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Friday, May 10, 2013

Fairy Ballads

After last week's post on cannibalism we promised a lighter topic for this week, which comes to us courtesy of our departing collections intern Anne Baker
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When thinking of May and what to write about, I thought of how the month is known for flowers.  In searching through the collections I came across a bound set of beautiful watercolors and decided to investigate them further. It appeared that they were for a book by Caroline Elizabeth Sheridan Norton and there is a letter from her included, with instructions for the artist. The book was entitled “Fairy Ballads,” and the watercolors were done by the artist John Absolon.


John Absolon. "They All Take Hands in a Fairy Ring." Illustration for Aunt Carry's Ballads. ca. 1847. Rosenbach Museum & Library 1954.322.

I wanted to find out more about the book, so I turned to Google. “Fairy Ballads, by the Honorable Mrs. Norton" (as written on the title page) does not appear in searches.  However, I did find a book called Aunt Carry's Ballads for Children, by the Honorable Mrs. Norton; With Illustrations by John Absolon, published in 1847. This matched the title given in a laudatory poem bound with the watercolors. I had found it!

John Absolon. "Fairy Ballads" ca. 1847. Rosenbach Museum & Library 1954.322.
The title page in the Rosenbach collection (which is not used in the published book)  is a very striking and a beautifully composed image. Three mermaids surrounded by sea corral and shells, frame the bottom of the page, while above two women sit in the trees looking down while a woman in white, in the company of a lamb, is in the scenic distance. The colors are bright and cheerful while the watercolor technique is detailed and picturesque. 

As Mrs. Norton's ballads are not included with the Rosenbach’s watercolors, I had to search elsewhere for the text that corresponds with the drawings; here is an example of the accompanying poetry from the final published version:

Excerpt from "Adventures of a Wood Sprite, or The Fairy of the Hawthorn Tree" from Aunt Carry's Ballads for Children, by the Honorable Mrs. Norton; With Illustrations by John Absolon  (pgs 5-6)

Once on a time, on a Summer’s day,
When mowers were tossing the new made hay,
And children were playing in the garden bowers,
And butter flies flitting among the flowers,
And dragon-flies darting here and there,
All golden and green in the sunny air:
A Hawthorn tree, that so long had stood,
Its trunk was all gnarled and knotted wood,

And its bark half covered with lichen and moss,
Was cut down, to make a new path across
The gentleman’s lawn where it sheltered so long
The Tom-tit’s nest, and the Robin’s song:
Woe is me! Ah! Woe is me,
A Wood-sprite lived in that Hawthorn tree!


Reading briefly about Mrs. Norton proved to be interesting. The granddaughter of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, she had an unhappy marriage (ending in separation) and her husband accused her of having a scandalous affair with the Prime Minister of England, Lord Melbourne. Her frustration with the legal powerlessness of married women led her to work to change the law. I encourage you to look her up!


Anne Baker is a Museum Student at the University of the Arts. She is from Delaware, Ohio, just north of Columbus. She enjoys Art History (Italian art) and painting and has just completed interning at the Rosenbach in the Collections Department, which she describes as "a blast, I have learned so much!"

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