This is not meant to be a scholarly inquiry into the origins and evolution of fairy tale illustrations. Mainly, I hope it demonstrates how many wonderful illustrators have deployed their talents in this fascinating area and how easy it is to find the classic illustrations online.
Most people searching online for resources in this area will come across Wikipedia articles or sites selling prints or books. I am not being critical of these resources but the best place to find classic books and illustrations is Project Gutenberg. This is where most of the material on this page comes from and all of it is free and also out of copyright.
This means you can use the pictures and text in anyway that you like- though you should read the site's licence section if you are planning on commercial uses of Gutenberg material.
The Golden Age of Children's Book Illustration
The Victorian and Edwardian Periods are widely recognized as a time when great talents were attracted into the field of book illustration of all kinds. This was before photography had reached a point that it could supplant illustration. At the same time, prosperity in Europe and America meant an enormous appetite for picture books and journals.
George Cruikshank is credited as a pioneer in the UK. Later Richard Doyle, John Tenniel, the Dalziel Brothers, Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway helped to transform childrens' illustrations into an art form of its own.
In the US, at the same time, Howard Pyle was transforming illustrations for children's books, and his many famous students made enduring contributions in a tradition that would lead eventually to Disney's Snow White and Cinderella.
The peak of the 'Golden Age of Illustration' saw the astonishing imaginative outputs of Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Willy Pogany, Kay Nielsen, W Heath Robinson and Jessie Willcox Smith.
The Origin of Fairy Tales
Most classic European fairy tales were originally folk stories collected by scholars of folk traditions. One of the first and most famous collections is 'The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault' which includes Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Bluebeard, Puss in Boots and Little Thumb. You find the book here: gutenberg.org/ebooks/29021
The Brothers Grimm produced another outstanding collection that includes Hansel and Gretel. 'Andersen's Fairy Tales' by Hans Christian Andersen gave us the terrifying Snow Queen and the The Little Mermaid among many others.
What is a Fairy Tale?
For purists, the term 'Fairy Tale' is reserved for stories collected from the oral tradition of Europe. These are the stories that were passed down for centuries by being spoken or performed, rather than stories that were read.
This would exclude the works of individual writers like Lewis Carrol who wrote Alice in Wonderland or J.M. Barrie who wrote Peter Pan.
Since this page is about illustrations rather than the stories, I have included illustrations from some works that might not fit the truest description of being a Fairy Tale- hoping no one is too upset!
Fairy Tales can be Scary
Fairy tales are a potent mixture of magic, marvel, nightmare and insight. One moment, they are a thrilling fantasy, the next they are exploring our deepest fears.
The first collection from the Brothers Grimm was believed by many parents to be far too frightening for young children. They substantially changed the content for their second edition, which is form we are familiar with now.
Luckily, most Fairy Tales have a 'Fairy Tale ending'. So the dark forces at play are usually something that is finally transcended.
Fairy Tale Illustrators from Northern Europe
Scandinavia has been a potent source of myths, legends and Fairy tales for over a thousand years- sometimes with an especially dark presence, sometimes with the most marvelous mystery and magic.
Two illustrators that deserve special mention are John Bauer from Sweden and Kay Nielson from Denmark.
Arthur was probably the most famous English illustrator of his day. His illustrations are unsparing in their detail and there is a dark gothic edge in much of his work.
Some of my favourite illustrations are from 'Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens', a children s book that J.M. Barry penned after the success of Peter Pan on Stage.
For Rackham's most ethereal fairies, it is worth hunting out his illustrations for a Midsummer's Night Dream. Shakespeare's play is rich in English folklore and even though, it could not be called a 'Fairy Tale', it is the fairy tale elements that have often attracted illustrators.
Illustrations to be found at Project Gutenberg
Project Gutenberg has the largest collection of free books to be found online. It is easy to search and books can be read online in any web browser or downloaded as Mobi files for an E-reader or tablet PC.
If you visit www.gutenberg.org you can find all of the books below, with their illustrations. Search in the box to the left for the specific titles or the artists.
An Ilustratred Copy of The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault
by Charles Perrault, et al, Translated by Robert Samber and J. E. Mansion, Illustrated by Harry Clarke
The Sleeping Beauty Picture Book, by Anonymous, Illustrated by Walter Crane
My Book of Favorite Fairy Tales, by Edric Vredenburg illus Jennie Harbour
Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, by J. M. Barrie
ENGLISH FAIRY TALES illustrated by Arthur Rackham
A Midsummer's Night Dream Illustrated by Arthur Rackham
There are some of the most beautiful illustrations of the imagined world in this book but it is not available at Project Gutenberg. The video below gives a good idea of the quality of the work.
Stories from Hans Andersen, by Hans Christian Andersen
East of the Sun and West of the Moon, by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe
Moltoa diego on August 01, 2019:
What a fascinating and exciting hub! I found this hub charming and you're so informed on the topic. I don't forget seeing some of those original illustrations in books when I became a infant. The Snow Queen and the faeries from Midsummer Night's Dream I absolutely keep in mind.
These illustrations are fantastically hand drawn, which I decide upon, and I think higher than what computers can do these days.
Barbara from Stepping past clutter on November 18, 2013:
I thoroughly enjoyed your collection of illustrations from classic fairy tales. I have long admired this genre and enjoy reading various writers definitions and explanations of how they came to be- it's a controversial field! Thanks.
Will Apse (author) on April 20, 2013:
There are wonderful illustrations of all kinds on Project Gutenberg. There are fascinating machines from the Victorian era (especially in Scientific America). There are ship illustrations, old maps, botanical drawings (often beautifully colored) and a host of other visual treats.
I'm glad that you enjoyed these.
Gabriela Hdez from Valencia, Spain on April 19, 2013:
This is so cooool. I love childrens books illustrations. I was an avid reader from very early on, and I clearly remember looking at my book's illustration when I was three and four trying to learn how to read the letters that came with the pictures. I wish I had more books with drawings like these that you'd shown, most of mine were Disney's and well . . . they didn't show what these older illustration show. The scariest parts weren't even really there to start with.
Now that I have a daughter I was thinking to put together my "own" fairy tales if I couldn't find good ones (the real original story with beautiful pictures). The sources you just mentioned are going to be really useful.
Thank you. I really enjoyed reading (and looking at) this post!
SotD and Zera on August 25, 2012:
This is a really cool hub. I'd encountered John Bauer's work before, but I didn't know any of the others you mentioned. It's neat that Project Gutenberg is preserving the illustrations as well.
Pamela Dapples from Just Arizona Now on June 30, 2012:
This is very interesting. Thanks for sharing the information about Project Gutenberg and the availability of free books with illustrations. I am going to take a look at the site now. These illustrations you chose are beautifully simple in line -- most of them. Voting up and awesome.
Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on October 22, 2011:
What a charming and enjoyable hub! I found this hub fascinating and you are so knowledgeable on the topic. I remember seeing some of these original illustrations in books when I was a child. The Snow Queen and the faeries from Midsummer Night's Dream I definitely remember.
These illustrations are beautifully hand drawn, which I prefer, and I think better than what computers can do today.