John Toohey is a PhD candidate in art History at Concordia University in Montreal, researching Fred Judge’s early twentieth century postcard views of Britain and myths of the British landscape.
Taken between 1923 and 1924, the photo postcard that Fred Judge (1872-1950) took of Fairy Glen near Bettws-Y-Coed in Snowdonia National Park shows a narrow ravine wreathed in mist. Like most of Judge’s postcards it possesses a quality few postcard photographers at that time bothered aspiring to. We can see by the smooth blur of the water that he intentionally used a slow exposure of perhaps a second, necessary to penetrate the gloom but it also allowed him to narrow the aperture and bring the steep rocks and bushes in sharp focus.
Judges Ltd, Fairy Glen, Bettws-Y-Coed,Real Photo Postcard, C1923, Author’s collection.
We can also read evidence in this photo of an idea of landscape that took root a century beforehand. The postcard shows the type of mysterious and ethereal setting we expect fairies to inhabit. One hundred years before Judge took his photo however, an unknown author writing in The Cambro-Briton, a journal dedicated to the preservation of Welsh culture, had asserted that, “In Wales, as in other pastoral districts, the fairy tales are not yet erased from the traditional tablet”. (291-292) Belief in fairies, the author was saying, was an intrinsic part of Welsh rural identity.
But the fairies that the Welsh villagers believed in were not petite, scantily dressed girls with wings. They were baby snatchers and child-killers.
Fairies were difficult to describe because they were adept at shape-shifting; turning up to a cottage disguised as a harmless old woman then substituting a new born child in its cradle for one of their own.
There were also accounts of fairies taking the form of sheep or cattle. Various forms of aberrant behaviour, from sudden illness to schizophrenia, could be blamed on fairies, as could crop failure and livestock disease. To the people who believed in fairies, the places associated with them were to be avoided. To identify a place with fairies was to issue a warning.
The transformation of the fairy from fearful, amorphous creature to the curiously infantile and sexualized thing we know today began before the nineteenth century but achieved what Diane Purkiss called a “Population explosion” in the Victorian era. (220) We can trace a parallel through this period with the destruction of the last remaining wilderness in Britain and the enclosure acts. As the fairy’s natural habitat is destroyed it becomes physically weaker and less of an existential threat.
With the emergence of romanticism, landscape, much of it is the north of England already destroyed, underwent a reassessment. In the 1830s, Clare wrote the short poem Insects, which ends with these lines:
One almost fancies that such happy things,
With coloured hoods and richly burnished wings,
Are fairy folk, in splendid masquerade
Disguised, as if of mortal folk afraid,
Keeping their joyous pranks a mystery still,
Lest glaring day should do their secrets ill. (56)
Clare’s fairies have already shrunk in size and, crucially, become afraid of humans rather than the other way around. That’s hardly surprising. Humans had progressively destroyed their environment, in a very real sense smoked them out and what remained of their habitat was found in small pockets, like Fairy Glen.
Purkiss quotes Ruskin, for whom in the 1860s the proper habitat for the fairies was a gentle, pastoral setting (224-225). Unwittingly perhaps, Ruskin was evoking a semi-mythical idea of the English landscape that he and others believed in as an article of faith. In this halcyon age, located in the medieval era, the landscape was nourished by gentle seasons and the people worked it with a perfect harmony between capital and labour. Like the elf and the pixie, the fairy was allowed to exist in this world because it was now harmless.
An odd inversion is happening with Ruskin. Looking back to the past, the landscape that he nostalgically imagines would not have been recognizable to the inhabitants of medieval Britain, for whom forest and wasteland were places to stay clear of. It might have been familiar to the planners and designers of the mid-Victorian landscape, for whom Ruskin’s sense of order was the ideal.
In the 1880s the Austrian artist Felician Myrbach illustrated Fairy Glen, from a very similar vantage point to Judge’s, to accompany an 1887 article, later a book by Paul Villars, Sketches of England by a Foreign Artist. (152) In Myrbach’s scene, half a dozen Sunday painters jostle each other on the rocks to paint the scene. Though Myrbach is having a none too subtle dig at the way artists seek out the picturesque as a group and consequently destroy its value, it can also be read as a comment on the final subjugation of the landscape.
Félicien Myrbach, The Fairy Glen, Bettws-Y-Coed, https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/11212857473/
Fairy Glen is in a sense no different to an exotic animal in a zoo; a curiosity to be scrutinized as something strange yet non-threatening.
As distinct as it was, Judge’s photo was already something of a cliché but it should also be read as a nostalgic image of the landscape; an ancient and mystical place and an idea that has been all but lost.
Anon. The Cambro-Briton, Vol. 3, No. 27 (Mar.,1822), pp. 291-292.
Clare, John, and Paul Farley. John Clare: Poems.2016.
Purkiss, Diane. At the Bottom of the Garden: A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, and Other Troublesome Things. New York: New York University Press, 2005.
Villars, Paul, and Myrbach, Félicien. Sketches of England. by a Foreign Artist. London: “Art Journal” Office, 1891.