Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century

F Art

I am pleased to announce the publication in paperback, and as an e-book, of my latest book, Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century.  

As I describe in the book, a great deal has been written about the Victorian fairy painters like Richard Dadd, Sir Noel Paton and Dickie Doyle, but there has been much less focus on their successors in the next century.  This may partly be because most of the art of the twentieth century was not ‘fine art’ (oil paintings hung in galleries) but was illustration instead- and that for children’s books.  The major artists of the genre, Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant (of flower fairy fame), Ida Rentoul Outhwaite and Mabel Lucie Attwell, have been the subjects of biographies and monographs on their work, but most of the other artists and their work is more neglected.  That many were women, who were dealing with ‘female’ subjects (i.e. drawing fairies for children) may have contributed considerably to this lack of attention.

In this book I try to begin to redress the balance by providing short biographies of all the artists I have been able to identify, along with descriptions of their work.  In addition, I put the fairy art of last century in the context of what preceded it and identify the main themes and styles used in fairy imagery.

Twentieth century fairy art was shaped by the Victorian pictures and, in turn, the way that all of us imagine fairies has been moulded by the vision of those twentieth century artists.  So many elements of fairy iconography that we tend to take for granted- flower fairies; round pixies dressed in green; female faes and male goblins and gnomes; pointy hats and shoes; tiny size and childish looks- all come from the twentieth century illustrators.  They created a fairyland that was, by and large, very safe and welcoming for children.  Not all of these artists were very talented, but even in their reduction of Faery to the lowest common denominators, they have something significant to tell us about the way that our parents, grandparents and great grandparents understood the fairy world.

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A card designed by Freda Mabel Rose, c.1930s

Fairy art evolved over the century, of course.  For at least decade it continued Victorian styles and themes before, after the First World War, new formats for children’s books and new media (most notably postcards) provided new markets and new design possibilities for artists.  This reorientation of the genre to purely juvenile audiences- and the need for images that were instantly attractive and commercially viable- had a major impact on fairy art.  Much of it lost the edge of threat- and sexuality- that characterised earlier representations. Critic Susan Casteras has remarked how painters like Tarrant, Barker and Attwell tried to ‘revive’ Victorian fairy painting, but did so only by portraying fairies who were winged, child-like and sometimes chubby- fairies who were adult neither in their form nor their behaviour.  (Casteras in M. Brown, Picturing Children, 2017, 139).

That fairy illustrations created for children’s books need not necessarily be devoid of darker themes is demonstrated by the work of Arthur Rackham, but after his death in 1939 the anodyne and the harmless took hold for several decades.

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Hester Margetson, Fairy Snow-drop

It was only with the appearance of Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee that a more authentic atmosphere was restored to depictions of Faery.  This has continued since- alongside less challenging images.

These expressions of personal taste aside, the fact remains that twentieth century fairy art is rich and multitudinous. Because the artists created their works for reproduction on mass produced media such as postcards and greetings cards, there are far more images to absorb than was the case in Victorian times.  There’s a wealth of art out there, waiting to be discovered and appreciated.

Pre-Raphaelite Fairies

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John Everett Millais, Ferdinand Lured by Ariel, 1849

The forthcoming edition of Enchanted Living magazine (formerly Faerie Magazine) will be a Pre-Raphaelite special issue.  I suspect that, when it’s published, it’ll prove to be not quite what they promised in the sense that it won’t limit itself purely to the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: the term is nowadays used rather freely to describe almost any Victorian art, especially any fairy painters (such as Paton, Dadd or Doyle) or those who depicted mythological scenes, which might include J. M. Waterhouse, Walter Crane, Aubrey Beardsley and Arthur Rackham.  All of these are very fine artists, and have often been used to illustrate this blog, but they were not members or even associates of the PRB- so I set myself the small task of enumerating the faery work of that select group of painters.

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Arthur Hughes, La Belle Dame sans Merci

On the face of it, Pre-Raphaelite faeries ought to be a contradiction in terms.  The Brotherhood was founded in late 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais with the aim of pursuing “absolute and uncompromising truth in all that it does, obtained in working everything, down to the most minute detail, from nature, and from nature only.”  This commitment to microscopic realism and ‘Truth to Nature’ can be seen very well in the background to Millais’ painting above: the rather Victorian garden scene is depicted with painstaking care- every leaf and stem is picked out- but if these painters were fully dedicated to representing the natural world as they encountered it, there were clearly problems showing fairies, which (I’ll dare to say) none had ever seen.  In fact, a continual problem in the movement was the parallel wish to combine aestheticism with pictures that had some sort of moral or spiritual message.

The Brotherhood’s dedication to the Italian painters of the Renaissance who preceded Raphael (Fra Angelico, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, for example), encouraged a general medievalism in their art.  Many of the scenes they painted are drawn from the literature or history of the Middle Ages, and the legends of King Arthur in particular were favourites, especially with Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.  Here too, of course, their art recommends itself to those of us who share their taste for the magic, vaguely ‘Celtic’ mysteries of these stories.

Maids of Elfen-Mere, engraved by the Dalziel Brothers published 1855 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882
Rossetti, Maids of Elfen Mere, 1855

Interestingly, Faery helped to get several of the most Pre-Raphaelite artists started in their careers.  In 1855 Millais, Rossetti and Arthur Hughes were employed to illustrate an edition of the collected poems of William Allingham titled The Music Master.  Allingham is very well known for his 1850 poem The Fairieswhich remains a favourite today.  Hughes supplied seven plates for The Music Master, Millais and Rossetti one each, but the latter’s illustration to ‘The Maids of Elfen Mere’ proved highly influential for its haunting, supernatural style.  Meanwhile, at the very same time, a young Edward Burne-Jones was commissioned to illustrate The Fairy Family by Archibald Maclaren.   Slightly later, as well, Rossetti illustrated his sister’s dark and brooding poem, Goblin Market.  He chose to represent the goblins as humanoid animals, which only adds to their menace (see below).

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Edward Burne-Jones, frontispiece to The Fairy Family
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Dante Gabriel Rossetti, illustration for Goblin Market, by Christina Rossetti, 1862

Inspiration came to the Pre-Raphaelites from slightly more recent literary classics as well as Mallory and Chretien de Troyes and Marie de France.  Shakespeare’s Tempest, for example, provided the basis for Millais’ weird rendering of Ariel and Ferdinand, illustrated at the start of this posting.  The painting was criticised at the time: the dealer who commissioned it then rejected the finished canvas because of “the greenness of the fairies” and critics saw it as a rather eccentric (and failed) product of laborious effort.  Perhaps we’re more tolerant of these lurid goblins today than our predecessors: I like the evil looking little creatures, which seem quite authentic to me, whilst the feminine Arielseems highly appropriate to Shakespeare’s text.  John Keats’ haunting 1819 poem, La Belle Dame sans Merci, inspired Arthur Hughes and very many painters thereafter.  The fatal faery woman, beautiful yet deadly, has always proved irresistible to (male) poets and painters.

 

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Rossetti, Jane Burden as Queen Guinevere, 1858

To conclude, what exactly is a Pre-Raphaelite fairy?  Despite my art historical quibbles at the outset, I’d say we can definitely identify such a creature.  She is, very likely, a willowy, red-haired maiden in voluminous medieval robes- a young, pale, woman very familiar to us all now.  Without doubt- albeit probably unintentionally- Rossetti and then Burne-Jones and classicist Waterhouse bequeathed us an archetype whom we all instantly recognise and whom many continue to imitate (see below).  As I’ve argued before, faeries are an abiding and very influential theme within our culture.  Faery images and faery texts are embedded in our thoughts.

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‘Pre-Raphaelite Fairy 04’ by svp-stock on Deviant Art
‘Fairy’ by Philip Malpass

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

‘The prettiest face’- fairy sexuality

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Sir Joseph Noel Paton, The reconciliation of Oberon & Titania

“Tension mars the prettiest face-/ Sex in fairyland!” (Heaven 17, ‘Play to win,’ Penthouse & pavement, 1981)

I have written before about the location of faery and how the fairies may pass their time there.  These discussions have, of course, accepted that fairyland is a physical place.  In this post I want to explore the idea that it also exists within the human (male) psyche. When conceived by artists and writers, faery is often a ‘house of fun,’ it is a ‘stately pleasure dome.’

Fairyland is a place full of nudes disporting, as we see in the works of painters Noel Paton, John Simmons, John McKirdy Duncan, Richard Dadd, Robert Huskisson and (to demonstrate that it was not all men) Emiline Dell.  Paton’s canvases in particular are alive with naked, writhing flesh, conveying to us an idea that Faery is a place of constant and unbridled pleasure.

