A versatile artist, Cicely Mary Barker illustrated stories of contemporary childhood, produced religious paintings and designed stained glass, but remains best known for her Flower Fairies. Her sweet and delicate style has been compared to that of her friend Margaret Tarrant, and both artists are now taken seriously as portraitists of fairyland.
Cicely Mary Barker was born in West Croydon, Surrey, on 28 June 1895, the younger of two daughters of Walter Barker, a seed merchant, and his wife, Mary (née Oswald). Her childhood homes in Croydon were: 68 Waddon Road (1895-99), 1 Duppas Avenue (1899-1907) and 17 The Waldrons (1907-24). A delicate child, who suffered from epilepsy, she was educated by governesses. Her father was an amateur artist who made wood carvings, and he encouraged her artistic talent, which had been sparked by her childhood reading, including the picture books of Kate Greenaway.
Becoming a member of Croydon Art Society, she attended its evening classes and entered its competitions (winning second prize in a poster competition in 1911). She also took a correspondence course that was supervised by the illustrator, Alice B Woodward, among others. As early as 1911, at the age of 16, she had work published by Raphael Tuck in the form of postcards. As she developed, she embraced Pre-Raphaelites’ motto, ‘Truth to Nature’, and absorbed the influence of the movement, being particularly attracted to the work of John Everett Millais and Edward Burne-Jones.
Following their father’s early death, in 1912, Cicely Mary Barker and her elder sister, Dorothy, made efforts to support themselves and their mother. Cicely sold paintings and poems to magazines and greetings card companies, while Dorothy taught at local kindergartens. When Dorothy set up her own kindergarten at the family home in The Waldrons, Cicely used the pupils as models. This resulted in a number of postcard series, including ‘Picturesque Children of the Allies’ (1915, for Salmon), ‘National Mission’ (1916, for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge) and ‘Shakespeare’s Boy Characters’ (1917, for Faulkner).
In the early 1920s, Barker began to produce illustrated books, and responded to a resurgence of interest in fairy subjects, sparked in part by the publication of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Coming of the Fairies (1922). Blackie issued her Flower Fairies of Spring in 1923, and remained her almost exclusive publisher throughout the remainder of a career that included several more volumes of ‘Flower Fairies’. She also exhibited watercolours and other drawings at Croydon Art Society, the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, the Society of Women Artists, the Society of Graphic Art and the Pastel Society. Despite her success, she remained a humble figure, who attended evening classes at Croydon School of Art between the wars. In 1924, she moved along the street, with her sister and their mother, to 23 The Waldrons, and had a studio built in the garden.
A devout Christian, Barker regularly attended two local low Anglican churches, St Andrew’s and St Edmund’s. As well as illustrating religious texts, she painted some significant examples of ecclesiastical art. These included the (now lost) reredos triptych, The Feeding of the Five Thousand (1929), produced for the chapel at Llandaff House, a university hostel for women students in Penarth, Cardiff Bay, where her aunt was head deaconess. Closer to home, she provided The Parable of the Great Supper (1934), for the newly built church of St George’s, Croydon. A favourite among her sacred projects was He Leadeth Me (1936), a book of Bible stories written by her sister.
In 1940, a year after the outbreak of the Second World War, the Barkers’ live-in maid retired and Dorothy closed her school. Soon after, Cicely started teaching at Croydon School of Art, probably to supplement her modest income. She commemorated those who served in the war in her panel, Out of Great Tribulation (1949), for Norbury Methodist Church. (It is now in the Museum of Croydon.)
Following the deaths of Dorothy (in 1954) and their mother (in 1960), Cicely designed a stained glass window in their memory for St Edmund’s Church. She moved to 6 Duppas Avenue, but also took on a maisonette in Storrington, Sussex, which was bequeathed to her by a friend, Edith Major. Following her move to Storrington in 1961, she became increasingly frail, and spent much of her time in nursing homes. Her last book to be published in her lifetime, The Sand, The Sea and The Sun, appeared in 1970. She died in Worthing Hospital on 16 February 1973.
Further reading Stacy Gillis, ‘Barker, Cicely Mary (1895-1973)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 3, page 863; Sheila Glyn-Jones, Cicely Mary Barker: A Croydon Artist, Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society, 1989; Jane Laing, Cicely Mary Barker and Her Art, London: Frederick Warne, 1995