Realism and Sentimentality in Victorian Fairy Tale Illustrations

Derry E. Voysey MA '97, University of Virginia

Like the stories they illustrate, Victorian fairy-tale illustrations tend to fall in one of two general categories: the sentimental and the fantastic. Most of them depict children, animals, and fantastic beings surrounded by various forms of vegetation within a larger landscape. There is a grace and fluidity of line in all the illustrations, sometimes conveyed with a hurried cartoon-like dash, but often with a tremendous eye for detail. The illustrators carefully include as much detail as possible from the moment of the tale they are depicting . In so doing, they demonstrate a Victorian fascination with the alternate worlds depicted in fairy tales.

The tremendous breadth of Victorian fairy tales and their illustrations influence the format of this project in several ways. I have chosen to highlight a few illustrators with distinctive styles, as well as to give examples of the great generic diversity. Thus, some images will appear more than once in the presentation as necessary.

Some of these alternate worlds look surprisingly like our own, for many (if not most) Victorian fairy tales take place in contemporary England or a in nearby nation and portray typical representatives of the various social classes living their lives as usual until they unexpectedly encounter a foreign person, being, or situation. For example, "Jack's New Friend" from Jean Ingelow's tale, "Mopsa the Fairy" (1869), depicts a boy enountering a strange woman in a secluded field. Note how the artist (identified merely as "FM") manipulates the medium of engraving to make subtle contrasts of light and shade, thus adding to the life-like qualities of the scene. Also note the expression on Jack's face and the careful demarkation of his toes. [Click on the illustration for a full-size illustration, which will take some time to download.]

"Jack Listening to the Perch's Story" (click on this detail for the full picture) takes place in a realistically depicted but fantastic setting -- under water. This illustration comes from Fanny Lablache's tale "Jack with the Fishes" from Starlight Stories (1884). The artist is Kate Greenaway, one of only a handful of woman illustrators I have encountered in fairy tale illustration. Note how Jack seems indifferent to the fish who are speaking (!) to him --- he does not even make eye-contact with them. Also note Jack's appropriate little boy costume and wavy hair.

Both these two images draw on the author's use of nostalgia to create a familiar atmosphere in which to introduce the unfamiliar. The visual presentation of a "safe space" often involves framing the action with life-like vegetaion and closing in the surrounding landscape as in the images above -- something seen in George Cruikshank's an illustration for Henry and Augustus Mayhew'sGood Genius.

Many illustrations, which contain nothing particularly unusual, make particular use of the facial expressions and gestures. For example, in the frontespiece for Lablache's Starlight Stories, which depicts the climax of "Ruli's Sacrifice," Greenaway heightens the emotional impact of an otherwise fairly banal image with strong contrasts of light and shadow and with and a sequence of repeated curved shapes (the chair back, Ruli's arm, the arches in the background) that pull the viewer's attention to the lowered position of Ruli's head.

A final observation: most illustrations only depict one individual encountering another. There is an intimate connection between the protagonist of the tale, the author, the artist, and the reader. Also, note the extent to which the personification of animals figures in the sentimentality of the images.

Victorian Fairy Tale Illustrations: A Selected List
Victorian Web art Victorian Book Illustration next

Last modified 17 November 2004

N="right"> Last modified 17 November 2004