According to art historians, The Golden Age of Fairy Painting occurred in 19th-century England during the reign of Queen Victoria, casting its spell of enchantment on artists right up to the present day. During that time, fairy pictures by eminent painters were hung in respectable galleries, viewed by the kind of large audiences that now flock to blockbuster films.
A number of factors combined to make Fairyland so appealing to Victorian artists. First, using imagery from British folklore (and from homegrown writers like Shakespeare, Pope, or the Romantic poets) seemed a breath of fresh air to artists trained in the Royal Academy tradition, in which classical myths or Biblical tales were touted as the "proper" subject matter for serious paintings. Second, pictures of fairies and sprites in lushly romantic natural settings were an aesthetic reaction to the gritty, smoky, mechanized world of the Industrial Revolution, when large tracts of English countryside swiftly vanished beneath mortar and brick. (This also played a factor in the concurrent interest in Medievalism, promoted by the Pre-Raphaelites as an antidote to modern, mass-produced life.) Third, "folklore" was a new and exciting area of scholarship, giving old country tales about spirits and fairies a cache they’d previously lacked.
Victorian interest in the "unseen world" was also evident in Spiritualism (seances, spirit possession, etc.), a fad that swept like wildfire through all classes of society. Finally, the wide-spread, casual use of medicines derived from opium no doubt played some part in the 19th-century taste for fantastic imagery . . . as well as the fact that many of these "innocent" paintings of elves, undines, and sylphs fairly dripped with sexuality, at a time when sex was at its most repressed in polite British culture.
The Victorian obsession with Fairyland has its roots in the previous century, where the subject was explored by the Romantic poets and painters like Fuseli and Blake -- the latter of whom made no bones about his personal belief in fairies. In the 19th century, the emergence of Romantic ballet, often with fairy themes, had a strong influence on a number of painters, as did the very first English publication of the Grimms’ fairy tales (in 1823) and the popularity of texts by the German Romantics like Goethe and de la Motte Fouqué. Shakespeare’s fairy plays, which had inspired fine paintings by Reynolds and Fuseli in the 1800s, continued to give artists the license to paint fairy subjects in the next century: Joseph Noël Paton, Daniel Maclise, Robert Huskisson and numerous others achieved success with magical pictures of Ariel, Oberon, Titania, and Puck.
The Pre-Raphaelite painters, whose subject matter was often drawn from myths and legends, rarely painted "the little people" themselves -- yet a single fairy picture by John Everett Millais, "Ferdinand Lured by Ariel," was much admired by subsequent painters (although the original buyer rejected the picture because the fairies were "too green"). Younger painters in the "second wave" of Pre-Raphaelitism (including E. R. Hughes, Eleanor Fortescue-Birckdale, John Atkinson Grimshaw, the Birmingham Group, and the Celtic Revivalists in Scotland) turned to fairy subjects more regularly -- not only in gallery paintings but in a wide variety of arts & crafts. Margaret Macdonald McIntosh, Frances Macdonald MacNair, Jessie M. King, Annie French, and the other "Glasgow Girls" in Scotland from the 1880s onward created fairy imagery in metalwork, jewelry, ceramics, textiles, and even furniture design, in addition to gallery paintings, murals, and illustrated books.
Richard Dadd is the painter considered the quintessential Victorian fairy artist. He peopled his canvases with creatures drawn both from British fairy literature and the archetypes of rural fairy lore: miniaturized beings depicted in naturalistic, highly detailed settings. (Victorians like Dadd have been accused of "inventing" the idea of diminutive fairies --- but fairies of all sizes populate the oldest of British accounts.) As a student at the Royal Academy in London, Dadd painted unremarkable works of landscape, marine, and animal subjects; he then traveled on a tour of the Middle East, after which his whole life shattered. During this trip, Dadd became so feverishly excited (as he wrote in a letter to a friend) that he doubted his own sanity . . . an idea with which his doctor concurred when Dadd returned to London.
The painter’s father took him to the countryside for a rest, on the doctor’s advice. Soon after, Dadd stabbed his father to death -- and then the artist fled to France, where he planned to murder the Emperor of Austria, and stabbed a total stranger instead. Arrested and brought back to England, Dadd was placed in a mental asylum called Bethlem. The artist was allowed his brushes and paints (by all accounts, he was usually the gentlest of men), and it was in Bethlem that he produced his gorgeously detailed fairy paintings. Best known of these is Dadd’s masterwork, "The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke" (popularized by the rock group Queen in a song from the 1970s).
