decorated initial 'T'airy painting would seem to be a quintessentially Victorian product, yet its roots lie firmly within late eighteenth-century British art. Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) recognized the potential for fairy painting to both entertain and edify the British public. Fuseli, in his efforts to establish a new kind of poetic history painting, established the basic vocabulary of the genre: the quotation of high art and literature, the addition of folkloric themes, and the establishment of a central narrative scene surrounded by collaborative vignettes (Tomory, 100, 109). As Fuseli stated, "The excellence of pictures and of language consists in raising clear, complete and circumstantial images and turning readers into spectators" (quoted in Mason, 204). In his works for Alderman John Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery, Titania and Bottom (c. 1780-90) and Titania's Awakening (1793-94), he set the standards for a new kind of literary history painting; for the Shakespeare Gallery, see Winifred H. Friedman. Fuseli used Shakespeare's fairy play as the initial inspiration for darkly dramatic fantasy scenes that immersed mannerist-derived nude figures into a maelstrom of demonic happenings. His influence would be felt later in both Victorian fairy painting and illustration, especially in his handling of multiple vignettes that comment upon the central action.

William Blake (1757-1827) also incorporated fairy imagery and lore into his idiosyncratic cosmology. Unlike Fuseli, he had no interest in the grand scale of history painting, preferring to work with the media of engraving and watercolor. He saw fairies as nature elementals, "rulers of the vegetable world" (quoted in Damon, 136) In Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing (c. 1785), the artist conceives of fairies as nature worshippers, miniature druidic celebrants of the corporeal earth. Blake depicts the king and queen of the fairies presiding over a free-spirited dance, a "fairy ring." He differs from Fuseli's approach to the fairy painting by concentrating solely on the diminutive participants (without comparison to normal-sized human beings) and giving the fairies wings, which add to the airy feeling of the dance.

Blake also engaged popular folklore about fairy interaction with the English household. The Goblin (c. 1816-20), a pen and watercolor illustration to Milton's poem "L'Allegro," visualizes the poet's metaphors for the break of day while also delineating popular beliefs about the positive and negative attributes of fairy behavior (Butlin, I, 397). Robin Goodfellow, the "lubber fiend," is a domestic spirit, who upon completion of his tasks hurls himself into the morning sky. Behind him, vengeful sprites punish a lazy woman who remains in bed although the day has begun. Blake includes other references to fairy mythology: the "ignus fatuus," or the will-of-the-wisp, which leads a foolish man astray, and an enthroned Queen Mab, who presides over the fairy activity as she eats her junket, a kind of pudding made from curdled milk. (Briggs, 231, 341-343; see also Adlard, 43). Where Fuseli had set the tone for literary history painting, Blake provided the model for an imaginative use of scale and a schemata of body language for future artists to use when dealing with fairy subjects. At the same time, Blake served as a spiritual godfather to artists searching for visual metaphors for poetic inspiration in fantasy art.

Surprisingly, the later Romantic era saw little important work in fairy painting. Artists like Henry Singleton (1766-1839), Henry Howard (1769-1847) and Frank Howard (1805-66), and Joshua Cristall (1767-1847) carried on the tradition in small-scaled works. These works, however, did little but sustain the prevailing types established by Blake and Fuseli of diminutive figures closely associated with the world of flora and fauna. A more productive expansion of fairy lore came out of the writings of such folklorists as Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), Nathan Drake (1766-1836), Thomas Crofton Croker (1798-1854) and Thomas Keightley (1789-1872). Most important, an English translation of Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm's Kinder- und Hausmarchen appeared in 1823. The publication of these various collections of ballads, plays, folklore, and fairy tales throughout the Victorian era would offer alternative literary sources for fairy painters and illustrators to those sources associated with the Shakespearian tradition.

