The forthcoming edition of Enchanted Living magazine (formerly Faerie Magazine) will be a Pre-Raphaelite special issue. I suspect that, when it’s published, it’ll prove to be not quite what they promised in the sense that it won’t limit itself purely to the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: the term is nowadays used rather freely to describe almost any Victorian art, especially any fairy painters (such as Paton, Dadd or Doyle) or those who depicted mythological scenes, which might include J. M. Waterhouse, Walter Crane, Aubrey Beardsley and Arthur Rackham. All of these are very fine artists, and have often been used to illustrate this blog, but they were not members or even associates of the PRB- so I set myself the small task of enumerating the faery work of that select group of painters.
On the face of it, Pre-Raphaelite faeries ought to be a contradiction in terms. The Brotherhood was founded in late 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais with the aim of pursuing “absolute and uncompromising truth in all that it does, obtained in working everything, down to the most minute detail, from nature, and from nature only.” This commitment to microscopic realism and ‘Truth to Nature’ can be seen very well in the background to Millais’ painting above: the rather Victorian garden scene is depicted with painstaking care- every leaf and stem is picked out- but if these painters were fully dedicated to representing the natural world as they encountered it, there were clearly problems showing fairies, which (I’ll dare to say) none had ever seen. In fact, a continual problem in the movement was the parallel wish to combine aestheticism with pictures that had some sort of moral or spiritual message.
The Brotherhood’s dedication to the Italian painters of the Renaissance who preceded Raphael (Fra Angelico, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, for example), encouraged a general medievalism in their art. Many of the scenes they painted are drawn from the literature or history of the Middle Ages, and the legends of King Arthur in particular were favourites, especially with Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Here too, of course, their art recommends itself to those of us who share their taste for the magic, vaguely ‘Celtic’ mysteries of these stories.
Interestingly, Faery helped to get several of the most Pre-Raphaelite artists started in their careers. In 1855 Millais, Rossetti and Arthur Hughes were employed to illustrate an edition of the collected poems of William Allingham titled The Music Master. Allingham is very well known for his 1850 poem The Fairies, which remains a favourite today. Hughes supplied seven plates for The Music Master, Millais and Rossetti one each, but the latter’s illustration to ‘The Maids of Elfen Mere’ proved highly influential for its haunting, supernatural style. Meanwhile, at the very same time, a young Edward Burne-Jones was commissioned to illustrate The Fairy Family by Archibald Maclaren. Slightly later, as well, Rossetti illustrated his sister’s dark and brooding poem, Goblin Market. He chose to represent the goblins as humanoid animals, which only adds to their menace (see below).
Inspiration came to the Pre-Raphaelites from slightly more recent literary classics as well as Mallory and Chretien de Troyes and Marie de France. Shakespeare’s Tempest, for example, provided the basis for Millais’ weird rendering of Ariel and Ferdinand, illustrated at the start of this posting. The painting was criticised at the time: the dealer who commissioned it then rejected the finished canvas because of “the greenness of the fairies” and critics saw it as a rather eccentric (and failed) product of laborious effort. Perhaps we’re more tolerant of these lurid goblins today than our predecessors: I like the evil looking little creatures, which seem quite authentic to me, whilst the feminine Arielseems highly appropriate to Shakespeare’s text. John Keats’ haunting 1819 poem, La Belle Dame sans Merci, inspired Arthur Hughes and very many painters thereafter. The fatal faery woman, beautiful yet deadly, has always proved irresistible to (male) poets and painters.
To conclude, what exactly is a Pre-Raphaelite fairy? Despite my art historical quibbles at the outset, I’d say we can definitely identify such a creature. She is, very likely, a willowy, red-haired maiden in voluminous medieval robes- a young, pale, woman very familiar to us all now. Without doubt- albeit probably unintentionally- Rossetti and then Burne-Jones and classicist Waterhouse bequeathed us an archetype whom we all instantly recognise and whom many continue to imitate (see below). As I’ve argued before, faeries are an abiding and very influential theme within our culture. Faery images and faery texts are embedded in our thoughts.