Art UK website on the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives licence (CC BY-NC-ND). Commentary below by Jacqueline Banerjee.by Sir Joseph Noel Paton, RSA (1821-1901). 1861-67. Oil on canvas. H 90.5 x W 146.7 cm. Collection: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Accession no. 3234, acquired as a gift in 1965. Kindly released via the
In his discussion of fairy-painting, Richard Schindler writes that Paton constructs this work "on the scale and level of complexity of a history painting," loading it "with historical and literary references." As he points out,
The fairy procession includes knights and ladies on horseback, jesters, minstrels, children, dwarfs, hobgoblins, sprites, and will-o'-the-wisps. Paton refers to the literary traditions of the ballad, Celtic mythology, German Märchen (fairy tales), and medieval chansons de geste (Old French epic poems of the eleventh and twelfth centuries). The fairy raid emerges from a dark forest into a landscape radiant with light as Paton fuses an Old Master style with Pre-Raphaelite colors.
Closer view of the children: the three older ones on the woodland path, one looking back; and the infant being absconded, seated on the fairy queen's lap but looking towards the viewer.
Lionel Lambourne calls the painting Paton's "perhaps his finest fairy work" (203) and reproduces the lines that accompanied it when it was first exhibited:
Fast, fast, through the greenwood speeding
Out in the moonlight bright,
Her faery raid she is leading,
This dainty queen so light,
And the baby heir of acres wide
She is carrying away to fairyland.
A changeling is left by the nurse’s side
And he in the young heir's place shall stand. [qtd.in Lambourne 204]
For all its reference to the "dainty queen," the woodland procession described in the verse and delineated in the painting does not have the aura of a delightful fantasy. Like Richard Dadd's The Fairy-Feller's Master-Stroke, completed in 1864, it has very grim undertones. Noting the blank stare of the snatched infant, and glimpsing chains round the legs of the three older children accompanying the procession, Carole G. Silver writes,
In focusing on the little captives, Paton suggests how intense a cultural anxiety child abduction had come to be, as well as how integrally if imaginatively connected it was to the changeling phenomenon. The possibility that an otherworldly (or primitive) order still lurked at the edges of civilization and took children or young women for evil or unnatural purposes simultaneously titillated his audience and increased its anxiety. 
Paton's work can be seen from other points of view as well: in connection with slavery (the trans-Atlantic slave trade was still coming to an end during the years when Paton was at work on the painting); and, much nearer home for Paton, the dispossession involved in the Highland Clearances. This raises uncomfortable questions about the abductors and those involved with their "raid."
Link to related material
The Fairy Raid: Carrying Off a Changeling, Midsummer Eve. Art UK. Web. 5 August 2022.
Lambourne, Lionel. Victorian Painting. London and New York: Phaidon, 1999.
Silver, Carole G. Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Created 6 August 2022