Readers will be very familiar with Brian Froud’s fairy art from books such as Faeries and Good Faeries/ Bad Faeries. Here I want to examine what he believes about the subjects he paints- and how that may influence his creative process.
Froud- and his artistic partner Alan Lee- first came to public attention as ‘faery experts’ with the publication of the illustrated book, Faeries, in 1978. It has been through several editions since, including a twenty-fifth anniversary issue, and the illustrations have for many become synonymous with representations of Faery. This is understandable- there is something very immediate and ‘real’ about their vision of fairies: they are wild and often ugly. Although the two artists portrayed naked and attractive female fairies, including quite young juveniles, as often (if not more frequently) there are mature and deformed beings, hybrids of animals and humans, pixies with malicious faces and sharp fangs, a host of barely human humanoids. The nakedness then serves to emphasise their wild, untamed natures- it isn’t sexual but feral.
Writing in her Introduction to the anniversary edition, Betty Ballantine described faeries as “alien creatures with values and ethics far removed from mankind: they do not think and, most notably, they do not feel, the way that humans do. This is precisely the core of much of their envy of mortals and a source of a good deal of the trouble they cause…” She concluded: “Faerie is a world of dark enchantments, of captivating beauty, of enormous ugliness, of callous superficiality, of humour, mischief, joy and inspiration, of terror, laughter, love and tragedy.” These lines summarise Froud and Lee’s vision exactly.
In his own preface to the anniversary edition, Brian Froud underlined that he and Lee had “wanted to be as true to the subject as possible and to portray fairies as they really are. So, we went back to the original source material and folklore description.” This is the real value of the book Faeries. It is a very attractive ‘coffee-table’ volume to flick through and admire the illustrations, but the text is a faithful abbreviation of the folklore- although the two artists drew their material from across Europe, mixing up British, Irish and continental faes quite indiscriminately.
Froud continued: “we started to produce page after page of wizened faces with sharp little teeth, most of them up to no good. We were painting pictures of faeries with their original power reinstated, not just airy whimsy. We were being true to the fairies themselves and those who have bought the book have instinctively felt that honesty in every painting and drawing.” Here he identified the reader’s response that still draws us to the images, over four decades later. The fairyland of Faeries is sexy, menacing, beautiful, distorted; it is complex and imperfect, it mingles good and evil and, as such, it seems authentic.
Good Faeries, Bad Faeries
After the success of Faeries, Brian Froud became particularly closely associated with fairydom and that link has substantially shaped his career since the late 1970s. His other books include Goblins (1983), Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book (1994), Good Faeries, Bad Faeries (1998), The Faeries’ Oracle (2000) and Brian Froud’s World of Faerie (2007). With these he has steadily drifted further from the solid base of faerylore that gave Faeries its convincing authority and accuracy and he has increased the whimsy and invention.
In the original Preface to the 1978 book, it is declared that “Only one thing is certain- that nothing is certain. All things are possible in the land of Faerie.” This has more and more become the case for the later books, which are much more works of fantasy fiction than attempts to summarise folklore. Good Faeries, Bad Faeries is a very good example of this. It is a mix of pure personal invention with traditional material and has to be approached with some care as a ‘source’ book. As Froud says in the Preface to the ‘Good’ half of the book, it’s “about the magic in our lives today; it links faeries of the past with faeries of the present and future.” The artwork is still fantastic, but as he tells us “such images grow from my own inner journeys and daily contact with the faeries.” This new book is a product not so much of trips to the library but of undiluted imagination.
It seems clear to me that, since 1978, the artist has absorbed a lot of the more recent ideas about faeries- theories derived not from British folklore but from Theosophy, Spiritualism and from modern Paganism. For example, he states “they are shape shifters, highly mutable, for no faery or nature spirit has a fixed body. In their essence, faeries are abstract structures of flowing energy, formed of an astral matter…” To look at the faeries is “to look at the four elements to which they are aligned: earth, water, fire and air. Faeries are physical manifestations of these basic building blocks of creation and the spiritual custodians of all natural phenomena.” They are “agents of the cosmic mechanics that underlie our world… bringing us messages from the depths inside ourselves and from the cosmos.” They coalesce from “the pure consciousness of the world’s soul” gradually manifesting “in a form eloquent of function, moulded by emotion.” This is a man who’s been reading Geoffrey Hodson, Madame Blavatsky and Paracelsus. As I’ve indicated before, I’m more traditional in my approach to the subject, so I’m not so keen on these passages.
The faeries of Good Faeries, Bad Faeries have been ‘hippified’ too. No longer are they the potentially malicious beings of 1978: they are “agents of self-growth and transformation, embodiments of the healing energies that flow through nature and through ourselves.” Faeries are “a reflection of the inner nature of our souls;” theirs is “a land where wisdom is inseparable from whimsy and where leprechauns dance with angels.” We’re a long way here from the faeries who steal children and kill your cows…
Good Faeries, Bad Faeries is, in consequence, a curious mixture of traditional sprites, new age spirits and beings that are entirely made up by Brian Froud. He deals with such beings as hobs, piskies, grigs, muryans, bodachs, fideals, hobyahs and melsh dick; but also he describes sylphs, angels, undines, pans, fauns and- for some reason- a sphinx (?). He also offers us his own jokey beings, such as the rainbow faery, the buttered toast faery, the pen stealer and the foot fungus faery…
In summary, therefore, Faeries remains a classic and is a recommended book to have in your faery collection- it is attractive as well as genuinely informative. The later books are a delight to look at, but they can’t be treated as guides to Faery equivalent to the 1978 original.
For further discussion, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century