decorated initial 'T'eremy Maas, who first considered the significance of fairy painting in his landmark study of Victorian art, presents both the attractive elements and inherent contradictions of the genre:

Fairy painting was close to the centre of the Victorian subconscious. No other type of painting concentrates so many of the opposing elements of the Victorian psyche: the desire to escape the drear hardships of daily existence; the stirrings of new attitudes toward sex, stifled by religious dogma; a passion for the unseen; the birth of psychoanalysis; the latent revulsion against the exactitude of the new invention of photography. (148)

While Maas emphasizes the oppositional nature of the genre, he also characterizes it as more reactionary than revolutionary. This emphasis of repression over expression is a historical commonplace in discussing the more peculiar aspects of Victorian art. However, fairy painting offered unique opportunities for British artists to experiment with a new kind of literary narrative painting and to reach a larger proportion of the art-going audience with a popular subject matter taken variously from Shakespeare's plays, fairy tales, and British folklore.

Victorian fairy painting experienced its heyday during the 1840s. Its popularity arose partly out of the desire for new kinds of art by a growing middle-class audience and partly because of the surreptitious restrictions gradually imposed on other painting genres in the Royal Academy. Fairy painting became a surrogate for certain subject matter, motifs, and themes unavailable or unacceptable in more elite categories of the academic hierarchy of painting. This genre crossed boundaries between the nude figure study, pastoral landscape, erotic mythological scenes, sentimental narrative, and literary history painting. Its success grew concurrently out of a confusion engendered by a crisis of identity about the nature of history painting within the Royal Academy itself (See Olmsted, xvii-xxi). For the artist, critic, and art lover, this change emerged from the demands of a burgeoning middle-class consumer culture for genre, landscape, and portrait painting, as well as a developing popular taste for a new kind of narrative painting. The cultural sense of an established artistic tradition, always shaky in the British arts, fell prey to the developing values of the middle class as they infiltrated in greater numbers the ranks of patronage, the academic organization, the art publication industry, and the critical press (See Landow and Roberts). At this critical juncture in early Victorian art history, fairy painters scored their greatest successes.

Richard Dadd

Richard Dadd was the first Victorian artist to experience positive critical recognition for his fairy paintings. Dadd is best remembered today as a mad artist who murdered his father and spent the last forty-three years of his life in the criminal lunatic ward of Bethlem Hospital and later in Broadmoor Hospital. However, before an ill-fated trip to the Middle East with his patron Sir Thomas Phillips in 1843, he was an artist well on his way to a successful career. After his entrance as a student into the Academy in 1837, he became a member of a sketching society known as the Clique, which included William Powell Frith and Augustus Egg.

Dadd's 'Titania Sleeping' By 1841, his work had attracted the attention of Samuel Carter Hall, the editor of the Art-Union, who invited Dadd to illustrate the text to "Robin Goodfellow" in Carter's edition of The Book of British Ballads (1842). During this period, Dadd also experienced a gradual success with a series of fairy paintings: Puck (1841), Titania Sleeping (c.1841), and Come unto these yellow sands (1842).

The imagery of Puck harks back to Sir Joshua Reynolds' 1789 painting of the same name, although Dadd adds such details as the tondo format, the fairy ring, and the enframing foliage. The second work, Titania Sleeping, as Patricia Allderidge notes, takes its cues from a number of sources, especially the Venetian painter Giorgione's Adoration of the Shepherds (1510) and Sleeping Venus (c. 1510). Dadd translates the religious and classical allusions into a fairy bower as attending maidens watch over a sleeping nude Titania. One can also see the artist's growing interest, influenced by the contemporary work of Maclise, in the framing details of the unusual bat motif and the spiky halo of interlaced figures around the sleeping queen and her court (Allderidge, 59-60). The artist recapitulates the bacchanalian theme of dancing sprites in Come unto these yellow sands. The imagery of this painting comes from Ariel's song to Ferdinand in act 1, scene 2 of The Tempest:

Come unto these yellow sands,
and then take hands:
Court'sied when you have, and kiss'd,
(The wild waves whist,)
Foot it featly here and there;
And sweet sprites the burden bear.

