End papers from A Faerie Pageant [A094/KYN/1924]
As we have just passed the Midsummer Solstice, I thought it an apt time to look at the work of the Birmingham artist Bernard Sleigh who was known as “the man who mapped fairyland”.
Woodcuts June and July from ‘A Faery Calendar’, c. 1924
[AF 09/1922 ]
Sleigh was born in Kings Norton in 1872. Following the death of his father he left school aged 14 to become an apprentice wood carver creating commercial prints for many of Birmingham’s manufacturers and businesses. During this time he also began visiting the recently established City art gallery and attending the municipal School of Art. Here he met and was inspired by artists from the Arts and Crafts movement and the Birmingham Group including Arthur Gaskin who he began working with after he broke his indenture.
Woodcut of Lickey Parish Church [AF 09/1922 ]
Sleigh became a teacher and an engraver and had several works published by small presses. As a young man Sleigh had a brain aneurysm and the resulting trepanning operation affected him permanently. He claims in his autobiography that half his brain remained aged 24 whilst the other half matured as normal giving him a temperament which separated him from his contemporaries and an inclination towards mystical subjects. He produced many woodcuts illustrating poetry and tales inspired by folklore and mythology.
Woodcuts Frontispiece for ‘Gates of Horn’ [AF 09/1922 ]
Sleigh lived and worked for most of his life in Birmingham but enjoyed travelling throughout Britain and Europe, often by bicycle. He documented his trips with beautiful watercolour sketches of landscapes and architecture which can be seen to inform the landscapes of his fantastical engravings. The brutality of the First World War was a significant cause for his increased enthusiasm for fantasy. He recounts in his autobiography “[in 1916] the Peter Pan in me emerged in full strength… Chiefly I suppose as a mental refuge from the hideous militarism of the time”. It was during this time that he met his main collaborator Ivy Ellis and began work on his most famous creation An ancient mappe of Fairyland, newly discovered and set forth, a complex lithograph 5′ x 18″ which combines a plethora of fantasy characters on a bird’s eye topographical fictional island (www.bl.uk/collection-items/an-ancient-mappe-of-fairyland).
Although primarily known for his wood engraving, Sleigh was a champion of craftsmanship and worked in many other areas including designing stained glass windows for several churches, oil paintings and murals and produced a beautiful book with nearly 500 botanical watercolour studies of British native plants. He was commissioned by the City Council to paint large canvas panels of local historical subjects for the Town Hall and worked with the Civic Society to produce a range of maps of the suburbs of Birmingham. He also wrote several books including an instruction handbook on wood engraving and a range of short stories and poems for both adults and children based on fairy tale legends.
Sleigh always felt a strong connection to the library. In his autobiography he states:
“the wisest thing my father had done was to interest me in the old Birmingham Library… and this sombre building then in Union Street, became a second home – a spiritual one, of which I made full and grateful use for more than 40 years.”
He used the historical sources held in the library when creating a map of Birmingham as seen in 1760 and in turn donated a collection of artist proofs of his wood cuts in 1922. He added to the volume throughout the rest of his life and also donated a collection of watercolour and botanical paintings. These complement the published works by him which are held in our Early and Fine Printing Collection.
Sleigh’s Birmingham Map
Memoirs of a Human Peter Pan, Bernard Sleigh, 1944 (LF 78.1 Sle)
Birmingham Biography, Vol 45, p. 133 (BCOL )
Selected Source list related to Sleigh items from our collections
Drawings and sketches by Bernard Sleigh
Drawings in pencil and colour by Bernard Sleigh
The dryad’s child : [early & fine printing] being the further history of the lives of the Reverend James Manshull and his faery wife, as related in the ‘Gates of Horn’ / [with] a woodcut frontispiece engraved by the author.
Birmingham : City of Birmingham School of Printing, 1936.
A F 096/KYN/1924
A picture map of the City of Birmingham in the year 1730 / [early & fine printing] / designed by Bernard Sleigh.
Birmingham : Cornish Brothers Limited, 1924.
A Faerie pageant / [early & fine printing] / with illustrations drawn by him, and engraved on wood by Ivy A. Ellis and the author ; and bound by Frank Garrett.
Birmingham : Bernard Sleigh, 1924.
A F 096/1922
A Book of woodcuts / [early & fine printing] / engraved from original designs by Bernard Sleigh ; including eight drawn by A. Payne.
Birmingham : [s.n.], 1922.
A E 096/1918
An Anciente mappe of Fairyland
London : Sidgwick & Jackson, 
The Sea-King’s daughter and other poems / [early & fine printing] / with designs by Bernard Sleigh.
Birmingham : Press of the Birmingham Guild of Handicraft, 1895.