The “Cottingley Fairies” series of photographs was one of 20and the greatest photographic hoaxes of the century. The black and white photos seem to show fairies floating around a little girl and in natural settings. Tomorrow, a series of photos, six of which come directly from the daughter of one of the women who created the photos, will be auctioned at Auctioneers Dominic Winter and could fetch up to £70,000.
In the summer of 1917, two girls, 16-year-old Elsie Wright and her nine-year-old cousin Frances Griffiths of Cottingley, were playing with Wright’s father’s “Midg” quarter-plate camera. The schoolgirls cut out cardboard fairy silhouettes and used them in the pictures they took. In the first two photos taken by Wright and Griffiths in 1917, fairies appear to be dancing around Griffith’s shoulders in one while in the second, Wright, seated in a field, appears in conversation with a fairy. Three years later, the girls took three more photos meant to capture the presence of fairies, the fifth of which features neither Wright nor Griffiths, only the faint suggestion of three fairies amid tall grass.
The photographs spread like wildfire, separating viewers from their authenticity. Wright’s father, Arthur, who was an amateur photographer, developed the prints for the girls and knew firmly that they were just hijinks. Polly Wright, Wright’s mother, however, disagreed and thought the photos were real proof of the existence of fairies. She even went to show the photos to the Theosophical Society in Bradford where they were giving a lecture on the creatures. Then, in 1920, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame grabbed the photos and used them in an article written for The Strand Magazine. Conan Doyle even gave Wright and Griffiths the camera they used to capture the last three frames.
Eventually the ‘Cottingley Fairies’ craze died down at the end of the First World War and the girls grew up and married. They have, however, maintained the authenticity of the images. In the 1960s, photos became popular again for a short time. Finally, in the 1980s, Wright and Griffith admitted to faking it all when a reporter from the British Journal of Photography made a series about the photos. However, Griffiths has always maintained that the fifth and final photo, called The cradle of the fairies, was the real deal. Griffith’s daughter, Christine Lynch, upholds her mother’s belief and is the one selling her collection of photos marking 100 years of their making.
In an interview with The Guardian, Lynch describes the lasting negative effects of keeping the whole ordeal secret on his mother. “Elsie had the idea to fake the photographs of the fairies”, reminded Lynch,” and it was only to get her out of trouble. She was stressed out her whole life about those fake photos because it was only for the family. She continued, “My mom was glad the truth is finally revealed.”
“It’s time they went to a museum where someone else can see them and enjoy them,” Lynch says. “They haven’t been exposed at all, so it’s good that someone else sees them.”