Francis Danby (1793-1861), an Irish artist, and David Scott (1806-1849), a Scot, represent two notable exceptions to the general lack of inventiveness in fairy painting during the Romantic era. Danby painted two watercolor versions of Scene from a Midsummer Night's Dream (1832) during a period of self-imposed exile in Switzerland. The works have a Blakean simplicity made evocative through the addition of a moonlit landscape as a setting and the imaginative use of scale and vantage point. The work gives the viewer the illusion of eavesdropping upon a scene of fairy activity, rather preciously enacted in a dew-drenched amphitheater. In contrast, Scott grafted the theatricality of Fuseli onto the poetic expressivity of Blake and imbued the mixture with his own peculiar metaphysical temperament. He drives the pictorial narrative of his fairy paintings Ariel and Caliban (1837) and Puck Fleeing the Dawn (1837) with deliberately asymmetrical compositions, an innovative use of body language and expression, and a robustly applied paint surface. Neither Danby's nor Scott's fairy paintings would have much of an immediate impact upon the Royal Academy and the London art scene, however. Danby, despite the popularity of such fantasy landscape paintings as The Enchanted Island (1825) and The Wood-Nymph's Hymn to the Rising Sun (1845) suffered from a covert ostracization within the academic hierarchy, while Scott, despite a legendary reputation among younger Scottish artists, led an isolated existence cut short by his death at a relatively young age.

The work of the Irish artist Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) represents a more viable link between the Academy and fairy painting, as well as the shift from Romantic to Victorian art. He recognized early in his career the possibilities of fairy imagery; his first published drawings appeared, etched by W. H. Brooke, in Thomas Crofton Croker's Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1826) (Ormond, 28). The young artist entered the Royal Academy in 1828. By the beginning of the 1830s, he had turned his attention to unique interpretations of historical genre painting, including fairy scenes. His painting The Disenchantment of Bottom (1832) focuses upon the unhappily grimacing Bottom, who awakes to his regained human self. However, he is surrounded by menacingly playful sprites, who remind the audience of his bestial alter ego through the suggestion of an ass's ears in the placement of two fairies on either side of the protagonist's head. Maclise conceives of the scene as taking place at night, fitfully lit by a supernatural light. He loads the scene with narrative details, including the reconciliation of Oberon and Titania in the upper right-hand corner and a fairy ring dancing around a toadstool in the lower left-hand corner. The artist is evidently responding to the example of Henry Fuseli, while embellishing the work with a dark imagination all his own. This early work, however, received no critical notice in the press, so one cannot gauge its significance except as a harbinger of later fairy painting. Maclise found greater critical and popular success at this time with such historical genre paintings as Snap Apple Night (1833) and Merry Christmas in the Baron's Hall (1838).

Another source of influence on Maclise's art came from the German Marchen painters Moritz von Schwind and Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld. Their Germanic style can be seen in the early painting Faun and the Fairies, which also served as a wood-engraved illustration to Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Pilgrims on the Rhine (1834). After the success of his paintings in the early forties based upon Shakespeare's tragedies Macbeth and Hamlet, Maclise returned to German-derived "fairy" subject matter in his Scene from Undine (1843), based upon a story by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. The focus of the scene is upon the water nymph Undine's placatory reaction to the confrontation between the Christian knight Huldbrand, her lover, and Undine's father, the water spirit Kuhleborn. The fairies in this work play only a peripheral role in the action, responding timorously to the impending conflict by hiding in the surrounding foliage. The painting was purchased by Queen Victoria as a birthday present for her husband Albert, the Prince Consort, signaling the royal support of certain kinds of fantasy painting and the affinity some of the British populace felt for German culture at this time.


Adlard, John. The Sports of Cruelty: Fairies, Folk-Songs, Charms, and Other Country Matters in the Works of William Blake. London: Cecil and Amelia Woolf, 1972.

Briggs, Katherine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.

Butlin, Martin. The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake. 2 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

Damon, S. Foster. A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1988.

Friedman, Winifred H. Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery. New York: Garland Publications, 1976.

Mason, Eudo C. The Mind of Henry Fuseli. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951.

Ormond, Richard. Daniel Maclise, 1806-1870, exhib. cat. London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1972.

Tomory, Peter. The Life and Art of Henry Fuseli. New York: Praeger, 1972.

Art to Enchant: The Development of Victorian Fairy Painting

Created 1997