Richard ("Dickie") Doyle, like Richard Dadd, portrayed Fairyland as a miniaturized world where sprites could be found in the shadows beneath fallen leaves and behind every blade of grass. Best known for his book illustrations (such as his classic volume In Fairyland), Doyle also painted large fairy pictures in watercolors and oils, usually peopled with hundreds of fairies, intricately, minutely rendered.
His brother Charles (the father of Arthur Conan Doyle) was also an artist who specialized in fantasy imagery, but unlike Dickie (reported to be a "singularly sweet and noble type of English gentleman"), Charles became a severe alcoholic, eventually broke down altogether, and ended up in a mental asylum -- where he created his haunting, disturbing watercolors full of magical creatures.
John Anster Fitzgerald (known as "Fairy Fitzgerald"), born in London of Irish ancestry, was another painter whose art work had a bizarre and disturbing quality -- most likely due to opium-smoking and the use of laudanum, an opium derivative. Regular opium use engenders dreams, fantasias, and hallucinations of richly colored intensity, both sensual and sinister -- which aptly describes the fairy paintings to which Fitzgerald dedicated his life. As in a surprising number of Victorian fairy paintings, the luminous world conjured by Fitzgerald becomes sinister with a closer look, filled as it is with perverse little fairies cheerfully engaged in abusing birds, insects, mice, and other creatures. Fitzgerald’s "dream pictures" are even stranger populated by goblinesque figures proffering transparent glasses of mysterious brews, or bottles in the shape of laudanum vials. Caught halfway between dream and nightmare, these fine paintings are among Fitzgerald’s best work, anticipating the images of 20th-century Surrealists like Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst.
The Golden Age of Fairy Painting is said to have ended in the 1870s . . . but (like all things fey) it did not die, it merely shape-shifted, and the Victorian passion for fairies found new expression in illustrated books. From the end of the 1900s through the early years of the 20th century, an extraordinary number of top illustrators were living, working, and publishing in England, including Walter Crane, Warwick Goble, Kay Nielsen, Eleanor Vere Boyle, Charles and William Heath Robinson, Emma Florence Harrison, Margaret Tarrant, and others too numerous to list. Aided by advances in printing techniques (as well as by rising literacy and wealth within the middle class), beautiful illustrated books enjoyed unprecedented success, popular not only with children but also with art-loving adults.
Many of these volumes contained old fairy tales, or magical stories by contemporary writers (Dickens, Thackery, Macdonald, Wilde, Carroll, and Kipling to name just a few), creating a wealth of fairy imagery that remains unequaled today. The very best of the artists of this time were Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac, whose works went on to color the dreams of generations of children the world over. Arthur Rackham had studied art at night school while working for an insurance company; in the 1890s he began to illustrate books and magazines in London, achieving success with his paintings for Tales from Shakespeare and Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Subsequent fairy books included Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and (most famously) Rackham’s collaboration with J. M. Barrie: Peter Pan in Kensington Garden. Edmund Dulac, although generally known as an English artist, was raised and educated in France. A life-long Anglophile, Dulac moved to London in 1906, where he changed his name from Edmond to Edmund and made a name for himself as the illustrator of The Arabian Nights, The Snow Queen, and other fine books.
All of these artists, from Dadd to Dulac, have informed and inspired painters of magical pictures right down to this day -- particularly artists in the fantasy genre, as well as writers of fantasy fiction. (John Crowley’s Little, Big, and Neil Gaiman’s Stardust are just three of the many books clearly influenced by such imagery.) Modern painters as diverse as Brian Froud, Alan Lee, James Christensen, Gennady Spirin, Lizbeth Zwerger, and Charles Vess are all working, in their different ways, to update the Golden Age tradition, as are sculptor Wendy Froud, photographer Suza Scalora, and a host of others.
In 1997, the Royal Academy in London and the University of Iowa Museum of Art joined forces to curate a major show of Victorian Fairy Painting, prompting an overdue reappraisal of these unusual works by scholars and critics. The catalog from that show has been published under the title Victorian Fairy Painting (text by Jeremy Maas, et al.) -- an excellent source for viewing a broader range of fairy paintings than this page will allow. Also recommended: Fairies in Victorian Paintings by Christopher Wood and Glasgow Girls by Jude Burkhauser, as well as The Faeryland Companion by Beatrice Phillipotts (available only through Barnes & Noble) and The Last Romantics: The Romantic Tradition in British Art, edited by John Christian (available only through secondhand bookshops). The poet William Butler Yeats, a great champion of fairies, once wrote that a man can’t lift his hand without influencing and being influenced by hordes of them. This seems especially true of the Golden Age painters, and the result is pure magic.
About the Author: Terri Windling is a writer, artist, and editor, and the founder of the Endicott Studio and the Journal of Mythic Arts. For more information, please visit her website for more information.
Copyright © 2001 by Terri Windling.