrating many children’s books and selling hundreds of watercolours and pastels.
Today, over forty years since her death, her work continues to offer delights that have stood the test of time.
Flower Fairies Titles:
Flower Fairies of the Spring, 1923
Flower Fairies of the Summer, 1925
Flower Fairies of the Autumn, 1926
The Book of the Flower Fairies, 1927
A Flower Fairy Alphabet, 1934
Flower Fairies of the Trees, 1940
Flower Fairies of the Garden, 1944
Groundsel and Necklaces, 1946; reprinted as Fairy Necklaces, 1991
Flower Fairies of the Wayside, 1948
Flower Fairies of the Flowers and Trees, 1950
The Flower Fairy Picture Book, 1955
Flower Fairies of the Winter, 1985
Flower Fairies of the Seasons, 1988
A Flower Fairies Treasury, 1997
Spring Songs with Music, 1923
Child Thoughts in Picture and Verse (by M. K. Westcott), 1925
Summer Songs with Music, 1926
Autumn Songs with Music, 1927
Old Rhymes for All Times, 1928
The Children’s Book of Hymns, 1929
Our Darling’s First Book (written in collaboration with Dorothy Barker), 1929
The Little Picture Hymn Book, 1933
Rhymes New and Old, 1933
A Little Book of Old Rhymes, 1936
He Leadeth Me (written in collaboration with Dorothy Barker), 1936
A Little Book of Rhymes New and Old, 1937
The Lord of the Rushie River, 1938
When Spring Came In at the Window, 1942
A Child’s Garden of Verses (by Robert Louis Stevenson), 1944
Lively Stories, 1954
Lively Numbers, 1957
Lively Words, 1961
The Sand, the Sea and the Sun, 1970
Simon the Swan, 1988
A Little Book of Prayers and Hymns, 1994
Cicely Mary Barker and Her Art by Jane Laing (Frederick Warne & Co.)