October 1, 2013

Vintale Fairy Tale Sleuth: The Case of the Unknown Illustration, By Christina Ruth Johnson

Editor's note: Today, Christina delves into the works of one of my favorite fairy tale illustrators, who sadly, is no longer as famous as she ought to be. Read on for a great lesson!
One of the great charms of traveling abroad—beyond that of just being abroad—is searching out the local bookstores. A few weeks ago, I traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland and stumbled across one of these little gems: a store called The Old Children’s Bookshelf. There was more to this shop, however, than just books. Small, matted art prints littered the shelves. Most were illustrations from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. And most were illustrations of fairy tales and children’s fantasy literature. Beatrix Potter was well represented, as was the fairy artist Cicely Mary Barker (I purchased two of her prints: the Poppy Fairy and the Almond Blossom Fairy).

My favorite find, though, was a print—aesthetically matted in ecru—of an illustration I did not recognize, by an artist I did not know: http://www.grandmasgraphics.com/graphics/golden/golden064.jpg.

And here it is:

It was tucked into the back of a box full of Potters and Barkers, and when I flipped to it, it was so blatantly FAIRY ART that I knew I had to have it. Even better: I had no idea which fairy tale it originally accompanied. It was a fairy-art mystery. The perfect fodder for a Vintage Fairy Tale Sleuth.

The mystery as it stood on that lovely summer evening in Scotland:
- One unknown print, untitled
- One price sticker that read “Anne Anderson, c. 1920, £10”
- One exuberant, fairy-tale-loving art historian
As you might imagine, actually solving this mystery, though oh so satisfying to accomplish, was not difficult. When I returned stateside, I scanned the print and uploaded it to my computer. Thanks to Google’s search-by-image option, the information from the price sticker was the only clue this mystery needed.
According to the archive of The Wee Web (a useful website for bibliographic information on authors and illustrators), Anne Anderson was born in Scotland in 1874, raised in Argentina, and then settled in England after marrying fellow illustrator Alan Wright in 1912. She illustrated over 100 books in her lifetime and occasionally collaborated with her husband, though she garnered more acclaim and had more success with her career than he had with his. She died in 1930.
The books she illustrated include Heidi, Andersen’s Fairy Tales, and The Sleepy Song BookThe Sur La Lune Fairy Tales website also includes a few of her images and offers a link to a wonderful website called Grandma’s Graphics (http://www.grandmasgraphics.com/illustrators.php), which supplies images of illustrations from eight of Anderson’s books, including the book to which our mystery illustration originally belonged: The Golden Wonder Book for Children, published in 1934. (The “circa 1920” on the print’s price sticker was a decade off, though the Art Nouveau style of the painting—with its sinuous forms and flat perspective—dates from as early as the 1890s.)
The specific tale that our print illustrates is the Grimms’ story “The Twelve Brothers.” In this tale, a princess accidentally turns her twelve brothers into ravens when she plucks twelve enchanted lilies from their garden. (You can read the tale here: http://www.grimmstories.com/en/grimm_fairy-tales/the_twelve_brothers.)

The composition of Anderson’s illustration of this metamorphic moment seems unusual at first. It centers completely on the princess’ reaction to her brothers’ transformation, while the brothers themselves—now ravens—hover in the top left corner of the painting and can only partially be seen within its frame, as if less important. A close reading of the text, though, bears out this interpretation, since the princess is the story’s true hero; the transformation of her brothers is merely the catalyst for the trials she endures. An old woman (who likely enchanted the lilies) lurks menacingly in the background. The depth of the work, however, is quite flat—typical of the Art Nouveau style—so the background seems very near the foreground, thereby visually bringing the old woman’s menacing figure nearer to the princess and enhancing the sense of danger. The odd framing of the scene with the cut-off ravens also speaks to Anderson’s Art Nouveau style. This technique originally drew inspiration from the framing in Japanese woodblock prints, which were popular in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century.

And now there’s only one thing left to say: Case Solved.

Christiana Ruth Johnson
Christina Ruth Johnson recently received her Masters in Art History with a focus on the ancient Mediterranean and a side interest in the 18th and 19th centuries. Her other great love is fantasy literature from ancient times to present day.


  1. Fascinating column. I look forward to more of your work. Thanks!

  2. Fascinating! Thanks for all the great links:)

  3. I really enjoyed this little mystery! Wonderful illustration of a wonderful tale. I'm wanting to go hunt down some lesser known illustrators now...

  4. I've not heard of Mary Anderson before but have been a Cicely Mary Barker fan even longer than I've been a Beatrix Potter fan. Now I'll have to go look up some Anderson art!

  5. Thanks for your comments! I love stumbling across new art that inspires me -- stay tuned for more vintage fun!