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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Sex, drugs and circle dancing

An exhibition report by Jeremy Harte

Victorian Fairy Paintings, an exhibition held at the Royal Academy of Arts from November 1997 to February 1998, acted as an introduction to a body of unusual paintings by some very odd people. Blinking in the unaccustomed sunlight afterwards, I found myself thinking how very normal the average hobgoblin is, compared to the slippery recesses of the Victorian mind.

It all starts with Shakespeare. Being part of the literary canon, the Bard was sacrosanct: and since A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest dealt with creatures of the imagination, they formed a pretext under which the wildest fantasy could be introduced onto canvases otherwise dedicated to antique figure drawing. The artists who repeatedly portrayed the meeting of Oberon and Titania were quite indifferent to any visual clues in the text; instead they explore a strange, repressed convention by which the central figures are tall, graceful, classical nudes, while on the outskirts of the painting there are beings more grotesque and diminutive, who do violent and sexual things half-hidden under the leaves.

The erotic element is most conspicuous in the paintings by Joseph Noel Paton, which is odd as he was otherwise celebrated for portraits of Church of Scotland dignitaries. Instead we are taken to a densely populated undergrowth where, again and again, rough dark males overpower half-reluctant half-dressed females, while their friends peep delightedly at the whole business from behind a leaf. This kind of thing went down well with viewers of the utmost probity, including Lewis Carroll, who counted the fairies in Paton’s Confrontation of Oberon and Titania (169 in total) without any apparent anxiety as to what they were up to. It has to be said that, like most Victorian nudes, the female fairies are made of some unfleshly composition as smooth and white as marble, probably as impenetrable too. This may explain why they public could gaze happily uncorrupted on images like Simmons’ gauzy soft-core Titania.

There is no sign of anxiety about drugs, either. John Anster Fitzgerald specialised in images of young ladies dreaming of encounters with young men, egged on by bizarre goblins, while a drained phial of laudanum rests by their pillow. Happy the artist who can depict alternative states of reality with so little unease - the more so because his freakish little creatures are direct copies from the demonic grotesques of Hieronymus Bosch. Hell has been domesticated, and the artist makes it play pretty tricks around the fireside. His contemporaries called him ‘Fairy’ Fitzgerald - you could get away with that sort of thing then - and he created a parallel universe in which delicate elves make love, feast, hunt and sleep among brambles and birds’ nests. There is even a Fairies’ Funeral, with a corpse that is a dead ringer for the Santilli alien. Fitzgerald’s weird hedgerow world suggests a subliminal revenge against the Ruskinian discipline of truth to nature; sometimes, as in Ariel, he begins by depicting a spray of hawthorn with meticulous realism and then throws everything to the winds by adding a wild-eyed spirit lying on the bark and carolling to a flock of impossible birds. Like all the other artists in this tradition, Fitzgerald lets his imagination play on the hidden daily life of fairyland - something quite different from the folk tradition, which is interested first and foremost in human encounters with fairies. Only Paton took notice of the old tales of his country, and this was because they could be seen through a double mask of distance, being both elfin and Celtic. The Fairy Raid shows a rather nervous changeling being carried off by medieval trooping fairies towards a mound where Druidical megaliths brood against the twilight. As a rule, the Victorian fairy paintings cannot make anything of folklore, because they want to celebrate escape from unpleasant aspects of life, not the irruption of another reality into it.

The exception to this is Richard Dadd, and even if we knew nothing of the background (Dadd killed his father in 1843 on the instructions of the god Osiris, and spent the rest of his life in mental hospitals) we could suspect it. Even the early, sane-period A Fairy, a rather pallid classical creature, is lit by an ominous sunset: and works like The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke are troubling in both form and content. The picture is built up meticulously, obsessively, out of enamel-like layers of paint - nine year’s work left it still unfinished. The characters seem blank or hostile, mostly indifferent to the main action. They are of varying shapes and sizes, some of ordinary human form, some giant insects, but there is no ordering principle among them, except that in the centre bodies and faces are distorted in a kind of vortex around a bearded head that looks as if it ought to be wise, but isn’t. Here, and in Confrontation: Oberon and Titania, the idea of miniscule goings-on in the long grass is taken to extremes - the fairy queen and king are surrounded by little figures who act out their violent and passionate desires, and these in turn are surrounded by tinier figures, and so on in an infinite regress, down and down. However, the Royal Academy are a cheery lot, and are anxious to provide lighter fare - book illustrations, theatre scenery for Midsummer Nights, and pin-up lithographs of the lead ballerina in La Sylphide. Dancing on pointe (tiptoe), that bewildering ballet convention, was originally intended to suggest supernatural flight. The epitome of cheeriness was provided by Richard ‘Dicky’ Doyle, whose two-dimensional compositions feature nonsensical little gnomes marching round and round in solemn procession. This, too, is a fairyland of escape from human concerns, although Doyle produced more subtle work; his Wood-Elves Watching a Lady are a set of gawky, leering louts, hiding behind a tree as the women emerges on a woodland path, and uncertain what to do with her. The fairy image forms a privileged medium for thinking about class as well as sex.

Similar ideas lie behind Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, where the fairies are quintessential Edwardian ladies - even down to the billowing hairdos. They are gracefulness, refinement and snobbery in miniature, located in the genteel numinosity of the London parks. As the fairy paintings come closer to our own century, they rely more and more on associations with childhood, not just because the classic illustrated books provided a market for artists, but because children (‘elves’ in Victorian discourse) made up an alternative world. They were another fairyland, for which adults longed but from which they were inexorably disbarred. This kind of thinking is, naturally, pretty hard on real children; but then the whole tradition of Victorian fairy painting is hard on real fairies, too. One of the few pictures to suggest a way forward into the twentieth century - it seems to have slipped in by accident, having a winged female figure - is John Atkinson Grimshaw’s Iris: more familiar, perhaps, as the cover picture of Janet Bord’s Fairies. What makes this picture is not the so-so nude of the title, but the extraordinary unreproducable painting technique which indicates who she is, by surrounding her with the faintest traces of iridescent light. She is hovering above a pond, with the last sunshine of early evening striking through the trees and reflecting off the water. Grimshaw is a neglected genius (probably something to do with his coming from north of Watford). In this moment of light, loneliness and dark woods we are leaving Victorian fairyland and looking at something much more like the roots of neo-paganism.

For those who missed the exhibition, the Royal Academy published an Introduction with eight colour plates, and a full-scale (but still affordable) Catalogue. My thanks to John Billingsley, who prowled round with me and talked it all over until the small hours.

Originally published in At the Edge No.10 1998.

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Created October 1998