Sunday, 8 January 2012

Away with the Fairies

It is to my lasting regret that I never got to perform in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. I have done a great many of their operetta’s and I love their stuff very much, but we never got round to doing the mad fairy one when I belonged to a small light opera group in my teenage years. I quite liked the idea of stomping about the stage in wisps of netting attempting to be a ‘dainty little fairy’, it would have been hilarious. As I have grown older, I now appreciate how on the pulse G&S were when they wrote their shows. Victorian fashions are apparent in many of their works, for example Japan in The Mikado (If you haven’t seen the film Topsy Turvy, please watch it immediately, it is magnificent and hilarious, one of my favourite films of all times), and aestheticism in Patience (which I hope to write a post on in the future, once I get my head round exactly how rude they were being to Rossetti), and in Iolanthe, it’s fairies, lots and lots of fairies.

Before I started looking for pictures for this post, I didn’t realise how long the obsession with fairies went on in Victorian times. I thought it was a bit of a fashion, but the Georgians were already at it even before Vicky got to the throne. It’s all Shakespeare’s fault; if he isn’t casually mentioning fairies in his works (for example Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet), then he’s writing whole damn plays about them, and calling them ‘Titania’ and ‘Bottom’. Oh really! I bet that got a laugh in the cheap seats.

The Reconciliation of Titania and Oberon (1847) Joseph Noel Paton
Far be it from me to suggest that maybe some artists used Shakespeare as an excuse for nudie work. It might be a naked lady posing around, but it’s okay because it literature. Actually, strap a pair of wings on a lass and she can be as naughty as you like…

A Fairy under Starry Skies Luis Falero
This has to be one of my favourite fairy pictures, not least because of the colour of her hair, and she seems to have some fairly sturdy wings. I’d like those wings, I’d feel some confidence that they’d get me off the ground, unlike one of Falero’s other fairies…

A Butterfly (1893) Luis Falero
This is one of the most popular images at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth and you can see why, as she’s awfully pretty and so light she can stand on that little leaf and not bend it. Well, I don’t see that happening for me and those wings look awfully fragile. 

Iris (detail) (1886) John Atkinson Grimshaw
A vast array of fairy art seems to be ‘nudie fun with wings’, an excuse for Poses Plastiques where looking at nudes was acceptable as long as they weren’t moving. However, some seems to travel down far darker roads. Take for example this image…

The Captive Robin (1865) John Fitzgerald
John Fitzgerald spent so much time painting fairies, he became known as Fairy Fitzgerald, but his works aren’t saccharine confections despite their pretty colours. The Captive Robin is just one of his images about a feud between fairies and robins (who knew? I thought everyone loved robins), which I don’t think is going to end well for the robin. I must admit that having now seen a bit of Fitzgerald’s work, it is very unsettling due to his juxtaposing of the beautiful and the grotesque. Take, for example, the couple on the left, she in her blue dress, him in his fairy armour. All very pretty, despite the foliage growing out of their heads. Now look at the Hieronymus Bosch-esque creatures that are restraining the robin. God Almighty, I might not sleep tonight. I don’t fancy Mr Robin’s chances against that lot, they are hideous. They couldn’t be further from pretty nudie ladies balancing on leaves.

The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke (1855-64) Richard Dadd
Of course I couldn’t talk about fairies without mentioning Dadd, whose work looks positively sane when compared with some of Fitzgerald’s. Mind you, he does nicely illustrate the point that sometimes there is just so much detail in fairy paintings that you need to either visit the original or have an excellent, large reproduction in front of you. For example, in the middle row of The Fairy Feller is a fairy in blue with oddly pointy boobs, and the tiniest feet imaginable. At first I thought she was looking at the fairy next to her, but looking at the reproduction in a nice book, I wonder if she is admiring one of the fairy gentlemen on the right-hand side, with their big feathers in their hats. I know I would be.

Come unto these Yellow Sands (1847) Robert Huskisson
Dadd also did a version of this scene, described in Ariel’s song in The Tempest, but I prefer Huskisson’s purity of light and depth of darkness. The whiteness of the fairy’s flesh (all nudie nude nude, obviously), twinkling in the moonlight which puddles on the sand where the dancing takes place. Dadd’s has a slightly more bacchanalian feel, slightly less arranged with a pink tinge that makes it feel naughtier…

Come unto these Yellow Sands (1841) Richard Dadd
What Dadd’s picture also offers us is a chance to see a fairy picture by him before his ill-fated trip to Egypt. This one has a sense of freedom, of space and air, unlike The Fairy Feller, where there is barely room to swing an axe.

