A Rehearsal, by Richard Doyle.

Fairy art was a popular mode in the mid-nineteenth century, and Doyle was only one of a number of practitioners who explored the genre in paint and illustration. Taken at face value, his lyrical imagery was a matter of entertainment; like others working in this flexible idiom, his images provided a form of escapism which allowed the viewer to retreat from the harsh facts of mid-Victorian Britain and indulge in a child-like contemplation of the pre-industrial age. Yet fairy art also functioned as a symbolic language which expressed many of the anxieties of the time, giving shape to what could not be confronted directed in a lightly encoded, distanced form. In the words of Jeremy Maas, the fairies of Doyle and his contemporaries focused ‘many of the opposing elements in the Victorian psyche’, especially ‘the stirrings of new attitudes towards sex ... a passion for the unseen' and mental ‘retreat from scientific discoveries’ (148).

Indeed, his publications almost always contain a sub-text which uses the apparently innocent language of ‘fairyland’ as a means to express psychological tensions. His little people may appear to be playful but are invariably malevolent, the embodiment, perhaps, of some underlying aggression or anxiety that demands release from the unconscious mind. This Freudian notion of a repressed energy that has to be expressed in a symbolic form is typified by his treatment of the little people in Mark Lemon’s The Enchanted Doll (1849). Seemingly innocuous, these creatures are also violent and menacing; motivated by some supernatural vigour, they uncontrollably re-make the doll and persecute the characters.

A similar destructiveness informs the fairy-demons in Doyle's interpretation of Laurence Oliphant’s moralistic tale, Piccadilly (1870). The idea of the little folk as the emblems of suppressed desire finds its clearest expression in the scene when they arise, as if from the recesses of the mind, to surround and torment the despairing narrator. At once terrifying and seductive, Doyle uses his swirling forms to visualize the idea of a bitter-sweet desire that is both fascinating and repellent. Significantly, one of his earliest designs (Journal) is an image of himself, in restless sleep, menaced by the imps and goblins of his dreams.

Two coloured wood engravings by Richard Doyle. Left: The Tournament. Right: An Intruder.

The suggestive ambiguity of fairy imagery is given its most sophisticated treatment in the colourful pages of In Fairyland (1869-70). Doyle’s elaborate picture-book is on one level a charming piece of whimsy in which elves and fairies are shown like small children at play, riding on the backs of snails (Plate IV), beetles (XI) and butterflies (XIII), dressing up, taking part in processions, or teasing each other (III, VI, XV). Yet other scenes suggest an adult concern with relationships, notably in the illustrations where male suitors are tormented by their nominal lovers and eventually turned down (VIII). There is also, startlingly, a strong emphasis on eroticism, especially in the images of fairies embracing (XII), and on images of cruelty in which wood-elves pull the legs and wings of insects (V, VII). Such images incongruously mingle with the apparent innocent of elves frolicking among the fuschias (XV), creating a sense of adult self-awareness where they should only be childish ignorance.

A typical piece of fairyland eroticism, with wood elves in naturein Wood Elves at Play..

At once a piece of fey sentimentality and a dream-text, In Fairyland can function as a children’s book and as an adult allegory. Yet it is likely that the book’s unsettling ambience alienated many buyers at the time of publication, and contributed to its economic failure. The fairies are humorous enough, but, as in almost all of Doyle’s picture-books, they undermine the viewer’s expectations, converting the lyrical into the fearful, the innocent into a curiously disturbing vision of the life of a mind.

Related Material


The Brothers Dalziel, A Record of Work, 1840-1890. Foreword by Graham Reynolds. 1901; reprinted London: Batsford, 1978.

Cooke, Simon. ‘A Forgotten Illustration by Richard Doyle.’Studies in Illustration 26 (Spring 2004): 32-34.

Cooke, Simon. ‘Notable Books: Richard Doyle's In Fairyland'. The Private Library, Fifth Series, 8:4 (Winter 2005): 153-171.

Engen, Rodney. Richard Doyle. Stroud: The Catalpa Press, 1983.

Hambourg, Daria. Richard Doyle. London: Art & Technics, 1948.

Maas, Jeremy. Victorian Painting. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1978.

Muir, Percy. Victorian Illustrated Books. London: Batsford, 1971; revised ed., 1985.

Last modified 10 September 2021