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Review: Flower Fairies, Lady Lever

Cicely Mary Barker was an obsessive botanist as much as an illustrator. I might be missing the point of this exhibition at Lady Lever Gallery with this review, but honestly, its her detail and adoration of the botanical subjects, rather than the fairies that will stick with me.

Not just the illustrations either, but the relationships between each plant and its mythical inhabitant too. Paired with the formation of personalities of each fairy based on the plant they relied on, either for food, clothing, or shelter, this exhibition of Cicely Mary Barker’s illustrations is an exquisite representation of how one person got to know the world around her through plants.

For context, it’s worth saying that Cicely Mary Barker spent much of her childhood in bed, restricted from the outside world thanks to epilepsy, which was an even more limiting condition in the early 1900’s when she was growing up. To occupy her time, she learned to draw, and kept detailed records of pressed wildflowers.

Cicely Mary Barker’s passion for the form and structure, and development of flowers and plants continues into her illustrations as her fairies are housed in illustrations of botanically accurate plants.

The first that caught my eye was a set of three; sorrel, clover, and lime (Linden). The fairies, as enigmatic as they are, appeared to step back, allowing these overlooked plants – seen as weeds for the most part – to shine. Lady Lever’s accompanying descriptions take the care they should to describe these plants properly and truthfully adding background to how and why the fairies took on their personalities from their chosen plants.

That focus on common trees, and native wildflower, poses questions on how we garden today, and how we over-manage landscapes. Sorrel, while grown as a crop, is generally discouraged in gardens, and clover tends to be limited to areas of wildflower lawns, or intentional re-wilding.

Quite what we mean by re-wilding is a little bewildering, when the majority of wild plants are just as beautiful and useful as those that find themselves on the right side of fashion. Cornflowers and poppies make up most of our modern meadows, but clover and sorrel are just as useful.

I adore the ability of plants to adapt, and I share Cicely Mary Barker’s passion for their form. Whether it’s through learning, observation or physical immersion, the natural world offers such beautiful space for thought and self-reflection. Her illustrations are clearly a vehicle for that reflection, and perhaps more than a little of herself comes out through the personalities of the fairies.

When you first enter, a pressed Cat’s Ear is accompanied by that piece of her history, and when you leave, one of her later illustrations of the Cat’s Ear fairy, with a mischievous look that could get it into any private room, adds a personality to the plant; useful bookends to this small but perfectly formed exhibition.

But it’s not just the start and finish here. Every single plant is perfectly presented, and given personality through its fairy. The Goose Grass fairy, much like the plant is playful and unruly; more towards the mythical sprites who spent their days causing trouble than the adorable fairies of most children’s books at the time. Scentless Mayweed, a gorgeous daisy-flowered mound is occupied by a shy but intelligent fairy who seems to know that her blushing cheeks will get her into any garden, before running rife through their borders.

I know I’m gushing over this exhibition, but it’s because it’s worth it. And if you’ll indulge me, I’ll continue.

Cicely Mary Barker wasn’t limited by popular ideas of flowers either. The dangling catkins of Alders and Willows are occupied by far more pensive fairies, who sit in the tree top, looking out at the world. But those productive trees? The trees that feed the forest creatures, and in the case of Flower Fairies, the fairies themselves. Those trees are occupied by kind, matronly fairies, preparing stores of harvested berries.

The rowan (Mountain Ash) is the clearest of these, where the fairy, who has waited since winter for a time to shine is allowed, finally, in autumn to harvest her glut of deep orange berries. Much like in life, where those berries seem to be produced for the sole purpose of feeding birds, this fairy appears to have nothing on her mind but feeding others.

And while Cicely Mary Barker found personal resilience through botany and illustration, she shares her observed wisdom with the world, just like the Mountain Ash Fairy, cautiously harvesting rowan berries in autumn.

I suspect that most visitors will leave with either a heightened or newly formed love of botany. I already spent most of my time between art and gardening, but it’s a rare thing to see the two so well engaged.

Flower Fairies is open at the Lady Lever Art Gallery until 5th November 2023

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith