Lost in the Woods

Nicholas Penny

  • 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.

The key figures in the 1840s – Richard Dadd, Joseph Noël Paton and Daniel Maclise – were not merely concerned to delight. They contaminated their sweet melodies with grotesque comedy, transformed the domestic and familiar – the bird’s nest and the woodland glade – into the furniture of a rival world whose inhabitants possess a vitality which is often erotic and sometimes menacing. This is not to suggest that they wanted to shock. They had little in common with the urban pucks of Sensation, who take us on a voyage into the orifices of the human body, trap farm animals in glass cases, release mutant children with misplaced sexual organs, turn rooms inside out or conjure up the flickering image of a murderer from the hand prints of a child.

Paton had studied the pagan lovers of Titian. He borrowed the fluttering cloak of the leaping Bacchus in the National Gallery for his Oberon in The Quarrel, and the tripping and tumbling fairy followers in both that painting and The Reconciliation owe something to Bacchus’ unruly rout. More often it is the art of the previous generation which reappears transformed. The nudes who cavort in the black water and dance in the deep-violet sky in Robert Huskisson’s Come unto These Yellow Sands are among the most exquisite and sensuous in British art, combining the vitality of Fuseli’s libidinous acrobats with the pearly translucence and sheen of William Etty’s bottom-heavy models.

Mid-19th-century paintings of fairies are also distinguished by a disregard for orthodox spatial organisation and by a compositional intricacy which is often deliberately bewildering. The eye-aching effects of The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke, the tour de force (presented by Siegfried Sassoon to the Tate in 1963) on which Dadd laboured for nearly a decade in Bedlam, derive not only from the sheer quantity of detail but from the blades and stems of grass traversing the foreground and intersecting the scenes beyond. The sharp clarity of this vegetation may have been suggested by early daguerreotypes, which revealed how much that is right in front of them our eyes are educated to overlook. It is wrong to attribute the crowded episodes exclusively to Dadd’s madness, for the compositional congestion is not so different from Ford Madox Brown’s Work, and may perhaps also be compared to Dickens’s plots.

A more important influence than photography, generally speaking, was that of book illustration, in which almost all the painters of fairy subjects engaged. Both the ornate title-page, with its large cast of characters and selection of episodes wound round the letterpress, and the vignette, in which the image floats free of rectangular constraints and seems liable to fade (as a vision or memory might), encouraged unorthodox compositional ideas. The most startling object in the exhibition, the frame composed of gilded twigs surrounding John Austen Fitzgerald’s spooky painting of a fairy-infested bird’s nest, is a three-dimensional development of the sort of border design common in illustrated books of the period. The most beautiful paintings in the exhibition, those by the little-known Huskisson, utilise the device of a stone proscenium arch decorated with sleeping or bewildered mortals, through which we see the nocturnal fairy world – a device that owes as much to book illustration as to the actual stage.

Several of the catalogue essays emphasise the importance of the stage for this type of painting. It is obvious that acclaimed productions of The Tempest (by Macready in 1838) and Midsummer Night’s Dream (by Elizabeth Vestris in 1840) must have prepared the public for paintings that took scenes from these plays as their subject, and it cannot be a coincidence that Maclise’s Undine (one of the few key pictures missing from the exhibition) was painted in the same year that the ballet was first performed in London. However, it is notorious that the magic of the stage is never adequately communicated by engravings or by models, and that the glamour of the stars seldom survives in their portraits, so this portion of the exhibition fails to make its point. We may doubt, in any case, whether painters were inspired by the novel use of gaslight or limelight, point-dancing or wire suspension. In place of a complete series of insipid watercolours of Marie Taglioni in La Sylphide it would have been better to display some jewellery and sculpture. In the last room we enter the world of symbolism and then that of Peter Pan, when fairies began to be confined to the nursery. It is in our century that they ceased to be sexual creatures.

