Lewis Carroll, Puck & Faeries

Fairies and Nautilus Illustration by E. Gertrude Thomson
‘Fairies & Nautilus,’ by Thomas, from Three Sunsets

In an earlier post, I discussed famous the youthful writings on pixies by Lewis Carroll, author of the ‘Alice’ stories. Carroll is not really a writer of ‘fairy tales,’ however strange and fantastical his books may have been, but he did not neglect them entirely.

Firstly, there is his follow-up to the Alice stories, Sylvie and Bruno (1889). This book is far less well-known than the two Alice adventures- and for good reason, as it really isn’t that good. However, it gives a very good idea of the image of fairies that Carroll harboured. His view of the Good Folk can be both sentimental- and yet cautious and honest. For example, from chapter 13: “All Fairies understand Doggee- that is, Dog-language” or, this lengthy passage from chapter 14:

“In the first place, I want to know—dear Child who reads this!—why Fairies should always be teaching us to do our duty, and lecturing us when we go wrong, and we should never teach them anything? You can’t mean to say that Fairies are never greedy, or selfish, or cross, or deceitful, because that would be nonsense, you know. Well then, don’t you think they might be all the better for a little lecturing and punishing now and then?

I really don’t see why it shouldn’t be tried, and I’m almost sure that, if you could only catch a Fairy, and put it in the corner, and give it nothing but bread and water for a day or two, you’d find it quite an improved character- it would take down its conceit a little, at all events.

The next question is, what is the best time for seeing Fairies? I believe I can tell you all about that.

The first rule is, that it must be a very hot day- that we may consider as settled: and you must be just a little sleepy- but not too sleepy to keep your eyes open, mind. Well, and you ought to feel a little- what one may call “fairyish”- the Scotch call it “eerie,” and perhaps that’s a prettier word; if you don’t know what it means, I’m afraid I can hardly explain it; you must wait till you meet a Fairy, and then you’ll know.

And the last rule is, that the crickets should not be chirping… I looked about in all directions for the little creature, but there was no trace of her- and my ‘eerie’ feeling was quite gone off, and the crickets were chirping again merrily- so I knew she was really gone. And now I’ve got time to tell you the rule about the crickets. They always leave off chirping when a Fairy goes by- because a Fairy’s a kind of queen over them, I suppose- at all events it’s a much grander thing than a cricket- so whenever you’re walking out, and the crickets suddenly leave off chirping, you may be sure that they see a Fairy.”

Sylvie & Bruno, c.14

On the more positive side, Carroll describes how Sylvie changes from a little girl into a fairy and he states categorically “I may tell you, besides, that she had no wings (I don’t believe in Fairies with wings), and that she had quantities of long brown hair and large earnest brown eyes, and then I shall have done all I can to give you an idea of her.”

Carroll’s collection of verse, Three Sunsets and Other Poems, which was published ten years later than Sylvie and Bruno in 1898, includes two poems on a clear fae theme: Puck Lost and Puck Found:

Puck Lost

Puck has fled the haunts of men:
Ridicule has made him wary:
In the woods, and down the glen,
No one meets a Fairy!

“Cream!” the greedy Goblin cries—
Empties the deserted dairy—
Steals the spoons, and off he flies.
Still we seek our Fairy!

Ah! What form is entering?
Lovelit eyes and laughter airy!
Is not this a better thing,
Child, whose visit thus I sing,
Even than a Fairy?

Nov. 22, 1891.

Victorian Fairy Verse | British Fairies

Puck Found

Puck has ventured back agen:
Ridicule no more affrights him:
In the very haunts of men
Newer sport delights him.

Capering lightly to and fro,
Ever frolicking and funning—
“Crack!” the mimic pistols go!
Hark! The noise is stunning!

All too soon will Childhood gay
Realise Life’s sober sadness.
Let’s be merry while we may,
Innocent and happy Fay!
Elves were made for gladness!

Nov. 25, 1891.

