The faery personality- and their relations with humans

ovenden evil fairy
EnEvil fairy by Graham Ovenden

“Be careful how ye speake here o’ the Wee Folk/ Or they will play such pranks on thee and thine/ Nae doubt, they dae a lot of good whiles/ But if provoked, they can be maist unkind.” (Henry Terrell,  The wee folk of Menteith, p.46)

Some months ago I posted about my personal views of the nature and conduct of fairy-kind.  I’d like to say a little more about my view of their general character and interaction with human kind, as I think it will inform an understanding of my own approach to the subject in these postings.

All things nice?

I’ve written in the past about certain modern, cute manifestations of fairy kind: Santa’s elves for example and the Tooth Fairy.  As those of you who read these comments will no doubt have detected, I have little time for such sugary figures.  I have an affection for the flower fairy art of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant, and even (sometimes) the plump cuddly creations of Mabel Lucy Atwell, but my own conception of their identity and activities is very different.

The genre of imagery shown below is part of our problem with fairies: because of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and successors, we have come to see them as cuddly and sweet and ideally suited to little girls.  This is a gross underestimation and misconception.  Perhaps Graham Ovenden’s painting at the head of this post is most appropriate: there’s beauty, but there’s something beneath, in that distracted self-absorbed look.

Attwelll Changeling
Mabel Lucy Attwell, The Changeling.Enter a caption

A darker view?

My view of Faery is rather darker and I’d summarise their main personality traits as follows.  I’ll use some characters from my own books to illustrate these convictions, or preconceptions (or prejudices!) of mine:

  • the fairies are a serious and scary people.  I don’t conceive of them as small, either physically or in their activities.  This will be apparent from my postings on this site and from all my fictional creations, but most strongly, perhaps, in the person of Maeve in Albion awake!  I’d hesitate to antagonise or patronise her: I may have imagined her as smaller of stature, but there’s no doubting her formidable determination;
  • they can’t be taken for granted and must be treated with all due respect and caution.  Their good will can’t be bought;
  • their resemblance to us should not be mistaken for affinity.  They may look like us physically, but they are unlike us and any resemblance should not put us off our guard;
  • they are strong and independent.  They have their own agenda and their own rules by which they live.  We shouldn’t presume to know their plans or to have much hope of changing them;
  • they are reserved and won’t reveal themselves readily;
  • they are content to live separately from us- indeed, they would prefer to do so- but sometimes necessity obliges them to make contact.  We should not imagine that they want to ‘help’ us or that they ‘love’ humankind.  To my mind that sort of attitude tends towards complacency and overconfidence.  In Albion awake!, for example, main character John Bullen is permitted to call upon Maeve’s assistance in times of great need, but no more.  That doesn’t inhibit her in appearing in his flat whenever she has need to make use of him, though; and that’s the core of the human/fairy interaction, to my mind.  They make use of us and they may grant us the occasional favour, but there is an notable imbalance of power.  In my novel The elder queen the fairies (‘the sky children’) show kindness to Darren Carter, but I’d probably conceive that as pity for the shambling wreck that he makes of his life towards the midpoint of the book- he’s drug addicted, divorced and indebted, homeless and jobless.  He’s an object of their charity; there’s a good deal of condescension but little of the equality of friends.

Key to the fairy character is their mutability.  How a particular individual human may be treated seems often to be a matter of whim; a fay’s mood is seldom predictable.  (I’d argue that this apparent lack of consistency may be more to do with our ignorance of their habits and thinking than any waywardness on their part).  Possible interactions with humans therefore cover a complete spectrum from good to bad.  The fairy may be:

  • evasive and secretive- or at the very least indifferent.  Whether this arises from fear of humankind, or contempt for mortals, is debatable;
  • generous and helpful.  Certain favourites may, inexplicably, be adopted and given regular gifts of money or valuable skills or rewards (such as a never ending supply of flour or beer);
  • even-handed and scrupulously fair.  Sometimes faes will ask to borrow some household item or provision; they will always return it and, if a food stuff has been loaned, they will insist upon a full and equivalent restitution, and occasionally more than that;
  • cruel and spiteful.  A human may deserve their bad treatment, possibly because of some conceived slight to or neglect of the fairies; alternatively, there may be little explanation for the maltreatment dished out- other than it amuses the faeries.

