Magical Kingdoms: Victorian Fairy Painting

Exhibition: Victorian Fairy Painting

Dates 1997-1998

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.

Ferdinand Lured by Ariel by John Everett MillaisFerdinand Lured by Ariel by John Everett Millais
Ferdinand Lured by Ariel by John Everett Millais

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.

‘Queen Mab’s Cave’, Joseph Mallord William Turner
‘Queen Mab’s Cave’, Joseph Mallord William Turner