Robin: Some of the Victorian fairy painters, particularly Richard Dadd and Noel Paton, had a personal passion for the subject of faerie, but the popularity of the paintings went beyond a few individuals. The Golden Age of fairy painting in Great Britain between 1840 and 1870 was initially inspired by Shakespeare’s plays but came to express an enthusiasm for nature and the fantastic in an age increasingly dominated by the industrial and the mundane. The miniature landscapes were painstakingly detailed, with flowers and creatures exactly portrayed. The paintings’ fantasy subject matter appealed to the story-loving Victorians as a romantic British version of the classic European tradition of mythological painting.

Richard Dadd
Richard Dadd, the most renowned of the Victorian fairy painters, was born in 1817. When he was 24, he painted Titania Sleeping, an oil painting showing the Fairy Queen surrounded by an arch of tiny folk and accompanied by her ladies. It is lovely, but more ordinary than his later pictures. An unusual touch is the frame of bats with outstretched wings.

He painted the Queen again in Contradiction: Oberon and Titania, this time fully clothed! I think she has a look of Queen Victoria when she was young. Click here to find a site which will let you explore the picture completely. See if you can find all the tiny fairies! When you consider that the King and Queen are the height of a bluebell, those little fairies are smaller than a single bluebell floret. Titania’s robes, though in the colours of nature, are Grecian in style. You can see that the followers of Oberon look rather fierce or sly, while Titania’s courtiers are calm and dignified. It is like the meeting of barbarity and civilization. The tiny fairies too seem divided between fighters and dancers.

Richard Dadd’s masterpiece is The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, which more than most paintings cannot be properly appreciated except in person as it is not only immensely detailed but richly layered. In his description, the painter says that the craftsman is cutting the hazelnut for Queen Mab’s chariot. Some see the various characters as sinister and malignant, but to me they seem like ordinary country folk, sombre and patient.

Noel Paton
The fairy King and Queen from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream were a common subject of the Victorian fairy painters. In the 1840s the young Noel Paton produced two spectacular canvases based on these scenes, The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania (a dispute over a changeling boy), and The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania. Both show a whole boiling of tiny folk around the central couple, all about their own diverting or romantic business, lovingly detailed. The Reconciliation also has two sleeping human lovers who are perhaps twice the size of Oberon and Titania.

Oberon also makes an appearance in a much later painting, Oberon and the Mermaid, along with Puck. Oberon again wears a dashing butterfly hat and a short cloak. The mermaid is not the familiar fish-tailed maiden, but more of a fairy – winged, with legs – reclining on a large fish. This time there are just the three main figures.

His other main fairy painting The Fairy Raid appears to show a troop of armoured fairy soldiers carrying off a changeling baby. An unusual scene to say the least! Neither a gay Fairy Troop nor a riotous Wild Hunt, it is most probably the Scottish Sluagh Sidhe or Fairy Host (especially as Noel Paton was a Scot and a student of Celtic folklore). In the darkness there is a scene reminiscent of Janet’s abduction of Tam Lin from the old ballad. The procession becomes more orderly as it moves into the light of Midsummer’s Day.

John Anster Fitzgerald
This is another, very different, picture of the royal couple from The Marriage of Oberon and Titania also known as The Fairy’s Barque. John Anster Fitzgerald’s fairy folk varied from the enchanting to the grotesque. They were often more truly fantastic than the fairies of other Victorian fairy painters, looking less like winged human beauties, more something quite other. Some of his odd beings are weirder than even I’ve ever seen, such as those surrounding the nest in Fairies in a Nest.

His paintings are also notable for the presence of birds and animals – mice, bats, a toad, a cat (all comparatively monstrous in size) – which the fairies alternately hunt, tease and tend. In The Captive Robin, the robin is held by a flowery leash at a fairy banquet, while The Wounded Squirrel is being fed.

One of his most charming paintings shows Ariel, the airy spirit from The Tempest resting under a blossomy bough, surrounded by the exotic birds of the tropical isle.

Of the three principal Victorian fairy painters, John Anster Fitzgerald painted the most fairy pictures. They have a dream quality about them, and it is interesting that before his main fairy paintings of the 1860s he produced a series showing humans dreaming about fairies, who appear as insubstantial wraiths around their sleeping forms.

More Outstanding Paintings
Among the many excellent fairy pictures by other artists, these are truly outstanding:

The Enchanted Fairy Tree by Richard Doyle, best known for his illustrations. Supposedly based on The Tempest, this watercolour has little more than the recognizable figure of Prospero the magician to support the connection. The exuberant variety of the cartoon-like characters and their pursuits give the picture an anarchic energy which the pointing humans seem helpless to affect.

Titania by John Simmons, the loveliest of his many Titania paintings. The dew on her diaphanous veil looks like pearls.

The Fairy Ring by Walter Jenks Morgan, a watercolour from just after the Golden Age. This informal moonlit council is still strikingly orderly for a fairy painting. Note that the leader has the same glow on her forehead as Titania in the former picture. The fairy on her right unusually has a beetle-type carapace over gossamer wings.

Further reading:
The essay “Art to Enchant: The Development of Victorian Fairy Painting” By Richard A. Schindler on the Victorian fairy painters can be found online at the Victorian Web.

Victorian Fairy Painting edited by Jane Martineau has essays by Jeremy Maas, Charlotte Gere and others, and a splendid 80-page catalogue of colour plates and artist biographies.

Fairies in Victorian Art by Christopher Wood offers a very comprehensive analysis of the work of the Victorian fairy painters and illustrators.