The last category of interaction is naturally the most concerning, as it can be unheralded and undeserved torment- sometimes culminating in death.  If I’m being cautious in my advice on approaches to fairies, I would always advise that you proceed on the assumption that the response you will get may be a rebuff or worse.  If I was asked to summarise the most negative aspects of faery character, I would say that they were exploitative.  Humankind are very often viewed as a resource, something to be used.  They may take our foodstuffs, they may make use of our possessions or occupy our homes.  Parasitic might be an even harsher adjective.  Fairy-kind can bake, churn, spin, forge metals and all the rest; but why labour when people have done the work already?  In this frame of mind, we can interpret changeling children as cuckoos: why look after the weak and infirm when you can take a healthy infant and leave the really hard care to a human?

Further reading

I expand upon many of these traits in my other postings and in my 2017 book British fairies.  My general advice, though, would always be to approach our Good Neighbours with great caution: if they are friendly and bountiful, count your blessings and enjoy your good luck (keeping it strictly secret).  If they do not seem approachable, accept it and keep a respectful distance.  Don’t pester, don’t expect, don’t assume.  Don’t mix up smaller size and beautiful looks with cuteness and harmlessness; as I titled a previous post- not all nymphs are nice.

My forthcoming book, Faery, from Llewellyn Worldwide, will delve even further into the complex nature of the fae personality.

Not all nymphs are nice… Arthur Machen and fairyland

A_Naiad_or_Hylas_with_a_Nymph_by_John_William_Waterhouse_(1893)

J. M. Waterhouse, A naiad, or Hylas and the nymph, 1893

Welsh born writer Arthur Machen (1863-1947) is best known for his Gothic horror novels, but beyond this he believed that the humdrum visible world conceals a more mysterious and strange reality.  Fairylore was just one element of his wide reading that he combined into this vision.

Turanians

In his second volume of autobiography, Things Near and Far, published in 1923, Machen acknowledged the rational explanations for fairy belief and for the origins of fairies (later set out in detail by Lewis Spence in British Fairy Origins of 1946):

“I am well aware, of course, of the various explanations of the fairy mythology; the fairies are the gods of the heathen come down into the world: Diana becomes Titania.  Or the fairies are a fantasy on the small dark people who dwelt in the land before the coming of the Celts; or they are elementals- spirits of the four elements: there are all these accounts, and for all I know, may be true, each in its measure.”

Machen dismissed the more intangible of these scientific interpretations, but he was strongly attracted by the idea of ‘little people’ who still survived in out of the way places.  Sometimes they were an actual, existing population: in his short story The Turanians Machen describes a girl spying upon a gypsy encampment-  they are “strange-wood-folk”

“gabbling to one another in their singsong speech … [a] people of curious aspect, short and squat, high-cheek-boned, with dingy yellow skin and long almond eyes.”

“Though everybody called them gipsies, they were in reality Turanian metal-workers, degenerated into wandering tinkers; their ancestors had fashioned the bronze battle-axes, and they mended pots and kettles.”

These Turanians are slightly exotic perhaps (if you’re unfamiliar with them) but they’re ordinary humans otherwise.

However, in other stories, Machen’s Turanians could become something far more primitive and alien.  They could then provide a convenient vehicle for Machen’s peculiar form of horror and the feature persistently in his novels.  In The Novel of the Black Seal (1895) one character expands upon this:

“I was especially drawn to consider the stories of the fairies, the good folk of the Celtic races.  Just as our remote ancestors called the dreaded beings “fair” and “good” precisely because they dreaded them, so they had dressed them up in charming forms, knowing the truth to be the reverse.  Literature too had gone early to work, and had lent a powerful hand in the transformation, so that the playful elves of Shakespeare are already far removed from the true original and the real horror is disguised in a form of prankish mischief.”

