January 8, 2014

The Piper of Dreams, By Christina Ruth Johnson, Vintage Fairy Tale Sleuth

One of the most famous pieces of fairy art of the early 20th century was a watercolor by artist Estella Canziani called “The Piper of Dreams.” I came across a mention of this painting in an essay I was reading, and I had to look it up. Despite its enormous popularity, the work seems to have faded out of the collective memory of all but the most avid fairy art scholars and fans (unless I have just been living under the proverbial rock, which is entirely possible).

"The Piper of Dreams," Estella Canziani
The watercolor depicts a young boy sitting against the bole of a tree playing a pipe. His feet are stretched in front of him and crossed—a robin perches on the tip of one shoe. A large, brimmed hat obscures most of the boy’s face, already hazy from the artist’s choice of medium. A peacock feather sticks up from the hat. The expanse of forest surrounding the boy is beautiful, detailed, and atmospheric—a perfect playground for the mostly translucent fairies that fly from behind the tree and over the boy’s head. A few have landed on the ground and listen avidly to the pipe music, along with the robin and a squirrel on the ground at the boy’s left. One fairy has boldly landed onto the brim of his hat. The blue color of this hat and of the piper’s trousers mimics the blue of the fairies’ ethereal bodies, tying them together compositionally and making us wonder if the boy may be some fey creature himself. He has certainly passed into the realm of the fairies, transported there by his music.

Estella Canziani, artist
Estella Canziani lived from 1887 to 1964. Her mother was a portraitist, and Canziani studied at the Royal Academy alongside members and followers of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts & Crafts movement. She was fascinated by folklore and the ways of life of other cultures, traveling extensively throughout Italy and North Africa documenting the customs of the people who lived there, especially in remote areas. She wrote three travel books based on her excursions and an autobiography. She was also a member of the Royal Geographical Society and the Folklore Society, for which she wrote and published articles. “Songs, proverbs and folktales became a main inspiration [for Canziani], and even her lifestyle and dress also reflected the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement with its emphasis on natural fabrics, ethnic ornamentation and attention to detail” (Clerkenwell Fine Art). She was a fascinating, multi-faceted woman: artist, author, activist, and folklorist.
After exhibiting “The Piper of Dreams” at the British Royal Academy in 1915, over 250,000 prints were sold in the first year alone. Interestingly, many soldiers in World War I purchased or were sent a print of the piece by their loved ones. The ideals of the Pre-Raphaelites and of the Arts & Crafts movement were markedly apparent in Canziani’s artwork, such as this one, offering an escape from the modern world of industry, progressive technologies . . . and the horrors of war. “In the spirit of [Edward] Burne-Jones, who famously stated: For every locomotive they build I shall paint another angel, it offered escapism from the drudgery of everyday life. It is no coincidence that a large number of [Canziani’s] prints were sold to soldiers in the trenches” (Clerkenwell Fine Art).

Canziani’s fairy art seems to number much less than her folklore/anthropological art, at least among the images readily available online. Another of her fairy works that I stumbled across is “Fairies Bless the Newborn Child,” painted in 1923.
"Fairies Bless the Newborn Child," by Estella Canziani
Yet another is “The Fairy of Childhood” from 1919.
"The Fairy of Childhood," by Estella Canziani
With her close ties to the Pre-Raphaelites, one assumes that many more works of fairy art by Canziani are out there, just not yet digitized. In the following piece, Canziani captures the drawing room of Edith Holman Hunt’s house—Edith’s husband, William Holman Hunt, was a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

"Drawing Room," Estella Canziani
A large collection of Canziani’s work is in the holdings of the Birmingham Museums, and much of the folk costume and paraphernalia that Canziani collected over her lifetime is held at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and at the Museum of London. It is definitely worth a visit to the Birmingham Museums website to see Canziani’s non-fairy art, which is always full of color, detail, and life.

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.

Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery. “Biography for Estella Canziani.” Accessed 15 December 2013. http://www.bmagic.org.uk/people/Estella+Canziani.
Chris Wingfield. “Estella Louisa Michaela Canziani (1887-1964).” England: The Other Within: Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Accessed 15 December 2013. http://england.prm.ox.ac.uk/englishness-Canziani-Introduction.html.
Clerkenwell Fine Art. “Estella Canziani.” Accessed 15 December 2013. http://www.clerkenwellfineart.com/m88/Estella-Canziani/p343/My-Sister/product_info.html.
“Estella Canziani.” Accessed 15 December 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Estella_Canziani. 


  1. Fascinating stuff! I especially enjoyed the Burne-Jones quote, and that the painting was popular with the soldiers. Thanks for another intriguing column:)

  2. I really enjoyed this post! I'd not heard of this artist before but now I'd like to find more of her art. She sounded like a Rennaissance woman.

  3. As I read your information on Estella Canziani I am also gazing at my framed picture by Estella of 'Piper of Dreams'. My mother gave this print to me when I was a very young in 1960 .....It used to mesmerize me when I was younger and it's the only childhood memory I will never part with. It's still so beautiful to gaze on. Thank you for your information on Estella.