Exhibition: Victorian Fairy Painting
The United States and the United Kingdom
Based on Original article appeared in Des Moines Register, 8 March 1998
By Bill Radl
Earnestness, modesty, hard work, honesty, duty and above all, a solid character and stern goodwill were the officially prized personal attributes of the proper Victorian man and woman.
It was a code that emanated directly from the Queen herself who, dressed in black, served as the trademark for the British Empire and symbolized superficially the public face, if not the private life of the age. Theater, music, literature, dance and the visual arts flourished in 19th-century Britain. An earnest, stable, and sternly good-willed middle-class citizen might see Charles Kean's sumptuous revival of "The Tempest" at London's Princess's Theater and then take a peek at John Everett Millais' dazzling technique in the painting "Ferdinand Lured by Ariel" at the Royal Academy of Art.
In both cases, a world of fairies, magic and strange dramatic light were effective antidotes for the official moral rigour of the day.
Watercolours and prints, the unifying theme (in some cases it's not so much a theme as a barely visible element) is the fairy (also spelled faerie or faery and also known as brownie, elf, pixie, kobold, leprechaun or any of a dozen other names).
Beyond this single thematic thread, however, there is a wide variety of artistic style, technique and intent that tends to work against the notion implied in the exhibition catalogue that there was a cohesive, well-defined genre of Victorian fairy painting.
Except for a few the artists represented, most of the work counts as a single experiment, or one, of only a few in fairy painting. Many were painted in response to a literary reference, usually from Shakespeare but including work from Michael Drayton, J.M. Barrie (Peter . Pan's creator) and Rudyard Kipling.
Others are very private and disturbing personal hallucinations. Throughout, however, is a strain of realistic and highly detailed painting and drawing that links the end of early-19th-century romanticism to the beginnings of late-century symbolism.
Hung on walls painted in dense, solid colours - purple, mustard yellow, olive green and sienna - with many works contained within large, gold-covered ornate frames, the exhibit as a whole created the rich and mysterious light, colour and feel of a magical kingdom. There are few ugly fairies here. Most are attractive, if not overtly seductive tiny actors playing on lush floral stages revealed by the light of dusk or dawn or moon or their own interior glow and rarely, if ever, by raw daylight.
J.M.W. Turner's "Queen Mab's Cave" is the only painting in which Turner showed fairies and is remarkable not because of the fairies but because of the epic, nearly abstract romanticism of an influential style visible in his late work.
Unlike Turner's single foray with the wee folk, Richard Dadd seems to have been unable to keep himself from painting scenes populated by all sorts of sprites and nymphs. Dadd, in fact, spent the last 22 years of his life in an asylum after murdering his father. It was in Broadmoor Hospital, where he created most of his fairy work. One painting alone, "The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke," is a spooky moonlit obsession that took Dadd nine years to complete.
Sir Edwin Henry Landseers "Titania and Bottom" (from "A Midsummer Night's Dream") is executed with the extraordinary realistic detail typical of most of the exhibit. Beautiful Titania awakes from a dragged sleep, now a slave to Bottom, who has been transformed into an ass. Titania is clearly not yet fully aware of what is happening, while Bottom, even with the head of a donkey, seems pensive and reflective.
The moisture in the eyes of two rabbits who watch is real. Yet Landseer's vision, his only fairy painting, appears mature, almost stodgy compared to the wild and dramatically lit scene in Daniel Maclise's "The Disenchantment of Bottom."
Richard Doyle's illustrations from a collection of poems by William Allingham titled "In Fairyland" show playful fairy romps or fairies at rest. The sweetness of Doyle's elves contrasts with the frankly ugly and sometimes threatening sprites that show up in a long series of paintings by John Anster Fitzgerald. To be fair, Fitzgerald's nasty-looking creatures are secondary, occupying the periphery surrounding his very attractive main players, but in at least one instance they suggest the presence of opium-induced hallucination.
Joseph Noel Paton's monumental work, "The Fairy Raid, Carrying Off the Changeling, Midsummer's Eve," is populated by hundreds of idealized figures who dance, fight, kiss, fly, prance and preen in a complex and essentially ingenious narrative that would take hours to unravel.
"Victorian Fairy Painting" might just as easily have been titled "Evidence of Naivete" and Psychosis During Victoria's Reign." The Victorian Age ended at the beginning of one revolution in biology and on the verge of another in psychology. Two world wars in the next 50 years would change everything.
In this light, Victorian fairy painting represents a compelling and unusually poignant and essentially British indulgence that is unlikely to repeat itself ever.