Machen followed the theories of Scottish folklorist David MacRitchie (1851-1925), which were set out most fully in his book, The testimony of tradition.  He traced the feys back to dwarfish Lapps or Eskimos.  From linguistics and anthropology came the label ‘Turanians,’ which denotes the Ural-Altai family of languages, including Finnish and Turkish, and which was used to denote an ancient and primitive culture from central Asia.  These peoples composed the aboriginal population of Europe before the fair-haired Aryans arrived and drove them north and west into the remotest recesses of the land.  Amongst those influential authors who promoted this idea were Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Sabine Baring-Gould and Madame Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy, who stated in The secret doctrine that the Turanians “were typified by the dwarf (dwergar).”

Machen was very taken with these theories.  For him the Turanians are the prehistoric inhabitants of the country, cave dwellers who have retreated before the advance of modern humans.  They feature in a number of his stories, such as the Red Hand (1895), in which a murder is committed with a flint blade and ancient hieroglyphs are found near the victim.  The elusiveness of the prehistoric peoples explains the myth of invisible fairies; their activities explain many ‘fairy phenomena’ such as flint arrow ‘elf-bolts,’ the changeling belief and the idea of witches’ sabbats.  Thus in the Novel of the Black Seal an inscription on the seal in the unknown characters of the ‘Little People’ is half seriously suggested to be  in language of ‘the Tylwyth Teg’ and the physical traces of their culture and activities are taken to be ‘fairy.’

All this comes together fully in Machen’s short story The Shining Pyramid (1906): a girl thought to have ‘gone with the fairies’ has in fact been abducted by a primitive race surviving in the Brecon Beacons.  They send cryptic messages through flint arrowhead characters and ultimately torture and sacrifice the girl.  Machen’s character Dyson explains to his friend how he realised what had actually happened:

“The hint came from the old name of the fairies, ‘the little people’ and the very probable belief that they represent a tradition of the prehistoric Turanian inhabitants of the country who were cave dwellers… [they were] under four feet in height, accustomed to live in darkness, possessing stone instruments and [with] a Mongolian cast of features.”

Despite this euhemerism and rationalism, albeit infused with violence and mystery, in his work Machen also showed great interest in the mystic, pagan, occult and romantic aspects of faery. Elsewhere he wrote that “belief in fairies and belief in the Stock Exchange as bestowers of happiness were equally vain, but the latter was ugly as well as inept.”  His work is thoroughly imbued with an awareness of, and awe for, faery; fairies may be illusory, but the mere suggestion of them endows his work with tension and glamour.  Machen repeatedly makes reference to fairy languages and to the dread power of our supernatural neighbours, for example in his best known novel, The Hill of Dreams, and in the story The White People.  

The line dividing these literal ‘little people’ from the little folk of faery legend is not always clearly defined in Machen’s work.  An example of this is the 1926 story Out of the Earth.  It purports to describe real events in West Wales during the Great War.  There have been reports of the local children turning aggressive and attacking visiting children.  Investigation suggests that what is being experienced is actually a communication of the upheavals and violence in the human world to what might be called fairyland:

“They were only visible, only audible, to children and the childlike… These little people of the earth rise up and rejoice in these times of ours.  For they are glad, as the Welshman said, when they know that men follow their ways.”

It’s notable too that in his 1917 story The Terror Machen had also envisaged the turmoil of the war infecting the animal population, with farm livestock turning horrifically against their owners.

In due course Machen’s idea of a horrific and primitive aboriginal culture was taken up by H. P. Lovecraft.  In The Horror at Red Hook, for example,  a character reflects that:

“these hellish vestiges of old Turanian-Asiatic magic and fertility-cults were even now wholly dead he could not for a moment suppose, and he frequently wondered how much older and how much blacker than the very worst of the muttered tales some of them might really be.”

the meeting 1972

Graham Ovenden, The meeting, 1972, Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

The meaning of ‘faery’

In Machen’s writing the word ‘faery’ seems to have three distinct, but layered or related, meanings.  This is well-illustrated by sampling its usage in his novels, especially 1922’s The Secret Glory.  

‘Faery’ can imply something merely curious, unusual and lovely.  This may be applied to things as trivial as a young couple in awe as they discover London, to the metropolis that the same couple uncover for the first time, or to a salad in a French restaurant; but it also, more poetically, describes a snowbound scene as a “white fairyland,” and he sees in a sunset sky “golden lances [that] glittered in a field of faerie green” as well as “the green of the faery seas.” This usage shades imperceptibly into a sense of something mysterious, magical and beautiful, as in “the faery hills and woods and valleys of the West.” More specifically, those seas reappear in a reference to “ships of the saints, without oar or sail, afloat on the faery sea, seeking the Glassy Isle” -that is, the isle of Avalon, Ynys Wytrin at Glastonbury; and Machen also mentions to the “faery apple-garths in Avalon.”

