decorated initial 'T'his voyeuristic element in fairy painting reappears in various guises in the work of John Anster Fitzgerald (1819-1906), John Simmons (1823-1876), Thomas Heatherley (exhib. 1858-87), and John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893). Fitzgerald created perhaps the most interesting variations on fairy themes with his small, brilliantly colored oil paintings. For example, his series of works on the conflict between the fairy populace and Cock Robin mingles humanoid fairies and imaginative Boschian grotesques with carefully rendered birds, flowers, and insects. Fitzgerald's fairies, dressed in elaborate finery, possess a child-like bemusement as they move with tremulous bravado through a lush, exotic floral world. Simmons, Heatherley, and Grimshaw present a more forthright eroticism in their depictions of the sylvan creatures. Their paintings usually focus on a single nude female figure, framed by a natural setting and occasionally surrounded by the fairy court. In some of these works, the inclusion of a toadstool adds a phallic detail to the erotic subtext. These works have a dreamy cast to them as the fairies go about their business, unmindful of their human observers.

Not all of the fairy works after 1855 focused upon such limited horizons. Richard Dadd and Noel Paton, two of the artists who had defined early Victorian fairy painting, had distinctly different takes in their late versions of the genre. Under the enlightened policies of Dr. Charles Hood and steward George Henry Haydon, Dadd was allowed to paint in the Bethlem asylum, an early example of the changing nature of the treatment of the insane and the evolution of the concept of art therapy (see MacGregor, 116-141). During the forty-two-year period of his incarceration, he painted only two fairy works: Contradiction. Oberon and Titania (1854-58) and The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke (1855-64). Yet these two work possess a peculiar clarity, a mixture of obsessive detail and complex narrative that both comment and expand upon the tradition of fairy painting. The Fairy Feller has the diminished perspective of other contemporary fairy scenes, but the scene is masked by a screen of grass that enhances a sense of mystery. The cast of characters, in their dress and expression, alert the viewer to the alien quality of their activity. The artist realized the opacity of his pictorial conception and provided an explanatory poetic text called "Elimination [a pun on "illumination"] of a Picture & Its Subject" (Allderidge, 128-129, quotes a large portion of the poem). In both painting and poem, the proliferation of details presented in a rambling fashion vie with the technical facility of a rigorously trained academic artist. The artistic results proved of interest to his doctors and others in the medical profession but had little impact outside of the hospital walls. It was not until the second half of the twentieth century that his work received any kind of scholarly and public notice.

Paton, in contrast, constructs The Fairy Raid, Carrying Off a Changeling (1867) on the scale and level of complexity of a history painting. The Scottish artist again loads the canvas with historical and literary references. 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. The critical reaction to this piece was mixed. Blackwood's reviewer deemed it "a picture reverie. Sir Noel Paton's Preraphaelitism does him good service in the elaboration of a theme suggestive of infinite detail. The whole picture has been wrought up to the high pitch of a miniature." (102 [July 1867]: 85). The critic for the Athenaeum sniffingly dismissed it as "a work of the 'illustrated book' class," insinuating that the subject was not worthy of such a large-scale treatment (May 25, 1867: 698). The suggestion is that fairy painting had become old-fashioned. After the 1860s, Paton himself would turn his attention more profitably to religious painting.

Interest in fairy subject matter did not die with the end of the Victorian era. Fairy paintings and illustrations appeared regularly in British exhibitions, magazines, and books well into the twentieth century. Artists such as Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) and Edmund Dulac (1882-1953) revitalized the illustrative tradition with their conceptions of fairies as either fantastic grotesqueries or ethereal beauties. John Dixon Batten (1860-1932) and Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941), illustrated important fairy-tale collections like those of Andrew Lang, carrying on the tradition of Pre-Raphaelitism and the Aesthetic Movement. Fairies still proved popular in early twentieth-century children's book illustrations in the work of Florence Mary Anderson (fl. 1914-30), Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1888-1960), and Jessie M. King (1876-1949). The post-World War II era has also witnessed a growing revival of interest in fairy imagery. A painting by the British Pop artist Peter Blake, Titania (1978), for example, updates the canon with a depiction of the fairy queen as a barely pubescent young woman; the work makes an explicit association of women with nature and natural processes through the decoration of her breasts and genitalia with flowers, stems, and grass stalks.

Contemporary artists Brian Froude, Alan Lee, Michael Hague, Charles Santore, and Charles Vess have revitalized the fairy genre in book and comics illustration. The work of such writers and editors as Lin Carter, Jane Yolen, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Charles de Lint, Ellen Datlow, and Teri Windling have introduced the public both to the original fantasy texts of the nineteenth century and to contemporary writings based upon fairy themes. Recently, Victorian fairy painting has found its way into the popular culture through the sale of notecards, postcards, and calendar images.

As we approach the end of another century, our postmodern culture begins to recognize more of an affinity with, than distance from the cultural fantasies of the Victorian era. Part of this awareness lies in a rejection of the technological and scientific biases of the twentieth century, as well as a renewed interest in alternative modes of spirituality and the revival of occultism tied to such cultural phenomena as the New Age movement. Our fin-de-siecle culture is also bombarded by escapist fare, ranging from computer video games to television series that blend fantasy and science fiction elements, from films based upon comic-book characters to role-playing fantasy novels for adolescent and young adult readers. These are outward manifestations, though, of a deeply seated anxiety as this millenium draws to a close. The supernatural world of fairies appears a relatively safe place to visit compared to the uncertain complexities of the global society we all inhabit. At the same time, fairies act in their role as metaphorical representations of both the dark primeval side of our psyches and our continued attempts to reach out and embrace the natural world.


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

MacGregor, John M. The Discovery of the Art of the Insane. Princeton University Press, 1989.

Art to Enchant: The Development of Victorian Fairy Painting

Created 1997