Under the Dock Leaves - An Autumnal Evening's Dream by Richard Doyle. 1878. 
This painting is held in the British Museum

Having read The Unseen, Katherine Webb's second novel, there was one scene so vivid and magical that the VV was instantly put in mind of this picture by Richard Doyle - in which fluttering white fairies might well be moths as they hover beneath the dock leaves.

With this painting's creator also having been the uncle of Arthur Conan Doyle, it seems fitting that Katherine has written this guest post in which she discusses a famous event that intrigued the creator of Sherlock Holmes who - surprisingly for some - was a firm believer in fairy folk...

By Katherine Webb

In 1917, Elsie Wright (above) and Frances Griffiths, two schoolgirls living in Cottingley, West Yorkshire, took a series of photographs of what they claimed were fairies. These famous pictures have always fascinated me – when I was younger because I liked to think that the fairies were real, and as I grew up because the hoax (or alleged hoax!) had lasted as long as it did, and managed to convince several prominent and well-respected figures of the age, including leading theosophist Edward Gardner and, most famously of all, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

So why were these rational, intelligent men so prepared to accept that the pictures were genuine? To sceptical, modern eyes, the photos look very staged indeed. Rather than appearing to be wild, elemental creatures, the fairies have neat, fashionable hair styles and slip dresses; they appear two dimensional, perfect, and doll-like. Photography experts at the time confirmed that the pictures had not been taken as double exposures, and that nothing had been painted or printed onto the negatives after exposure. One even testified that the fairies in the dancing picture (below) seemed to have moved during the exposure – proof positive that they were real, and had been dancing when photographed. Or perhaps, that a light and flimsy paper figure had shifted slightly in a breeze…

The answer to why the photos convinced these men becomes evident when you read the letters that passed between Edward Gardner and Conan Doyle, the articles about the case which Conan Doyle wrote for Strand Magazine, and his later book ‘The Coming of the Fairies’. They believed because they so desperately wanted to believe. For Gardner and Conan Doyle, fairies were part of a hierarchy of nature spirits and ethereal beings, in turn a part of the ‘universal soul’ that lies at the centre of theosophy. Only the truly enlightened, or the naturally clairvoyant, would be able to see these pure beings. As such, their existence proved the tenants of theosophy, or the ‘Divine Truth’, to be true.

But sightings of fairies didn’t always fit the theosophical model so neatly, and in ‘The Coming of the Fairies’, Conan Doyle clearly wrestles with the details of some reported cases. One Mrs Hardy, living in New Zealand, described seeing fairies riding around her garden on little fairy horses. This was not the only account of fairy horses that Conan Doyle had come across, but he admitted that such descriptions made things “more complicated and harder to understand.” If they had miniature horses, then, as Conan Doyle writes, “why not dogs?” At this point, the fairies stopped being the essence of nature made visible in bodies less dense than air, and became the ‘little people’ of childhood stories. So perhaps what made the Cottingley fairies so attractive, from a theosophical stand point, was that they had been seen by virginal young girls, often thought to possess a natural clairvoyance; that they were seen in an area of unspoilt natural beauty; and that they showed no complicated behaviour or equipment that interfered with the idea that they were indeed manifestations of pure natural energy.

The number of ghost and fairy sightings, and the popularity of theosophy and spiritualism from the late Victorian era right the way through the Edwardian, shows that people at the time were very keen to believe in an ‘other world’ of some kind – either the world of the spirits of the dead, with which a medium could communicate; or on a grander scale, in a whole pantheon of spirits of various types and powers. Perhaps, as some writers believe, these beliefs came to fill a void that was left behind at a time when new discoveries were encroaching on religious faith. Darwin’s theory of evolution was gaining ground, and undermining the traditional Christian explanation of the origins of mankind. Science, medicine and rationalism had left some people with serious doubts about the church’s teachings, and yet the world was still full of wonders – from electricity to anaesthesia – that remained beyond most people’s understanding. Spiritualism stepped into this gap. In short, people still wanted to believe in something – in some supernatural driving force; and if that was no longer God, then they would look for alternatives.

It was this desire to believe that was my starting point as I began to shape the plot of my novel, The Unseen. I started to wonder why different people might believe, and what their various reactions to the possibility of fairies living at the bottom of the garden might be; and also why somebody might be prepared to assemble a hoax to help convince the sceptics. Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths admitted in later life that their photos had been hoaxed, taken with the help of paper cut outs. The high-profile attention they received made it impossible for them to confess at the time.  But to her dying day Frances insisted that there had been fairies at Cottingley, and that the final picture they took, of the fairy bower (above), was genuine. Using a fake to prove that something is real…a fascinating idea that I carried into my book!

Katherine Webb was born in 1977 and grew up in Hampshire. She read History at Durham University, since when she has spent time in London and Venice. She has worked as a waitress, and an au pair, a personal assistant, a book binder, a library assistant, a seller of fairy costumes, and also a housekeeper. Katherine now writes full time. 



The glorious dress constructed of thousands of irridescent beetle wings that was worn by Ellen Terry and then immortalised in the art in John Singer Sargent might very well have been designed as the garb to adorn a fairy queen - for who might not fly with those draping green sleeves, like the folded wings of angels.

The Victorian age was one in which an obsession with elementals, or fairy folk, provided the inspiration for many well-regarded artists, who in turn drew on characters from the works of writers such as Shakespeare, Milton and Spenser to populate their imaginary scenes. 

Below are just a few of those fairy-inspired paintings -

Ferdinand lured by Ariel, by Millais - inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest.