Machen’s work is full of references to Celtic myth and to the intertwined Arthurian romances, so it is inevitable that it he would see “images of the fairies in his eyes” too.  In The secret glory the main character Ambrose Meyrick comes from Wales, where

“there were stories of the magic people who rose all gleaming from the pools in lonely woods; who gave more than mortal bliss to those who loved them; who could tell the secrets of that land where flame was the most material substance; whose inhabitants dwelt in palpitating or quivering colours or in the notes of a wonderful melody.”

Meyrick meets with a mysterious fiddler whose music “was like fairies dancing” and he has a lover, Nelly Foran, who is a girl from the West of Ireland “nurtured on the wonderful old legends of the saints and the fairies.”

Machen even seems to have invented his own fairylore, telling the story of the Emperor Nightingale (Eos Amherawdur in Welsh) who ruled over all the kings of the tylwydd teg.

nymph-v-

Nymph V by Giuditta-R

“In the time of the fairies”

There are also authentic elements of traditional lore concerning the fair folk, the tylwydd teg, scattered throughout Machen’s writing.  For example, in Opening the door (1931) a man seems to be abducted by the fairies for six weeks when he steps through an old and neglected door at the end of his garden.  The white people incorporates a classic description of a visit to fairyland: a young man out hunting follows a white stag until it disappears.  He realises it has entered a door in a large, round hill and he continues his pursuit into the darkness within.

“And all of a sudden it got light. and there was the sky, and the sun shining and birds singing in the trees, and there was a beautiful fountain.  And by the fountain a lovely lady was sitting, who was the queen of the fairies, and she told him that she had changed herself into a stag to bring him there because she loved him so much.”

Many of Machen’s themes are dark and bleak and it follows that he was an advocate of a more traditional and ambivalent view of our ‘good neighbours.’  For example, in his 1917 story The Terror a child’s mysterious death might prove to be the work of the tylwyth teg: “‘unless it was The People that had done it.’ The Celtic fairies are still malignant.”  In Change (1936), a child on holiday in West Wales is apparently snatched by the fairies and a wizened changeling left in his stead.  Likewise, the child disappearance at the core of The Shining Pyramid is initially thought to be another fairy kidnapping, but it turns out that the ‘little people’ responsible are not supernatural beings but primitive troglodytes.

In all these stories the traditional source material is reworked by Machen.  His mentions of folklore are allusive and are reprocessed as horror and magical mystery.  Hence, in The White People the central character learns magical charms from her nurse: she is taught certain gestures– how to touch her eyes, lips and hair in a “peculiar way”- and to repeat:

“the old words of the fairy language, so that I might be sure I had not been carried away.”

Repeatedly in his work, Machen explores the idea that another world is not far from our own.  Whether that is the world of the Holy Grail, the realm of pagan gods who are still powerful and present, or the land of Faerie, it is a powerful source of mystery and enchantment.

Machen’s fairylands

Throughout his autobiographical books Machen invoked landscape comparisons with faery.  As a boy, he always saw the area around his home “as a kind of fairyland” whilst oddly shaped stones caused him to fall into a reverie, “as if it had been a fragment of paradise of fairyland.”

This romantic response to natural features lasted throughout the author’s life and appears in his written works.  The Holy Mountain in the “enchanted land” around Abergaveny was “a mountain peak in fairyland;” beyond that town the hills surge up into the “sharp peaks of the order of the fairies” towards Llanthony and The Tump, or Twyn Barlwm, near Merthyr Tydfil was to Machen “a faery dome.”  He recalled walking in the Wentwood Forest in Monmouthshire, “under suns that rose from the holy seas of faery and sank down behind magic hills.”

In contrast, London could seem like a “goblin city” to Machen, although even there he could find mystery and enchantment: October mists in Notting Hill Gate made “the plane trees in the back gardens droop down from fairyland.”  A bird’s song in a garden evoked “the blessed faery realm beyond the woods of earth, where the wounds of men are healed.”

