Our much-anticipated exhibition ‘The Cottingley Fairies: A Study in Deception’ is now open to all in the Treasures of the Brotherton gallery. Pop in for a visit and uncover the story of how two girls from Cottingley, Yorkshire, fooled the world.

Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright were cousins, living together in Cottingley while Frances’ father served in the First World War. The girls spent the summer of 1917 playing in Cottingley Beck where, as justification for a ruined pair of shoes, they produced photographs of fairies. The pictures captured the interest of the English Theosophical Society and, before long, caught the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the literary genius behind detective mastermind Sherlock Holmes. With such reputable endorsement, many believed in the Cottingley fairies. What had begun as a white lie about wet shoes unfolded into a sixty-year secret.

But just how did this minor deception get so out of hand?

‘The Cottingley Fairies: A Study in Deception’ tells the full story. The exhibition has been guest curated by Dr Merrick Burrow, Head of English & Creative Writing at the University of Huddersfield, and includes items from the University of Leeds Special Collections, as well as objects on loan from the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford.

Room shot of 'The Cottingley Fairies' exhibition in Treasures of the Brotherton.
‘The Cottingley Fairies: A Study in Deception’, on display in Treasures of the Brotherton. Image credit: Leeds University Library Galleries.

Highlights from the exhibition include a copy of “Princess Mary’s Gift Book” which inspired the fairy cut-outs used in the faked photos. A series of articles from “The Strand Magazine” show how the Cottingley fairies were introduced to the world, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle publishing the first two photographs in the December 1920 issue. Read correspondence between Edward L. Gardner, General Secretary of the English Theosophical Society, and Conan Doyle as they ascertained the authenticity of the images. The letters draw on a wealth of expertise, and provide an insight into the personal investment of these key figures.

Also on display is one of the cameras used to take some of the famous photographs. It has been kindly loaned to the exhibition from the National Science and Media Museum by the Science Museum Group. Gifted to Frances and Elsie by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the expensive cameras put further pressure on the girls to produce more fairy fabrications.

Glass gallery case containing two old-fashioned cameras.
Close up of one of the cases in ‘The Cottingley Fairies: A Study in Deception’, on display in Treasures of the Brotherton. Image credit: Leeds University Library Galleries.

And there is plenty more to explore too. We are lucky to hold nearly all of the most important documents relating to the Cottingley fairies in Special Collections. See them together in Treasures of the Brotherton and uncover the many layers of this incredible story.

Plus, you can extend the magic beyond your visit with our special online content. Listen to Dr Merrick Burrow discuss all things fairies in our curator’s talk and accompanying blog post. Or revisit the story of the Cottingley fairies anytime through our online exhibition.

‘The Cottingley Fairies: A Study in Deception’ seeks to reveal the truth behind the twentieth century’s greatest hoax. However, one mystery still remains. Frances never stopped insisting that she really did see fairies at Cottingley.

So, do you believe in fairies?

Room shot of 'The Cottingley Fairies' exhibition in Treasures of the Brotherton.
‘The Cottingley Fairies: A Study in Deception’, on display in Treasures of the Brotherton. Image credit: Leeds University Library Galleries.

‘The Cottingley Fairies: A Study in Deception’ will be on display in Treasures of the Brotherton until Thursday 17 November 2022. Full information about how to visit the exhibition can be found on the Leeds University Library Galleries website.

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