A Study for The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, characters from A Midsummer Night's Dream, painted by Sir Joseph Noel Paton

Fairies looking through a Gothic Arch by John Anster Fitzgerald

One of the earliest and most stunning works - the impressionistic Queen Mab's Cave by Turner

From Turner's magical illusion to the almost photographic realism that instructed the Pre-Raphaelites and their admirers: Under the Dock Leaves by Richard Doyle - who happened to be the uncle of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who, as well as writing the Sherlock Holmes novels, developed a great interest in fairies.




On October 28, 1891, at 6 o'clock in the morning, a terrible earthquake struck Japan. Measuring 8.4 on the Richter scale it caused damage over an area of 4200 square miles, with tremors experienced from Tokyo to Osaka and killing in excess of 7,000 people. The outcome was captured in photographs - one of which can be seen above - and the story was subsequently published in 1892 in a book entitled, The Great Earthquake of Japan: 1891 by John Milne and W. K. Burton, with plates by K Ogawa.

This week another quake occurred of even greater proportions, the terrible scenes of which have not waited a year to be seen by the world but have played out as live before our eyes on many television screens. As such the VV hopes that our own response to this tragic event will be just as swift - and that many will think to contribute to the charities who will be involved in helping the victims of Japan.

The Disasters Emergency Committee is currently raising funds to help, and the British Red Cross has also launched a specific appeal.

 Please be wary of any unauthorised charity appeals.



The Great Exhibition of 1851 may have produced the iconic 'Crystal Palace' but all over the country glass houses were becoming increasingly popular – whether the opulent orangeries built onto prestigious houses, or simply in the form of the 'Wardian Case' – an ornamental miniature glass house that adorned many fashionable homes. And what would the fashionable Victorian display in such a box? Well, there really would be little delay in purchasing a collection of ferns and joining the craze of ‘Pteridomania’ - which the VV has been reading about in Sarah Whittingham's fascinating book, The Victorian Fern Craze

The name of Pteridomania was coined by Charles Kingsley, who wrote: ‘Your daughters, perhaps, have been seized with the prevailing ‘Pteridomania’ and are collecting and buying ferns…and wrangling over inpronouncable names of species, (which seem to be different with every new fern that they buy), till the Pteridomania seems to you something of a bore.’

One imagines that Mr Kingsley was speaking from personal experience, and may well have been bored by obsessions with ferns when he penned those words in 1855. But ‘Pteridomania’ or Fern Mania remained quite a craze for decades to come, during which time it spread throughout the British Isles, The Empire and even America – and was popular not only with women, but also men and children, and of every social class.

Until the nineteenth century ferns had been rare in England, imported back home by botanists who travelled to places such as Jamaica or Australia. But those tender ferns were never successfully mass reproduced in the more hostile British climate until the amateur naturalist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward devised a method of raising the plants in ‘closely glazed cases.’ This development of Wardian Cases, along with the 1840 publication of A History of British Ferns by Edward Newman were what led to the genesis of the craze – after which such books were in constant demand, along with those specialist periodicals which encouraged collectors to join fern societies and visit botanical gardens, or to spend their leisure time in the merry pursuit of ‘fern hunting’, a pastime considered as healthy, educational and moral – and which also gave the opportunity of fraternising with the opposite sex in the idyll of the countryside. 

Ferns and flirting? Surely not!
'Gathering Ferns' by H Paterson, printed in the Illustrated London News on July1 1871.

Of course, there were those such as Charles Kingsley who turned up their noses at such sport, and others were determined to end it all, accusing ‘thoughtless trippers’ of filling their baskets with ferns, only to let them die at home. However, far more serious crimes were committed by the fern vendors or touts who plundered the countryside of plants and then sold them on the city streets, or even door to door.

More respectable outlets were the nurseries which specialised in fern cultivation, producing lavishly illustrated catalogues. And, with more knowledge and expertise at hand some amateur gardeners became quite ambitious, planting outdoor gardens with the hardier specimens, or creating more ‘natural’, romantic grottos out of rock and stone.

Brighton Aquarium was a great lure with its conservatory and fernery, with towering cliffs of Pulhamite rockwork, and cascading waterfalls and pools. It was described by the Art Journal as, ‘one of the most impressive, most effective, and most refreshing sights to be seen anywhere’, and when the fashionable Cremorne Gardens re-opened to the public in 1860 one of its main attractions was the picturesque fernery. Musical and dramatic productions were also incorporating ferns and when in 1869 alterations were made to the London Prince of Wales theatre there was –

‘an opening by the footlights allowing the sound of the music to be as distinctly heard as heretofore…The space formally occupied by the band is now converted into a grotto and fernery, intended, with fountains and jets of water, to cool the atmosphere between the acts, and by an ingenious looking glass arrangement to exhibit an interminably multiplied reflection of tiny crystal rills, which will leap and sparkle in the light through a multitude of leafy labyrinths constructed out of tangles masses of choice ferns most artistically disposed.’

What a sight that must have been - though the orchestra players may not have agreed, going home bleary eyed and little damp and no doubt then to meet with yet more ferns - for the plants influenced the decor of many a private home, being used in architectural design, in carpets and papers and textiles, umbrella stands, china and glass ware, fire surrounds – even grave stones – not to mention the design of greetings cards to send to fellow fern admirers. 

Why not take a look around your own home or when you're walking out and about, and see how many examples of Victorian fern design you see? 



Essie Fox (aka the VV) at the Trade Launch for her novel, The Somnambulist, which was held at Wilton's Music Hall

Yesterday, the VV was delighted to discover that her soon to be published novel has been short-listed for the People's Book Prize. To read an extract from the book, or to vote for The Somnambulist, please see this link from Essie Fox's News Page - THE SOMNAMBULIST NEWS. The VV would be very grateful for any support.