Posted by: marycib | November 30, 2010

The Cottingley Fairies

While the story of the Cottingley Fairies occurred in the 1920s after the close of the Victorian era, I think it is interesting and relevant to the role of photography in the portrayal of real versus imaginary. In 1917, two young cousins in England, Elise Wright and Frances Griffith, borrowed Elise’s father’s camera and told him that they were going to take pictures of the fairies in their garden. Once these photographs had been developed, Elise’s mother Polly Wright, who was a spiritualist, believed the girls’ story that the fairies were indeed real and took them to a lecture she attended on spiritualism. After showing them to the speaker, a professional photographer, Harold Snelling, declared that the fairies in the photographs were real. Even more interestingly, Arthur Conan Doyle used these photographs to show the public that fairies existed. Even after many individuals pointed out that the fairies in the photographs looked like pieces of paper, a large number of people still believed the photographs were real. Only in 1981 did Elise Wright confess that the fairies in the photographs were in fact paper cutouts based on the fairies from a children’s book called Princess Mary’s Gift Book. Elise said that she had sketched the fairies from the book, made paper cutouts, and held them up in the photographs with hairpins. Because individuals like Arthur Conan Doyle wanted to believe in fairies, they used these photographs to explain their existence. It is interesting that even though it was known that photographic techniques had advanced to the stage where photographs did not always portray reality, people were still misled by these photographs.


Here are the five photographs that Elise and Frances took:




  1. Who would have guessed back them that graphic design would be the industry that it is today! Or that entire agencies would exists to doctor photographs. Did you ever see the movie that they made of this? It was called FairyTale, and came out in 1997. Back when we read Holmes, someone made a post about Doyle’s involvement with this hoax, and it inspired me to dig up the movie and watch it again. One thing that really surprised me was when Harry Houdini appeared. I had completely forgotten that this movie was dripping with so many Victorian Icons!

    When Houdini saw the Fairy photographs he immediately attempted to forge a photo of his own. This was what came up with:

    I think it’s fascinating that out of the three people who managed to capture proof of magic in photograph, one was the greatest magician of the time, and the other two were preteen girls.

  2. Joe Cooper wrote a very good book
    The Case of the Cottingley Fairies
    whichgoes throughh all the characters and evidence. Doyle started to publish the photograohs in the Strand in 1920. Sir Oliver Lodge was involved and Theosophy, very ppular at the time.

  3. […] (image credit: victorianvisualculture) […]

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