They were taken as a practical joke in the village of Cottingley in West Yorkshire in July 1917 by Elsie Wright (1901-88) and her younger cousin Frances Griffiths (1907-86), using coloured paper cut-out drawings secured in the ground with hat pins. Convinced they were authentic, Conan Doyle published five of the 6 x 4.5in (15 x 11cm) photographs in 1920.
A friend of Conan Doyle, Edward Gardner, also sold prints of the images at his theosophical lectures in 1920. He had been alerted to them by Elsie’s mother, a believer in fairies.
Gardner and Doyle – a spiritualist - met the girls and asked them to take more photographs of the fairies, giving them two cameras in 1920. More ‘fairy’ photographs resulted (five were taken in total: two in 1917, one showing Frances with four dancing fairies and the other depicting Elsie seated with a 1ft tall dancing gnome, and three in 1921).
On October 4 last year the Dominic Winter auction house in Cirencester sold two sepia gelatin silver prints but is now offering another 14 lots of period photographs and one of those cameras on April 11, consigned by Frances’ daughter, Christine Lynch, 88.
Estimated at £10,000-12,000 is an original contact print photograph of Frances and the Fairy Ring, taken by Elsie of Frances and printed by her father Arthur Wright in 1917 from a glass plate used in his quarter-plate ‘Midg’ camera (he was a keen amateur photographer), with two small pencil indentations to the eyes (by Frances) and inscription The Fairy Ring in her hand to the back, 7 x 10cm.
This is one of only a few copies made for family and friends by Arthur in his basement darkroom at 31 Main Street, Cottingley. This particular photograph was given to Frances. In 1920 the glass plate negatives were loaned to Gardner who sent them to Harold Snelling for ‘improvement’. It is from the resulting improved negatives that most of the known photographs were then derived in 1920-21.
In this original photograph one can see the mist above and surrounding Frances removed from Snelling’s sepia copies, and the duller whiteness of the fairy figures later brightened up by Snelling.
Another original contact print photograph of Fairy with a Posy is a 1920 vintage photograph taken by Frances of Elsie with one of the ‘Cameo’ camera given to them by Gardner and Conan Doyle, inscribed by Griffiths in pencil to the back F. Griffiths, Form 2a Girls, Municiple Scho[ol], Scarboro[ugh], 9.5 x 7cm. It is estimated at £3000-5000. Frances and family had moved to Scarborough by this time.
The second folding quarter-plate ‘Cameo’ camera given to Frances in 1920 is also offered. Manufactured by W Butcher & Sons, London, 1915-20, with Lukos II symmetrical lens back, it is estimated at £3000-4000.
In 1972 Elsie sold her father’s ‘Midg’ camera (used for taking the first two Cottingley Fairies photographs in 1917) and one of the ‘Cameo’ cameras used in 1920 through Sotheby’s. The cameras now both reside at the National Media Museum, Bradford.
In his book Fairies: The Cottingley Fairies and their Sequel, 4th revised edition, Theosophical Publishing House, 1966, Gardner wrote: “Two good quarter-plate [‘Cameo’] cameras were bought, one for each of the girls, and then I went to Illingworth’s factory for the supply of two dozen plates … I went off, too, to Cottingley again, taking the two cameras and plates from London, and met the family and explained to the two girls the simple working of the cameras, giving one to each to keep.”
It had been thought that this camera on offer at Dominic Winter was the one used for at least one of the photographs taken by Frances in 1920, The Fairy Bower, and possibly the one of Elsie receiving a bouquet of flowers.
However, from family papers it now appears likely that this camera was not received by Frances until October 1920, so shortly after the three final fairy photographs were taken in August 1920. Subsequently, Frances used this camera for family snapshots.
According to The Guardian, the girls only confessed that the photographs had been faked in 1983, with Frances still saying that the fifth photograph, The Fairy Bower, was genuine but had taken it accidentally.
Lynch said: “My mother was glad the truth came out in the end. She never thought she could take photographs of the fairies and she saw the grass had been shaped into a semi-circle nest. Without thinking, she took out the camera and set the timer, distance and exposure and it was only when it was developed she saw there was actual fairies on it.”
Earlier Cottingley lots
The two photographs sold last October, both with original mounts and printed captions, had each guided at £700-1000. Alice and the Fairies, the first in the series of five, sold at £15,000 (plus 20% buyer’s premium). Iris and the Gnome, the second, took £5400.
Cottingley Fairies photographs, Conan Doyle’s book The Coming of the Fairies and other items from Frances’ collection were sold at Sotheby’s in 1998 for a total of £21,620.