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Classic Fairy Tale Illustrations & Where to Find Online

Updated on October 26, 2015
Little Red Riding Hood by Harry Clarke from The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault
Little Red Riding Hood by Harry Clarke from The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault

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 Dwarves from LITTLE SNOW-WHITE by Jennie Harbour
The Dwarves from LITTLE SNOW-WHITE by Jennie Harbour
Walter Crane. Bluebeard showing his new wife the keys to the house.
Walter Crane. Bluebeard showing his new wife the keys to the house.

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 Snow Queen by Edmund Dulac
The Snow Queen by Edmund Dulac
Anne Anderson's Beauty dining with the Beast
Anne Anderson's Beauty dining with the Beast
The Goose Girl by JENNIE HARBOUR
The Goose Girl by JENNIE HARBOUR

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:

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.

Kay Neison illust in 'East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Old Tales from the North'
Kay Neison illust in 'East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Old Tales from the North'
John Bauer  is famous for his images of Trolls
John Bauer is famous for his images of Trolls

Arthur Rackham

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.

The brambles from Sleeping Beauty by Arthur Rackham
The brambles from Sleeping Beauty by Arthur Rackham
Peter Pan sailing a birds nest in 'Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens'
Peter Pan sailing a birds nest in 'Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens'
Faeries in Midsummer's Night Dream. Arthur Rackham
Faeries in Midsummer's Night Dream. Arthur Rackham

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 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

Walter Crane

The Sleeping Beauty Picture Book, by Anonymous, Illustrated by Walter Crane

Jennie Harbour

My Book of Favorite Fairy Tales, by Edric Vredenburg illus Jennie Harbour

Arthur Rackham

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.

Edmund Dulac

Stories from Hans Andersen, by Hans Christian Andersen

Kay Nielsen

East of the Sun and West of the Moon, by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe

The Little Mermaid Edmund Dulac
The Little Mermaid Edmund Dulac


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    • Storytellersrus profile image

      Barbara 4 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      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 profile image

      Will Apse 5 years ago

      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.

    • CandyTale profile image

      Gabriela Hdez 5 years ago from Valencia, Spain

      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 profile image

      SotD and Zera 5 years ago

      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 Kinnaird W profile image

      Pamela Kinnaird W 5 years ago from Maui and Arizona

      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.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 6 years ago from Taos, NM

      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.

      Voted up!