Marc Symonds- a faery artist

Fairy Tale, 1935

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.

Floating Fairy with Nude Youth

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.)

Earthly Paradise, 1934
Ave Maria, 1928

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.

Paton, Oberon and Titania
yorinda-and-yoringel-in-the-witches-wood-john-duncan
John McKirdy Duncan, Yorinda & Yoringel
File:Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights tryptich, centre panel -  detail 7.JPG - Wikimedia Commons
Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, 1510

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.

3 wood nymphs gathering flowers
Rackham, Three Wood Nymphs Gathering Flowers

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).

Froud, Faeries

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.

erle 3

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.

erle 6

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.

monge 1

‘Spirits of another sort’- Fairy Immortality

monge, white faery
Jean-Baptiste Monge, White Fairy

Although I have discussed previously the evidence that fairies can be murdered, the general view of fairy-kind is that they’re immortal.  Certainly, literary representations describe faery characters in these terms- and it’s reasonable to assume that authors mostly just reflected the prevailing beliefs of their time.

Immortal faes

The situation is well illustrated in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The dispute between Titania and Oberon that’s central to the plot arises over an orphaned human child.  Titania tells us that his mother “being mortal, of that boy did die” and that, “for her sake, I do rear up her boy.”  Oberon quarrels with her over possession of the child and the land is blighted “The human mortals want their winter here” the queen says (II, 1).  Later, Peaseblossom addresses Titania’s new lover, Bottom, with a cry of “Hail mortal!” (III, 1) It’s very evident from all three lines that the faeries see a stark distinction between their state and ours.  The boy’s mother died in childbirth; although they may need to assistance of human midwifes, this could never happen to a fairy woman.  Oberon simply confirms this difference when he declares to Puck “we are spirits of another sort” (III, 2).

The medieval poem, Thomas of Erceldoune, expresses the distinction between the faery state and ours in one simple phrase.  Thomas meets the fairy queen and wants to have sex with her; she knows this will impair her unearthly beauty and exclaims to him:

“Man of molde, thou will be merre (mar)”

Thomas is a mortal being of Middle Earth and will inevitably return to the dust from which he came.  This sharp contrast in our natures is brought out in the stories of those humans taken for many years into Faery and who, upon finally returning home, crumble into dust as soon as they touch another mortal or consume earthly food.  In his account of Welsh folklore from 1896, it is fascinating to read that Elias Owen was told that, in just the same way, the tylwyth teg call us humans ‘dead men’ or ‘men of earth’ (Welsh Folklore, p.11).  Humans are also sometimes called ‘children of Eve,’ indicative, at the very least, of our different lines of descent.

There is, also, a little evidence that fairies seek to make their human captives immortal like themselves.  In Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess we are told how the elves dance at night beside a well:

“dipping often times

Their stolen children, so to make them free

From dying flesh and dull mortality.” (Act I, scene 2)

monge bf
Monge, Blue Fairy

Faery fatalities

How do we square this conviction of faery deathlessness with the evidence of faeries being killed quite easily by men?  One explanation is, simply, that the faeries are mortal but that their life spans are very much longer than ours- so extended, in fact, that they are for all intents and purposes immortal.  This was certainly the view that the Reverend Robert Kirk took in The Secret Commonwealth.

The other explanation is one that Tolkien endorsed.  As is very clear from Lord of the Rings, disease and age cannot kill an elf, but they can die in battle- and therefore can be murdered.  This qualified state may well seem a lot less desirable than any idea of perpetual youth and health.  We find a depiction of it in another literary treatment of supernatural immortality- in Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso.  The ‘sorceress’ Manto explains how:

“We are so born that all ills we sustain,

Save only death; but you must realise

Our Immortality is tinged with pain

As sharp as death and all that it implies.”  (Book 43, stanza 98)

We may set against this the statement by Cornish author Enys Tregarthen that the pobel vean (the little people) showed their age by getting younger and fairer- or, at least, the fairy royalty did (The Pisky Purse, 1905).

Summary & Further Reading

In conclusion, we humans, with our mayfly lives, just can’t be sure as to the truth about fairy mortality.  We read of fairy funerals witnessed by humans from time to time; perhaps these are best interpreted as ceremonies for those who have finally reached the end of their very long lives or for those who have been the unfortunate victims of assassination and war.

For more discussion of fairy life and mortality, see my recently published FaeryFor more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Natural World