Celebrating Cicely Mary Barker, flower fairies artist

By - Thursday 28th May, 2015

Artist Cicely Mary Barker is one of Croydon’s best kept secrets. David Matthews explains why 2015 is the right time to tell

The Flower Fairies bus, part of the TfL bus trail 2014.
Photo by Martin Pettitt, used under Creative Commons licence.

Cicely Mary Barker is best known for her charming flower fairies. These beautiful paintings of plants are adorned with a fairy-child and a verse. The flower fairies’ series, first published in the mid-twentieth century, has never been out of print and the images from these books continue to have international commercial appeal.

The fairies, with their gentle ‘otherness’, seem quite at odds with 21st century living. Modern children are tuned to Harry Potter and the sophistication of cinema. They are enraptured by the ‘hands-on’ allure of computer games and social media. Barker’s flower fairies are two-dimensional in comparison. Nevertheless, they embody a child-like innocence; they evoke a lost era when childhood was simple and wholesome. And therefore they pull at a universal nostalgia.

Barker’s paintings are of local children: today she would depict Croydon’s rich diversity

Although all her fairies are white and English (not surprisingly, since Barker was painting before British society became rich with ethnic diversity), had she been painting in 2015 there is no doubt that her flower fairies would have been as ethnically varied as today’s children. This is because Barker painted children from local families. By turning them into her flower fairies, she does something transformational: the ordinary becomes extraordinary. She shows us that childhood is special. Today, when we are obsessive about protecting children, she reminds us that their fragility needs nurturing.

Transformation is also at the heart of Barker’s two great religious works in two local churches. ‘The Great Supper’ hangs in St George’s Church, Waddon. When Barker was growing up, Waddon was farmland. With her keen interest in nature, she might have resented the destruction of her local countryside for a housing estate – but nothing could be further from the truth. She embraced this change.

Barker seeks to distil beauty from what she sees about her

Her painting illustrates one of Jesus’ parables where ordinary people are brought in from the highways and byways to share in a great king’s feast, symbolising the inclusive spirit of Christianity. Barker places recognisable figures from Croydon’s streets in the picture. These are the beggars, destitute or disabled, who were known in the town. They move across the picture to where Jesus welcomes them. The inscription, written in Barker’s own hand, on the back of the painting is revealing. It says:

“I loved the fields that were sacrificed to make the Waddon estate but, since they had to be sacrificed, I wanted to have a hand in the making of something beautiful in their place. So I look upon it as a privilege to have been allowed to paint the picture and to have a share in St George’s church… It is the fields, all the time, that I have thought of, that used to grow wheat and oats and barley, and are now producing a great new human harvest.” Here is that urge to transform, to distil a thing of beauty out of what she sees about her.

The other religious work (hanging, on loan from Croydon Corporation, in St Andrew’s Church, Southbridge Road) is ‘Out of Great Tribulation’. This painting also focuses on the people of Croydon, survivors of the Second World War. It combines a sense of resignation with a sense of hope. Although they have come through one of the most cataclysmic experiences the world has ever known, the Croydon citizens in this picture do not appear transformed, despite standing on either side of Jesus.

As Croydon looks forward to regeneration, its citizens should reclaim Barker’s message of hope

One boy is in calipers; an elderly woman has a walking stick. They remind us that physical disability and degeneration are still facts of life. No one is smiling, though none appears miserable or pained. If the young soldier and sailor are stirred, they remain static. There is, however, one figure who is not standing motionless. A little girl runs to Jesus, his arms outstretched to all humanity. In her lies Barker’s message of hope. It is a child who recognises Jesus as her saviour and is impelled towards him. A rainbow, that great biblical symbol of hope, spans the whole picture. It is this hope which is transformational.

Cicely Mary Barker is a Christian painter but the significance of her work should not be lost to those in the 21st century who do not share her faith. Her work speaks of transformation. Whether that be through ragged children immortalised as fairies, the destitute elevated to guests at Christ’s feast, or the people of Croydon welcomed as fellow sufferers by Christ under a cosmic symbol of hope, Barker’s message is clear. She sees in humanity something great and she wants to give expression to that. Hers is an optimistic perspective.

As Croydon looks forward to a new era of commercial regeneration, its citizens could do far worse than reclaim Cicely Mary Barker. She appreciates the ordinary and everyday, and transforms them into something uplifting. This can inspire and motivate our daily business. Commercial regeneration can be complemented by a regeneration of community.

Born 120 years ago in Croydon, 2015 is a good year to raise her profile.

A service to commemorate the life and work of Cicely Mary Barker will take place at St Andrew’s Church at 3:00pm on Sunday 28th June 2015. All are welcome.

A new play, Under the Shadow of Your Wings, exploring Barker’s relationships within the context of her work, will be performed at St Andrew’s Church at 7:00pm on 9th, 10th and 11th July. Tickets will be on sale from the beginning of June. For further details, email .

The flower fairies will be celebrated as part of Croydon’s Heritage Festival (20th-28th June). Walks, talks, an open building day at St Andrew’s church and craft sessions will give a new generation of Croydon children and their parents the chance to connect with Cicely Mary Barker’s art.

David Matthews

David Matthews

David Matthews has lived in Croydon for over twenty years. He is an English teacher and has worked at three Croydon schools, most recently as headteacher at St Andrew’s, from which he retires this year. It was whilst attending St Andrew’s Church on Southbridge Road that he became interested in the work of Cicely Mary Barker. David is Chair of The Hive, a local charity set up a few years ago to provide opportunities for children and young people in the community. David is also very interested in fostering a renaissance of culture and the arts in Croydon to emerge in parallel with the town’s commercial and retail development.

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  • Ed Prajnanatha Bircumshaw

    Hello. I have just read David Mathews article on Ciciley Mary Barker Flower Fairies and would like to start a conversation with him about a project I have been working on. My email is
    If someone would be so kind as to point him in my direction that would be great.