decorated initial 'T'he early career of the Scottish painter Joseph Noel Paton (1821-1901) proves particularly instructive about the significance of the genre in the late 1840s. Paton made a satisfying artistic debut with two fairy paintings, The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania (1847) and The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania (1849). He submitted the first painting for consideration in the Westminster Hall competitions, a renewed attempt on the part of the London art establishment to resurrect a national school of history painting (See Boase). Paton consciously chose a subject that would suggest a historical connection with Fuseli's contributions in the 1790s to Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery and, at the same time, introduce to the Victorian public a young artist capable of inventive variations on a recognizable theme. The painting of The Quarrel represented, on the other hand, a reworked and considerably more complex version of Paton's diploma work for admission into the Royal Scottish Academy in 1846 (the first British artist to submit a fairy painting for such a purpose). Thus, Paton undertook the pursuit of two goals: to establish a productive career in the Edinburgh art world and to bring his work to the attention of a larger British public, a potentially lucrative market.

Paton conceived of the Oberon and Titania paintings as related yet self-contained pendants. Both paintings contain a plethora of incidents, designed to convey the moods of the contrasting narratives. The Quarrel radiates an undercurrent of tension, while from The Reconciliation a sense of harmony emanates (See Schindler). The paintings recall the work of Fuseli in the mixture of differently scaled protagonists and the merger of a central narrative with peripheral details. One can also see the influence of Maclise and Dadd in the use of fairy forms to drive a complex narrative and to create intricate patterns across the picture surface. Paton, however, outpaces his predecessors in the sheer profusion of detail and the way he happily conflates literary imagery, antiquarian costume, landscape elements, and narrative symbols. By treating fairy painting as a conglomeration of artistic and historical references, the young artist blurs the boundaries between history painting and fantasy illustration. A similar complexity inhabits Dicky Doyle's watercolor The Enchanted Tree, a fantasy based on The Tempest (1845), although the exaggeration of this satiric illustration works for an immediate comedic effect. Paton, in contrast, brings together elements of Scottish folklore and the heroic traditions of classical and northern mythology in order to dazzle the viewer with the fecundity of his imagination. He virtually exhausts the academic tradition of fairy painting as an offshoot of literary history painting. At the same time, Paton anticipates the Pre-Raphaelite concern for a painting style characterized by a symbolic naturalism and an unconventional approach to narrative.


Boase, T. S. R. "The Decoration of the New Palaces at Westminster, 1841-63." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute 17 (1954): 319-358.

Schindler, Richard. "Joseph Noel Paton's Fairy Paintings: Fantasy Art as Victorian Narrative." Scotia 14 (1990): 13-29.

Art to Enchant: The Development of Victorian Fairy Painting

Created 1997