Dadd envisions the scene as a combination of altarpiece, stage setting, and natural landscape, converting the spiritual into the supernatural. Titania presides over the scene like an enthroned Madonna, garlanded by baroque arabesques of flying fairies. She sits in state at the crest of a rocky arch, which acts as both a proscenium and a frame to the action. Dadd extends the theatrical metaphor with his depiction of the procession of dancing bacchantes across the beach in the foreground, suggesting the influence of contemporary ballet and pantomime theater. With the advantage of hindsight, the meticulous sense of detail, the mixture of flat decorative effects with abrupt spatial recession, and the controlled mania of the scene appear to presage Dadd's later paintings in the asylum (Allderidge, 64)

Contemporary critics, though, detected no signs of madness in Dadd's art. On the contrary, the reviewer for the July 1842 Art-Union felt that Come unto these yellow sands "approaches more nearly the essence of the poet than any other illustrations we have seen" (161). John Eagles, the art reviewer for Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, also gave his measured opinion of the work:

There is much beauty in this, particularly in the grouping, a general lightness of the figures, which are, nevertheless, too spicular. The color is a little too cold and murky. The going off of the figures is very good. We notice, however, that the sands are not "yellow." ( 52 [July 1842]: 34)

The contrast in tone between the two critical responses offers a glimpse of the state of early Victorian art criticism. The Art-Union (later renamed the Art Journal) represents the viewpoint of the awakening aesthetic instincts of the middle class. One of the distinctive aspects of S. C. Hall's editorship of this journal from the 1840s to the 1860s involved a consistently positive support for fairy painters and illustrators through critical reviews and advertisement. Eagles, in contrast, acts as a self-defined representative of advanced critical theory, presenting a loftier, more dispassionate viewpoint. He recognizes with approval Dadd's selection of an appropriate subject, but takes the artist to task for deficiencies in certain formal and narrative elements. The Art-Union lavishes praise, while Blackwood's pontificates. Hall went on to become one of the foremost proponents of middlebrow taste in the arts. Eagles would gain notoriety as Ruskin's main opponent in British art criticism after the publication of the latter's defense of Pre-Raphaelitism in the 1850s.

The Art-Union was the only contemporary publication to take note of Dadd's incarceration in the asylum at Bethlem. In a piece entitled "The Late Richard Dadd," the writer lamented the passing of a young genius. He notices, however, that "he [Dadd] has not, in the absence of reason, forgotten that he is a painter." The writer breathlessly continues:

By the kindness of the governor of Bethlehem [sic] hospital, he has been furnished with canvasses, colours, &c., and paints! But how? -- with all the poetry of imagination and the frenzy of insanity -- in parts eminently beautiful, but in other parts, madness without method. (10 [February 1, 1848]: 66)

The title and tone of this article effectively communicate the fate of Richard Dadd. For all intents and purposes the artist was written off by the art establishment, despite the fact that he would continue to be a prolific artist until his death in 1886. Surprisingly, Dadd would paint only two fairy works during this period: Contradiction. Oberon and Titania (1854-58) and The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke (1865). Because of Dadd's unfortunate circumstances, an informal legend would arise in the popular Victorian imagination, equating the painting of fairies with the onset of madness.

Dadd's example, though, certainly did not deter other artists from continuing the tradition of fairy painting. Even such established artists as William Etty (1787-1849), Joseph William Mallord Turner (1775-1851), and Edwin Landseer (1803-73) briefly explored fairy subject matter. For Etty and Turner, the 1840s was a period of general critical discontent with their work, so fairy painting represented a potentially popular subject that would engage the public's, if not the critic's attention. Etty's The Fairy of the Fountain (1845) is a fairy painting in title alone, since the work continues his interest in the classically derived nude and contains none of the conventions associated with the fairy genre. In Queen Mab's Cave (1846), Turner depicts the fairy court playing in the air and waters surrounding an island paradise complete with medieval castle, a scene which owes its inspiration perhaps to the contemporary landscapes of Danby. Turner pursues his experimentation with color harmonies of reds and greens in the dense mass of vegetation in the center of the scene. The overall effect, however, is one of inertness; the painting lacks the cohesive, vertiginous energy of more successful contemporary paintings, like Steamer in a Snow Storm (1842) and Rain, Steam, and Speed (1844).

Landseer, the youngest of the three, had already established his reputation as the best of the Victorian animal painters. His Scene from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (1849) was privately commissioned for Isambard Kingdom Brunel's dining room, which the famous engineer had planned to decorate with a Shakespearean gallery. The work showcases his talent for painting the denizens of the animal world, although his earnest naturalism undercuts the fantasy elements of the scene.


Allderidge, Patricia. The Late Richard Dadd, 1816-1886. exhib. cat. London: Tate Gallery, 1974.

Landow, George P. "There Began to Be a Great Talking about the Fine Arts." The Mind and Art of Victorian England. ed. Josef L. altholz. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976), 126-43.

Maas, Jeremy. Victorian Painters. New York: Harrison House, 1969.

Olmsted, John Charles. Victorian Painting: Essays and Reviews. 3 vols. New York: Garland, 1980-85.

Roberts, Helene E. "Exhibition and Review: the Periodical Press and the Victorian Exhibition System." The Victorian Periodical Press: Samplings and Soundings. ed. Joanne Shattock and Michael Wolff. University of Toronto Press, 1982), 79-107.

Art to Enchant: The Development of Victorian Fairy Painting

Created 1997