The illustrations for Three Sunsets were provided by Emily Gertrude Thomson. She had illustrated William Allingham’s famous verse ‘The Fairies’ in 1878 and Carroll had so admired her wrote that he wrote to the publisher asking for her address.  The two met for the first time in June 1879 at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). Their rendezvous was fascinating: Carroll arrived holding the hands of two little girls. He asked one to point out Thomson and she quickly indicated the artist, though none had met before. Carroll’s explanation of this was that he asked the child to identify the “young lady who knew fairies…”

Carroll was a difficult author to work for. He constantly intervened in his artists’ work, making suggestions and asking for alterations to completed drawings.  The writer had very fixed and peculiar ideals of beauty.  For example, he stipulated that all the fairies, and all the babies, in Thomson’s pictures should be girls, adding that he much preferred nude girls, although “no living child is perfect in form.” Thomson duly supplied for the book a series of twelve plates of very pleasingly pretty and shapely little girls, reclining nude beneath ferns, flowers and mushrooms. They have very little to do with the content of the book, but they are attractive pictures and- perhaps most importantly- they met the aesthetic and personal standards of Lewis Carroll, who was (as is known) a keen collector of little girls as his ‘nieces.’ 

Peter Blake- fairyist

DACS; (c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Daisy fairy (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath; previously Waddington Galleries, London)

Over his long career, renowned British artist Peter Blake has drawn his inspiration from a variety of sources, including the wrestling he loved as a youth, fifties pinups magazines and, more surprisingly, perhaps,  Victorian fairy painting.  In his many fairy paintings, he has demonstrated that ‘high art’ and fairy themes can still co-exist, even in the twenty-first century (and despite some later embarrassment about this on Blake’s part).

Victorian inspirations

During the mid-1970s, Blake’s work took a surprising turn away from his early urban and contemporary themes.  In March 1975 in Somerset a group of British born and British based artists founded the Brotherhood of Ruralists.  The new movement was inspired by Samuel Palmer, Spenser and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, amongst others, and its declared aims were to portray love, beauty, joy and magic in their work.  Amongst the Brotherhood were Blake, David Inshaw, and Graham Ovenden, a painter and expert in Victorian photography, painting and illustration, whose publications include a study of fairy illustrators Richard Doyle, Eleanor Vere Boyle and William Stephens Coleman.

blake-girl-fairy
Girl fairy

Peter Blake was especially inspired by literary subjects, such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Fairies in particular became a key theme during his ruralist period and Blake researched the work of Victorian predecessors, painters such as Richard Dadd, Doyle and John Anster Fitzgerald and illustrators Maxfield Parrish and Arthur Rackham.  He admired the eroticism of much of this fairy art, most notably in the work of Paton and Simmons.  At the same time Blake saw children and fairies as sharing an enchanting naivety, which was translated into the nature of his pictures. He was, too, interested in fantasy, but he wanted his fairies to be real people rooted in the present.

blake-flora-flower-fairy
Flora, flower fairy

Blake has painted a series of portraits of generic flower, water and seaweed fairies (mainly as a source of income), but he also undertook much larger and more personal studies of groups and of named individuals such as Titania and Puck.  One of the first of this series of paintings, Puck, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed, which was started in 1969, shows a naked boy Puck along with tinier, winged child-fairies.  They seem to be beside a weed covered pond, in which the full moon is reflected, and in the background is a stretch of suburban garden fence.

blake-puck
Puck, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseedption

Interviewing Blake for the Independent newspaper in December 1997, Andrew Lambirth described the fairies in these terms:

“If not children, they tend to be female, either portrait heads or nearly naked, and extravagantly breasted.  There is a lambent sensuality in these images, an edginess not far from surrealist frisson, yet verging on innocence rather than lubriciousness.  Delicacy of tone and useful juvenescence of imagery is matched by meditative distancing.  Peter Blake’s paintings are as oddly disquieting as the best Victorian fairy paintings.”

Daimler and Nymphs | Art UK
Nymphs & Daimler

Blake explained during this interview that he wanted his pictures to balance otherness with here and now solidity.  He described how:

“As the fairies ooze to the front of the picture, they hear who’s looking at the painting and they stop and look out.  A group of them stare straight out at you, involving the viewer.”

In part Blake’s paintings were a reaction against the ‘gift-shop’, coffee table depictions of faery that flourished during the mid-1970s.  He wanted to produce more substantial and serious images, he said:

“Fairies are a vehicle for what we want them to be.  If you want a concept of a naughty fairy, you can read it in.  The beautiful fairies tend to be good, I think.  There’s an edge of magic realism to them.  The fairies I paint have the ability to make magic.”

