Away with the fairies: Cottingley photos exhibition

Five photographs of fairies dancing at the bottom of a Yorkshire garden that became ‘the world’s longest running hoax’ are the focus of a compelling new exhibition.

The story of the greatest hoax of the 20th century is told in the Cottingley fairy exhibition at the University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, that runs until 2022.

The Cottingley fairies legend began in the summer of 1917 as the Great War raged in the trenches of the Western Front. Schoolgirl Elsie Wright, 16, took a photograph of her nine-year-old cousin Frances Griffiths posing with some tiny dancing figures that she had drawn and attached to hat pins arranged around the Cottingley Beck, between Bradford and Bingley, in West Yorkshire

According to the exhibition it all began with a tall tale. One day the youngsters were scolded after they returned home from the beck with wet feet. Frances explained that she went there ‘to see the fairies’.

Her story was greeted with disbelief so the girls borrowed Elsie’s father Midg quarter plate camera, determined to provide proof. They came back with two photos, one showing Frances with the dancing fairies and a second showing Elsie with a leaping gnome.  

Cover of The Strand magazine from 1920 that featured what Arthur Conan Doyle called the ‘epoch-making’ images of fairies taken by the two Yorkshire girls in 1917 (credit: Brotherton Library, University of Leeds)

In the aftermath of the war the girl’s mothers shared the curious images at a meeting of Theosophy Society in Bradford. News reached one of its senior members, Edward Gardner, who was convinced they were genuine. From here the prank spiralled out of control when Gardner sent them to his friend, the Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Doyle had converted to spiritualism during the war and wanted to use the images in his ongoing battle with skeptics. He deliberately courted controversy, describing the fairy photos as ‘an epoch-making event’ when he published the first two images in The Strand magazine during 1920.

Doyle never met the young women but Gardner visited the beck and said he felt ‘energies’ there. He arranged for a photographer, Harold Snelling, to make ‘improvements’ to the photos and left Elsie and Frances with a new Kodak camera. He clearly hoped they would produce more evidence and sure enough, in the summer of 1920, the girls took three more images of fairies dancing around the beck.

The women stuck to their stories for 60 years. Interviewed by Yorkshire TV in 1975 Elsie Wright, aged 74, said: ‘I have told you that they’re figments of our imagination and that’s what I’m sticking to.’

But in 1983 Elsie and Frances, both grandmothers, confessed to the hoax when the truth was exposed in an article by Geoffrey Crawley, editor of the British Journal of Photography.

Even then Frances continued to maintain the fifth and last image, dubbed ‘the Fairy sun-bath’ was a genuine photograph of the little folk she had seen around the beck.

During the past century dozens of books, newspaper articles, TV documentaries and two Hollywood movies have been devoted to telling versions of the story. Few photographers today can look at these images and accept them as anything but fakes. The lighting of the ‘fairies’ does not match that of the young women and the figures have a flat, one-dimensional appearance because that was precisely what they were.

The iconic image of dancing fairies taken at Cottingley beck in West Yorkshire by 16 year old Elsie Wright in 1917 takes centre stage in the exhibition

But the exhibition at the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery, University of Leeds, is the first time that many of the original artefacts from the legend have been placed on public display. It tells the story in chronological order, drawing upon correspondence from Doyle, Gardner and members of the girl’s family. Both cameras featured in the display are on loan from the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford after a public appeal saved them a Christie’s auction.

The original negatives have long since disappeared but fourth-generation copies from the batch ‘improved’ by Snelling can be scrutinised by visitors. Also on display is a copy of the Princess Mary’s Gift Book, published in 1914, that inspired Frances to draw the fairies.

The book contained Alfred Noyes’ poem A Spell for a Fairy, that was illustrated with three dancing figures. They have an unmistakeable similarity to those depicted in the Cottingley photographs. Ironically the book also contained a chapter by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The exhibition was originally planned to mark the centenary of the last three photographs that show Elsie and Frances posing with individual fairies sporting distinctive 1920s hairstyles. This big giveaway did raise some suspicions in Doyle’s inner circle but he refused to believe two ‘young girls’ could hoodwink the creator of Sherlock Holmes who employed hard logic to solve riddles.

In fact Elsie was a skilled artist and worked for a few months in a photographer’s shop in Bradford where she had experience retouching photographic plates.

Following his death in 1969 Edward Gardner’s family donated his Cottingley fairy collection to the Brotherton Library. This exhibition has been curated by Dr Merrick Burrow, head of the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Huddersfield, who summarises the story as ‘an accidental conspiracy’.

‘There were a series of minor deceptions that in themselves would not really have amounted to anything,’ he said. ‘But these were blown up into a global cause celebre through the combination of Elsie’s skill with the camera, the “improvement” of the photos by an expert working for Gardner, and the involvement of Conan Doyle – probably the world’s foremost popular author with an interest in spiritualism’.

In the online lecture that accompanies the exhibition Dr Burrow compares elements of the story with fake news and social media bubbles in the present day. He said in one corner there was Conan Doyle and those ‘who believed without question in spiritualism’ whilst in the other were their opponents in the Rational Press Association and opponents of spiritualism.

‘Neither would give ground to the other, which is what we see now’.

The Cottingley Fairies: a study in deception runs until 17 November 2022 at the Treasures of the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, Woodhouse Lane, Leeds LS2 9JT.

Current opening hours are Tuesday-Friday, 11am-2pm but check the website for updates:

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1 Response to Away with the fairies: Cottingley photos exhibition

  1. usernamefornoreason says:

    Loved this piece thanks David. I remember my father who born in 1918 speaking of this even in the 60s, he was remarkably credulous..

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