‘Wood Elves at Play’. Detail (8 x 4 inches) of a vignette on Plate 12. 1870. Coloured wood engraving by Edmund Evans. 7¼ x 12 inches. Innocent ‘play’, but this time with an erotic undertone as the semi-naked elves float through the undergrowth in a sensuous procession, a sort of flowing arabesque. Most revealing is the tiny image of a couple about to kiss: the woman is prostrate and looks up at her lover, pulling his face towards her in desire. This seems purely incidental but carries with it a sexual connotation, articulating a scene that could not appear directly in mainstream painting. Victorian escapist and fantasy art – medievalism, neo-classicism, fairies – worked as a surrogate language for real-life experience, and Doyle’s cavorting elves and passionate lovers are unmistakeably part of the process of encoding, of figuring a taboo message in a distanced form. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Photograph and text by Simon Cooke. You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link to this URL in a web document or cite it in a print one.


Doyle, Richard, and William Allingham. In Fairyland. London: Green and Co., 1870 [1869].

Created 10 September 2021