Mark Lancelot Symons (1887-1930) was an English painter who has been described both as a Symbolist and as a Pre-Raphaelite follower. His fairy art is in many respects transitional, between Victorian and modern in both its influences and style.
Symons was born in Hampstead, London, but spent his childhood in Sussex in a strictly orthodox Catholic family, the impact of which can be seen in the religious imagery of many of his pictures. Symon’s family mixed in artistic circles and Whistler, John Singer Sargent and Hercules Brabazon were all friends. Symons studied at the Slade School of Fine Art between 1905 and 1909 but after this became a monk. It was not until 1924 that he became a full-time painter and he died quite young.
Many of Symon’s works depict Biblical incidents, or have an explicit Christian theme, but at the same time they abound with naked fairy children, all painted in his bright, clear, almost hyper-realist manner. Amongst the works in which a less orthodox supernatural influence intrude are Floating Fairy with Nude Youth in the Background, which bears strong resemblances to some works by William Blake, and A Fairy Tale, of 1935. This latter image closely resembles many of Symon’s other canvases: a young woman lies asleep amongst ruined stonework and honeysuckle; whilst she dreams, a host of naked fairy girls have appeared around her, singing, playing and cavorting in the air. Most have gauzy dragonfly wings, a few have pieces of material draped loosely about them. Most seem only partly aware of the sleeping human figure nearby. One holds a long trumpet, something we might associate more with an angel rather than a fairy (although they are known to having hunting horns and both Tennyson and Dunsany described ‘horns of elfland’ in their work.)
Symons’ naked fairy girls might- given his background- be viewed as cherub-like symbols of innocence. True enough, his religious scenes involving the holy family, such as his Earthly Paradise of 1934, are as replete with naked young bodies as Fairy Tale. At the same time, though, similar writhing masses of flesh are seen in pictures such Sir Noel Paton’s Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania, where they have clear erotic intent, and John McKirdy Duncan’s Yorinda and Yoringel of 1909 features a group of prepubescent nudes dancing around the two main characters. In some respects, these scenes of orgy- like indulgence bring to mind Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.
At the same time as Symons was working, Arthur Rackham continued to portray a fairyland full of bared youthful flesh and, in the late twentieth century, this theme came to the fore again in the work of Alan Lee and Brian Froud. Naked juveniles have come to be seen as a defining aspect of Faery, perhaps indicative of the fairies’ uninhibited and natural state.
Art critic Susan Casteras has been quite assiduous in identifying sexual scenes in Victorian fairy paintings in which the protagonists are adolescents or younger. For example, in the Paton picture above, she points out several incidents, including the girl “with budding breasts” in the lower right hand corner, who is being propositioned by a clothed male fairy. Casteras finds pubescent or prepubescent lovers everywhere, in scenes by Richard Dadd, Robert Huskisson and John Anster Fitzgerald. As she remarks, they are displayed to us in a consequence-free voyeurism of the fairies’ intimacies.
For Casteras, these children behaving in adult ways convey several messages. The diminutive size of most fairies is linked to sexuality in a covert manner. The child lovers can simultaneously negate any suggestion of sexual contact, whilst still depicting it as possible. The use of mythical beings allows all sorts of licentious and taboo behaviour to be shown without it seeming to be endorsed, not least amongst which are scenes in which female fairies are granted as much sexual appetite and freedom as males. At the same time, many of the anxieties of Victorian Britain could be portrayed: the liberated sexual gymnastics of fairyland still involve plenty of sexual menace and violence by (older) males to the girl faes. All in all, Casteras believes, these paintings provided a safety valve. They are a “pre-Freudian displacement of sexuality into a childhood realm.” The adult purchasers of these images could in safety view them, but not participate. They offered contemporary audiences a potent visual mix of nudity, the latent appeal of childhood, the qualities of vulnerability and even latent paedophilia. (see Casteras in M. Brown, Picturing Children, 2017, 130-140).
Modern artists continue to portray fairies as naked girls, very possibly still confronting the same societal issues that motivated Victorian painters. This trend was, perhaps, initiated by Brian Froud and Alan Lee in Faeries in 1977. In these respects, the illustrations may very much have been a product of their time, but the trend persists some thirty years later, in a very different moral climate.
French artist Erlé Ferronniere has created many very attractive visions of fairyland, of which just two are reproduced here. Most of his fairies are young girls, many are dressed in clothes made of dried leaves, but some are naked. Like Symons’ fairies, they suggest a state of nature, unconscious and unashamed.
The artist Syuceui continues this theme in his imaginings of girl-fairies. This picture is from 2015 and is one of several in which his fays are winged prepubescent females.
Lastly, another French draughtsman, Jean-Baptiste Monge, has produced very similar designs, albeit it with rather bustier and saucier faes. Faery, nudity and youthful sexuality have become inseparable in the minds of many, it seems. See too my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century.