Fairies: Death of a Moth, 1975-2012 : Peter Blake : Artimage
Death of a Moth, 1975-

Peter Blake’s fairy pictures depict the possibility of encountering the fantastic in our everyday lives.  He endeavoured to devise a believable other world.  He graded his fairies by their size rather than by their wealth and tried to imagine how the queen of the fairies might feel and act; what would fairy morality be like?  Unlike humans, they might not cover their bodies up but might choose to emphasise and display them.  Accordingly, Titania (in one of the several versions painted between 1976 and 1983) is shown largely naked with grass knotted around her nipples and her pubic hair decorated with daisies.  She wears boots of dock leaves, a grass necklace and a grass belt adorned with odd found items such as a spark plug and a lost toy.  She faces the viewer frankly and confrontationally.  Surrounding her are shadowy figures of naked females, some grinning, some perhaps in pain or in the throes of ecstasy (similar shapes are found with Puck in the painting described earlier).  Natalie Rudd has written that

Titania marks a new model in Blake’s canon of fairy painting; she does not embody the childlike asexuality of his earlier fairies.  Like the nymphs in classical mythology and Blake’s urban strippers, she is a figment of male fantasy, poised eternally between innocence and desire, childhood and womanhood, apparently available yet essentially out of reach.” (N. Rudd, Peter Blake, Tate Gallery, 2003, p.67)

Fairies: Night, 1982-2012 : Peter Blake : Artimage
Fairies: Night, 1982

peter blake fairy paintings - Google Search | Fairy paintings, Peter blake,  Aurora sleeping beauty
Fairy Girl

Critic Nicholas Usherwood has spoken of Titania’s “disturbing eroticism, banishing any trace of whimsicality.”  Serena Davies, writing in the Daily Telegraph, reacted very differently, calling the fairy images “strident, ugly pictures that still fail to charm to day.” (Telegraph, July 7th 2007)

In other pictures that Blake produced during this period, fairies dance and play at night in the open air, in one case around and upon a car (Nymphs and Daimler).  Another, The death of a moth, shows the fairy girls mourning the deceased insect.  Many of his fays, like queen Titania, are imagined wearing floral decorations.  All of these pictures emphasise the fairies’ intimate connection with nature, even amidst the detritus of human culture.  Blake has said of these that “in a curious way, the fairy pictures are far more knowing than the Alice pictures [his illustrations to Alice through the looking glass, 1970].  The fairies again come back to being part of my travelling company- they could as easily be strippers.  They look urban.” (Rudd, p.73)

peter_blake-fairy_child_crying
Fairy child crying

Generally, though, I do not believe that it was Blake’s intention in his fairy images to evoke strippers or to examine the nature of fairy sexuality.  His vision of Faery draws upon that of Midsummer Night’s Dream and upon contemporary productions of that play: there is a great deal of natural innocence in the pictures.  His nudes, such as Fairy girl in Falmouth Art Gallery, suggest naturism rather than eroticism; there is an unashamed ‘tribal’ quality to the nakedness that is not intended to titivate but to depict a unity with the fairies’ (semi) rural surroundings.  They are open and honest; they are as they were born and unaware of any reason for shame or concealment.  There is also an accommodation with the spread of human material culture; artifacts are collected and reused in unexpected ways. Blake is enjoying a joke here as well as commenting upon pollution and destruction of habitats.

pb-chiswick
‘I may not be a Ruralist any more, but I saw a fairy in my garden’

The Ruralists (along with Blake’s marriage) disintegrated in the early 1980s and Blake moved back to London, admitting that he had never stopped being an urbanist.  The Ruralist influence remained, though, as shown by a picture from 1982 portraying a fairy at the bottom of his garden in Chiswick.  More recently Blake has described his fairy phase as “unforgivably sentimental.”  The art critic Waldemar Januszczak was less kind; for him they were “unforgivably silly” when set against the political background of late 1970s Britain (Review of Tate Liverpool retrospective, July 1st 2007).  How we feel about this remark depends upon whether we feel that all art must provide explicit social commentary.  As I suggested in the last paragraph, there is commentary here, but it is more subtle.

Young British Artists

Arguably Blake’s fairy pictures were not disengaged from contemporary environmental concerns.  Some of the issues he tackled are still being examined today.  ‘Young British artist’ Matt Collishaw much more recently produced a series of photographic images called Sugar and spice which deliberately contrast young girls dressed as fairies and bedecked with flowers posed in scrap yards and surrounded by urban litter which dwarfs them- discarded drinks cans and cartons, a banana skin and a lost shoe.  The gritty squalor of the settings cancels out any saccharine prettiness in the models.

Sugar and Spice, All Things Nice, This Is What Little Girls Are Made Of #3 1998 by Mat Collishaw born 1966

Further Reading

For further discussion of the centuries’ art, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century