And the Fairies ran away with their Clothes’ Charles Sim 
The real fun for some artists is when fairies and humans meet and all hell seems to break loose. The next time I'm caught naked in public (and who hasn't?) I'll be sure to blame it on those pesky fairies. It doesn't seem to be all Cottingley fun in the nineteenth century, in fact some of it is down-right sinister…

A Fairy Tale Mark Symons
Fairies want to get in your head, to feed on your dreams and devour your imagination. The fairies that interact with humans ‘exist’ in a tangible way, they are a little part of the unknowable 'other' that has wandered into view and it seems humans are a little foolish to feel certain as to what their motives are. Look at all the tumbling fairy babies in Symons picture. What do they want? What are they going to do? Just because they are sweet and child-like, I think it would be a mistake to assume they are as harmless as children. I think you get off lightly is all they want to do is run away with your clothes.

The Stuff that Dreams are made of (1858) John Fitzgerald
This lot aren’t so cute, although the fairy prince and princess at the back are rather lovely. Hang on though, there does seem to be a difference between the fairies in the background and those in the foreground. Behind her bed, wisps of dream show fairies and creatures as thin as cobweb. In front of the bed are a bunch of rather solid creatures, playing instruments. Are they real? Are they the makers of her dreams, the actual goblins that she subconsciously knows are real? Holy Moly, look at the one playing the drum, he is terrifying. Yes, I’m definitely not sleeping tonight…

It can’t be all bad, surely? There must be some nice pictures of humans and fairies…

Midsummer Eve Edward Robert Hughes
Ahhhh, thank you Mr Hughes for saving me from a lifetime of checking under the bed. This is more like it, all gentle and playful, and the fairies are reassuringly squashable, should they get out of hand. Look, I’m not saying I would use it as a first response, but it’s good to know you can defeat an evil opponent with a rolled up copy of Bunty should you need to. Edward Hughes does the gleam and glimmer of light at night so beautifully, see how the glow uplights the Midsummer girl as she stands in a literal ‘fairy ring’, each of the little people holding tiny lanterns. I’m feeling much better about the little people now…

Take the Fair Face of Woman Sophie Anderson
Ahhhh, now you know how I love a snappy title - This one is called Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, with Butterflies, Flowers and Jewels Attending, Thus your Fairy is made of most Beautiful Things. Snappy. It’s a bit like a recipe for fairies, add a bit of this and a pinch of that and hey presto, you have a fairy. What Anderson also implies is that fairies don’t naturally look like humans, they just assume their appearance for their evil purpose. Okay, I may have made up the last bit, but it’s a possibility. Nice handbag.

I was wondering finally about the Pre-Raphaelites and fairies. They didn’t exactly go in for that sort of thing, beyond obvious Ariel in The Tempest, but then Burne-Jones came up trumps for me…

Hill Fairies Edward Burne-Jones
They have no wings, nor do they exhibit any of the usual ‘fairy’ attributes, and in fact look an awful lot like BJ’s usual lads and lasses in classical poses, but fairies they are, hanging around in odd rock formations that remind me of Iceland.  Each figure seems both an extension of nature and a magical addition to it.  The white gleam of the fairies on the left is beautiful.  I still wouldn't trust them as far as I could throw them.

Anyway, Fairies: who knows their purpose or their place? Creatures of spite and fate or tiny naked beauties? I love the idea of Falero’s winged perfections flitting in and out of view, and I don’t feel too scared about the prospect of them hovering over me as I sleep. 

Mind you, I’m keeping a rolled up magazine by my bed, just in case.


  1. Thank you for yet another fascinating piece. I think our traditional view of fairies has been of the "Tinkerbell" variety. But it's interesting that some of the art above does reflect the idea of the "malevolent sprite". Having just finished "Mortal Love" - the fairies there seem to be quite dangerous (at least to one's mental health). Also, the fairy in "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel" (great book BTW) is very unpleasant indeed.

  2. I like the fairies in 'Labyrinth', nasty, bitey little sods. My daughter has just started losing her baby teeth and so is enamored by the thought of the tooth fairy coming to her bed, but I would be wearing a crash-helmet with the visor down if I was her. I won't tell her that tho'...

  3. Picture this, the late 90s. I had a different husband then, and he worked at the RA. Glamorous, we were; it was before the children, and the betrayal. Anyhoo, it was the time of Britpop, and Sensation, it was all there, the tent, the shark, the dead dad, the blood head... or, if you preferred, the Victorian Fairy exhibition. Great, it was. I'm sure you're aware of it, but, if not, I'll bring you the catalogue tomorrow, if you like... Nx

  4. Thank you for the look at the catalogue. Do you think it would be appropriate to have a Fairy Day at work where we wear wings? Would it compromise your professional integrity? I never have that worry... ;)


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx