Victorian Fairy Painting

Victorian Fairy Painting

Ed. Jane Martineau
London: Merrell Holberton, 1997. Paperback, $29.95, 160 pages.

This work is the catalog of an exhibit organized by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and the University of Iowa Museum of Art. The exhibit was also shown at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, and the Frick Collection, New York. In addition to the catalog proper, consisting of reproductions of the works exhibited with descriptions of them and biographies of the artists, the book contains seven introductory essays on the artistic popularity of the fairy theme in Victorian England.

The first of those essays begins, "Fairy painting, particularly when produced in its Golden Age, between 1840and 1870, is a peculiarly British contribution to the development of Romanticism" (11). Although fairy-like beings populate the lore of cultures all over the world, the modern image of the fairy was largely molded by Victorian productions of Shakespeare's plays, particularly Midsummer Night's Dream, which provided subjects for many of the paintings in this exhibit. Victorian interest in fairies was also reinforced by nineteenth-century spiritualism and its promise of contact with another world.

Two prominent artists in the fairy painting tradition were Richard Doyle and his brother Charles Doyle, the father of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And thereby hangs a tale. Arthur Conan Doyle was interested in spiritualism partly because of the early death of his son and in fairies because of his father's and uncle's paintings. He published an article in the Strand Magazine on "Fairies Photographed: An Epic-Making Event" and in 1922 expanded it into a book, The Coming of the Fairies.

The photographs in question (known as the "Cottingley photographs" from a Yorkshire village) were taken by two girls, ten and sixteen years old, who maintained that they really saw fairies but who faked the photographs with cutout figures in order to convince their doubting family. They also convinced an over-credulous Conan Doyle. A Theosophist-Scientist, Edward L. Gardner, later wrote an account of the event as he knew it: Fairies: The Cottingley Photographs and Their Sequel (1945). But the fakery was not exposed until years later, when one of the girls, having grown into an old woman, explained exactly how she and her cousin had arranged the hoax. Yet the perpetrators of the fraud continued to maintain that they had actually seen fairies and only faked the pictures.

An account of the Cottingley photographs was presented in a 1997" movie, Fairytale-A True Story (reviewed in Quest 96.1 [January 1998], 16-17). The movie's version of events played somewhat loose with the facts, but preserved faithfully the ambiguity in the reality of the Cottingley fairies and their photographs. The chief historical inaccuracy in the movie was the transfer of Doyle's credulity to Gardner, who in fact was the more skeptical of the two. What the whole Cottingley episode shows, however, is the abiding fascination fairies have had for English people and others. The lure of Fairie (to use J. R. R. Tolkien's archaic spelling) did not end with the Victorian paintings.

The paintings in this work are a fascinating collection of the graphically elaborate, decorative, mystical, fantastic, hallucinatory, quaint, erotic, charming, evocative, epic, otherworldly, engaging, and esthetic. They are a testament to high Victoriana and to the fascination humans have always felt for another dimension of reality. In that regard, they bear witness to an important fact, namely, that reality is not limited to what our senses can perceive. There have always been those-some of them quite sensible, practical people- who have claimed to have access to another level of reality, a parallel world, as it were. Unless one is a fundamentalist skeptic, there are no grounds for denying the possible reality of such a parallel world.

Most of all, fairy lore-both older and contemporary-speaks to our sense of the fullness and the complexity of the world. The word world comes from Anglo-Saxon wer-eald, the age of man. But that etymological sense is much too limited. The world is not limited to human beings and our concerns-shoes and ships and scaling wax. It embraces far more, including otters and owls and oaks. Indeed, as this exhibit and its catalog show, it also includes frights and fun, fantasies and fairies.


May/June 1999