Lost in the Woods
- Victorian Fairy Painting edited by Jane Martineau
Merrell, 200 pp, £25.00, November 1997, ISBN 1 85894 043 5
The exhibition of Victorian Fairy Painting, which can be seen in the Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy until 8 February (after which it will travel, first to Iowa, then to Toronto), may sound like safe family entertainment designed to appease the Friends and Academicians dismayed by Sensation in the rooms below. It is in fact an original and valuable exhibition devoted to a curious and often daring development in British painting in the 1840s and to a taste which survived well into this century in Arthur Rackham’s book illustrations, with their tangled roots and wrinkled goblins, and in the misty lakes and moonlit forests which were the essential settings for so many pantomimes and ballets.
Vol. 20 No. 2 · 22 January 1998
From Christopher Small
A couple of footnotes to add to the curious story of Victorian fairy-fancying told by Nicholas Penny (LRB, 1 January). The first has to do with the huge and lasting success – extending to reprints and new editions within the past twenty years or so – of the Coloured Fairy Books edited by Andrew Lang: attractively polychromatic anthologies (the Red, the Green, the Gold etc, though never the Black) of mainly traditional folk stories and legends arranged, translated (and suitably bowdlerised) by Lang and others, which were a first introduction to the polyglot riches of folklore for huge numbers of Late Victorians and Edwardians. They were well and generously illustrated, chiefly in the skilled sub-Pre-Raphaelite manner of H.J. Ford; and his drawings of princesses, goosegirls and so on, lissom and uncorseted, were undoubtedly an aid to the early erotic imaginings of generations of middle-class children.
The second concerns pantomime and music-hall. It was surely there that fairies, solid, nubile, in fleshpink tights, really made their presence felt. One chorus perfectly expresses the satisfactions, in lubricious, slightly sadistic fantasy, offered to audiences:
Oh, the fairies, Whoa the fairies!
Nothing but splendour and feminine gender!
Oh, the fairies, Whoa the fairies!
Oh for the wing of a Fairy Queen!
Does anyone know the rest of this song, and its date?
Vol. 20 No. 3 · 5 February 1998
From Alfred Baker
I first heard ‘Whoa the Fairies’ sung with great gusto in the Players’ Theatre under the arches of Charing Cross Station some forty-five years ago. Unlike Christopher Small (Letters, 22 January), I did not think that it referred to female fairies, but that it was a (politically incorrect) reference to homosexual men. From some of the comments shouted up to the chairman when the song had ended, I gained the impression that many in the audience interpreted the words in the same fashion. I cannot remember the other verses of the song, so I do not know whether that had been the intention of the Victorian composer.
Vol. 20 No. 5 · 5 March 1998
From Ronald Phillips
I reject entirely the meaning imputed by Alfred Baker (Letters, 5 February) to the song ‘Oh the Fairies’ (not ‘Whoa’; that was the second line). I attended the Players’ Theatre regularly every week for more than thirty years, and I never once heard such suggestions made by the audience. After all, there were ladies present!
From Gerald Nason
The book Late Joys at the Players’ Theatre, edited by Jean Anderson (1943), contains part of the score and the opening verse (or possibly the chorus) of ‘Oh the Fairies’, and gives the author as T.S. Lonsdale, 1878, and the composer as W.G. Eaton. The song is described as ‘No. 10 on the song sheets’. Perhaps the Players’ Theatre could help?