The Cottingley Fairies: A Study in Deception Exhibition

I first heard the story of the Cottingley Fairies when I was a kid and watched the movie Fairy Tale: A True Story, which came out in the late 1990s. I’ve always found it a fascinating story, and I’m not the only one, as the story has cropped up again and again in the media over the last century.

So when I heard about the Treasures of the Brotherton temporary exhibition The Cottingley Fairies: A Study in Deception – I knew I had to see it!

The Cottingley Fairies: A Study in Deception exhibition in the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery.

If you’re not familiar with the story, you can find a post I wrote about the Cottingley Fairies here.

The gallery’s exhibition was curated by Dr Merrick Burrow from the University of Huddersfield, whose research interests cover Victorian and Edwardian literature. The exhibition utilises archival material from the University of Leeds Special Collection, and it was wonderful to see letters written by key players in the ‘fairy’ tale (pun intended!).

Letter from Arthur Conan Doyle to E.L. Gardner 22 June 1920 from UoL Special Collections.

I have been fortunate enough to read letters written by Elsie (held at the West Yorkshire Archive Service, Bradford), so it was great to see more archival material including copies of the photographs and quite excitingly – a photographic negative. I’m no photography expert, but as the interpretation explains, “This is not the actual glass negative that Elsie took with her father’s Midg camera in 1917. It is a third-generation copy, “improved” by Snelling at Gardner’s request. This heavily treated negative is the one from which all of the published prints were taken. The whereabouts of the original negatives remains a mystery.” One of the camera’s used by Elsie and Frances was also available to view, on loan from the National Media Museum in Bradford.

Glass Plate of ‘Frances and the Fairies’.

The exhibition explores the making of the controversy, and the layers of deception involved. As Dr Burrow explains “the Cottingley fairies hoax was the result of unconscious collaboration. No single person set out to perpetrate fraud on a grand scale. But each of the people in the story contributed an important layer of deception, without properly understanding its effects or the actions of the others”.

The exhibition explores how these photographs become a phenomenon, with a contextual look about the bigger debates on spiritualism that Edward Gardner and Arthur Conan Doyle were involved in at that time.

The exhibition is coming to an end so if you want to see it (and I highly recommend you do) it’s available until Thursday 17 November 2022. For more information on visiting the exhibition please go to the Leeds University Galleries website here.

Alongside Treasures of the Brotherton, the University of Leeds also has an art gallery, you can find out more about them in my previous blog post here.

The Cottingley Fairies: A Study in Deception exhibition in the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery.

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Sources

The Cottingley Fairies: A Study in Deception Exhibition Interpretation

Leeds University Galleries: https://library.leeds.ac.uk/events/event/1900/galleries/375/the-cottingley-fairies-a-study-in-deception

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