Ovenden, illustration to Machen's 'White people'

Graham Ovenden, illustration for ‘The White People‘, Arthur Machen, 1982.

Dark & bright nymphs

The mentions of faery in the last section were sources of comfort and images of beauty.  In his fiction, fairies are more often associated with danger and horror.

In Machen’s unsettling and brooding story, The White People, a girl recounts strange magical discoveries in her secret journal.  She describes meeting mysterious supernatural beings, such as ‘the white people’ and ‘the nymphs.’  She’s instructed by her nurse in “the old words of the fairy language” as a protection against being taken.  The girl also learns how to summon the nymphs and discovers that:

“I might meet them in all kinds of places and how they would always help me, and I must always look for them and find them in all sorts of strange shapes and appearances.  And without the nymphs I could never have found the secret and without them none of the other things could happen … there were two kinds, the bright and the dark, and both were very lovely and very wonderful, and some people saw one kind and some only the other, but some saw them both.  But usually the dark appeared first and the bright ones came afterwards, and there were extraordinary tales about them.”

Eventually, the girl goes to a pool and summons the nymphs. Previously, dipping her feet in the cold waters of the pool had seemed as if the nymphs were kissing them, but the tone then shifts in a sinister and menacing way:

“The dark nymph, Alanna, came and she turned the pool of water into a pool of fire…”

nymph

Nymph by Giuditta-R

The Hill of Dreams

In Machen’s masterpiece, The Hill of Dreams, the hero Lucian becomes lost in a strange landscape: “all afternoon his eyes had looked on glamour, he had strayed in fairyland …like the hero of a fairy-book.”  Ultimately he wanders into “outland and occult territory,” to “the woods beyond the world,to that vague territory that haunts all dreams.”  Ancient hill forts are described as ‘fairy-hills’ ‘faerie bulwarks’ and ‘fairy raths’ and even the capital city can be imagined as the site of “dolmen and menhir … gigantic, terrible.  All London was one grey temple of an awful rite, rung with a ring of wizard stones.”

Lucian’s preference is for alchemy, Cabala and Dark Age history- for “a land laid waste, Britain deserted by the legions, the rare pavements riven by frost, Celtic magic still brooding on the wild hills and in the black depths of the forest…” He wonders if he’s descended from ‘the little people’ and whether “there were some drop of fairy blood in his body that made him foreign and strange to the world.”  Lucian is drawn to the ‘fairy bulwarks’ of a Roman camp (the ‘hill of dreams’) and becomes bewitched by a beautiful young woman called Annie who speaks “wonderful, unknown words”- apparently an unintelligible, possibly fairy, language.  She dismisses it as “only nonsense that the nurses sing to the children” but it becomes apparent that there is more to it than that, that it is in fact some form of enchantment.

Throughout this and his other booksMachen’s descriptions of the Gwent countryside are vivid, intense and charged with otherworldly meaning.  Lucian follows an unknown lane “hoping he had found the way to fairyland.”  He scrambles up to the old Roman fort crowning a hill near his home and falls asleep on a hot summer’s afternoon, hearing “the old wood-whisper or … the singing of the fauns.”  This results, it seems, in his possession by fauns, nymphs or witches.  He has become some sort of changeling.  He realises that he was been watched by unknown figures and that “they” are a woman and “her awful companions, who had never grown old through all the ages.”  Hideous shapes in the wood “called and beckoned to him” and it is ultimately revealed that Annie is somehow Queen of the Sabbath and a moonlight enchantress.  She is no longer “the symbol of all mystic womanhood” and his beloved; rather- alarmingly- “jets of flame issued from her breasts” and she drinks his soul in an infernal, orgiastic rite.

Further reading

I’ve discussed how a link was created between British fairies and classical nymphs in a previous posting.  I highly recommend the works of Arthur Machen to readers: Penguin produce an accessible collection including The White Peopleand The Hill of Dreams is another good starting point.  See too my post on The Fairy Faith in English Music to see how Machen’s writing directly influenced one classical composer.

nymph-iv-

Nymph IV by Giuditta-R

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)

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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.

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‘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