Perhaps the most interesting of the later paintings is John Atkinson Grimshaw’s Iris of 1886. Grimshaw is chiefly associated with views of gaslit city streets on foggy evenings, rendering light with a meticulously imprecise touch. He also developed a popular line in misty autumn lanes. What these pictures have in common is an eerie emptiness. Someone, we sense, may appear at any moment in the fog or mist. In this picture someone does appear. It turns out to be Iris (modelled by Miss Agnes Leefe, the catalogue informs us), defying gravity and clad only in a smoky gauze. We know she won’t be there for long, but will become a mere glimmer in the brown pond and the fine network of brown trees. She isn’t really a fairy, although we may think of her as one on account of her insect wings, and because no Greek goddess could endure such a damp climate. But what chiefly justifies her presence in the exhibition is her apparitional quality.

Most fairies painted around the end of the last century and in the decades following were pale and ghostly. That is true, for example, of Rackham’s Serpentine, one of the finished watercolours, exhibited in 1906, which he made as illustrations for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, where the fairies are spectral insects below the night sky (depicted with that yellow glow over the city which had perhaps never before been more accurately recorded). And it is true of Estella Canziani’s Piper of Dreams, another evocation of autumn in which the fairies are very faint. This painting, exhibited in 1915, became one of the most popular images of the period. (The Medici Society, the catalogue tells us, sold 250,000 reproductions in a year.)

Edwardian fairies were clearly a threatened species, seldom encountered, liable to fade, unable to reproduce, kept alive by middle-class parents in expensive books for children. By contrast, Victorian fairies were bursting into places of public (and adult) resort, and were more lively, although not larger, than life. In Huskisson’s pictures it is the humans not the fairies who are drained of colour.

The catalogue, edited by Jane Martineau, includes essays on much that the exhibition could not include: John Warwick, for example, describes the innovations which fairy subjects inspired in the music of Weber, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Verdi. The essay by Charlotte Gere, who is also responsible for the succinct and informative entries, does most to pinpoint the centrality of this subject in Victorian culture, touching on such disparate topics as the unregulated supply of laudanum, the introduction of the word ‘folklore’, the use of flint arrowheads (elf shot) as amulets, the successful cultivation of the Victoria regia lily (with pads large enough to support Paxton’s daughter).

Educated Victorians did not believe in fairies, although they were perhaps more inclined than we are to regret that they did not do so and more interested than we are in those who had done so. The crucial difference is the drastic decline of curiosity in natural history. The public which marvelled at the snails, grasshoppers and beads of dew in these paintings delighted in albums of pressed seaweed or cabinets of impaled beetles and raised varieties of fern in conservatories (miniature Crystal Palaces). This is surely far more important than whether or not some of the artists took opium and whether or not some of them were – or became – mentally deranged.

Most of the early fairy paintings are illustrations to Shakespeare (and it would have been desirable to have the relevant passages included in text panels), but what they bring to mind most often is Victorian poetry, and above all Tennyson with his predilection for close focus and precious metamorphosis (‘the million emeralds which break from the ruby budded lime’), his confusion of near and far (the Pleiades which ‘glitter like a swarm of fire flies’, ‘the shining daffodil dead and Orion low on his grave’), and his eye for the miniature (the shell ‘small and pure as a pearl’, found on an alien shore, survivor of ‘cataract seas’). It is the poetry of the lover of natural history, the student of specimens, who is afraid that the magic may leave them. As perhaps it has.

Today, we expect to see Shakespeare’s romantic pastorals staged with leather rather than gauze, with searchlights rather than moonlight, with actors thumping on plain black boards rather than gliding across elaborate sets. Some producers congratulate themselves on being closer to the practice of Shakespeare’s day but none of them feels able to treat virginity as seriously as Shakespeare did, nor, it seems, do they understand what it feels like to be lost in the woods. Victorian producers did not have these problems.

As for Victorian painters, they picked up the aspects of Shakespeare’s poetry which it is impossible to stage: the unity of figures with animal and vegetable life (this applies to Ophelia in the flower-strewn stream as painted by Millais, as well as to fairies dancing in the sky or riding on the back of a snail) and his imagery of an anarchic, erotic vitality. This last quality involved painting the nude: that is, the naked body transfigured by desire – something superabundant in the Victorian paintings in the Sackler Galleries, but found in few serious paintings today. There are many naked bodies in Sensation, some of them huge, but they are all, presumably, intended to repel.