Peter Blake

Given that artists repeatedly populate Faery with naked bodies, we are driven to enquire- is it Eden or is it an orgy?  It’s true that some artists expressly consider their imagined worlds to be places of innocence, free of self-consciousness.

For example, Peter Blake painted a series of fairy paintings in the mid-1970s , both portraits and larger canvasses.  Blake saw children and fairies as sharing an enchanting naivety, which was translated into the nature of his pictures, in which the nudity is devoid of sexuality and is simply a natural, almost tribal, state.  That said, his image of Titania, a naked adolescent who has decorated her breasts and pubic hair with plants and found items, suggests something both more aware and more self-possessed.  In addition, close examination of several of his pictures will reveal naked, shadowy figures, cavorting and contorting in the margins and the background.  Placid as the main characters see, there is passion and disturbance very near.

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Peter Blake, Poppy fairy

Many contemporary images of fairies tend to take a more overtly sexualised approach.  This is entirely understandable, given that much of our literature depicts them as uninhibited- as petulant, lascivious children even…

Medieval fairies

Generally, the traditional view of fairies was as wanton and libidinous.  In the romance of Sir Launval, the knight encounters the fairy woman Tryamour reclining upon a couch in a pavilion.  It is a summer’s day and:

“For hete her clothes down sche dede/ Almest to her gerdyl stede,/ Than lay sche uncovert./ Sche was as whyt as lylye yn May/ Or snow that sneweth yn wynterys day./ He segh never non so pert…”

Presented with this alluring prospect, Sir Launval responds predictably and “For play, lytylle they sclepte that nygt.”

Robert Herrick is equally explicit in his poem Oberon’s feast.  The fairy king enters his bed chamber:

“and now he finds
His moon-tann’d Mab, as somewhat sick,
And (love knows) tender as a chick.
Upon six plump dandillions, high-
Rear’d, lies her elvish majesty:
Whose woolly bubbles seem’d to drown
Her Mabship in obedient down.”

Oberon approaches the bed, which is decorated thus:

“The fringe about this are those threads
Broke at the loss of maidenheads:
And, all behung with these, pure pearls,
Dropp’d from the eyes of ravish’d girls
Or writhing brides ; when (panting) they
Give unto love the straiter way.
For music now, he has the cries
Of feigned lost virginities;
The which the elves make to excite
A more unconquered appetite.
The king’s undrest ; and now upon
The gnat’s watchword the elves are gone.
And now the bed, and Mab possess’d
Of this great little kingly guest;
We’ll nobly think, what’s to be done,
He’ll do no doubt ; this flax is spun.”

The Victorians and later

Despite the bawdy example of their predecessors, and despite the excess of nubile flesh in their painting, Victorian writers were more circumspect. There is little in nineteenth century literature to match the visual art.  Like much of his fairy-themed verse, John KeatsBelle dame sans merci is suggestive of sexual passion: a young man encounters a beautiful, wide-eyed maid, a fairy child, who enchants with a song of love before:

“She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she gazed and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes-
So kissed to sleep.

And there we slumbered on the moss…”

This coy ‘slumber’ is in stark contrast to the explicitness of Sir Launfal.  Christina Rossetti’s Goblin market is also notable for its intense and sensual tone, but its evocations of sisterly incest do not involve the hideous and violent goblins.

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Brian FroudNippers in the orchard

Twentieth century fays

During the twentieth century, whilst the art has more recently become more adult and explicit, fairy verse has largely fallen from favour (except for the consumption of children).  About the only ‘adult’ example of which I’m aware is from The temptation by American poet Clark Ashton Smith, an undeniably erotic verse:

“Exile fays with childish bosoms,
And their undevirginate
Vulvas wrought like budding blossoms
Cool and small and delicate…”

As you’ll see from the entire poem, Smith was plainly fantasising about faery as bacchanalian orgy.  Some of this mood is to be found reflected in the crowded pictures of Brian Froud.   His fays are cheerfully and unashamedly sexual.  In addition, whilst representations of fairyland are often images of youth and perfection, Froud prefers imperfection- age, maturity and non-classical variety.

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Fairies and mushrooms, Brian Froud– I need hardly point out the phallic mushrooms and the (seemingly) drug-addled girl

Diversity in faery

Even so, alongside the wide hips and pendulous breasts, alongside the range of ages, there are still plenty of nymphs in our imaginary faery, bevies of adolescent and petite beauties who conform to more classical conceptions as well as being accommodated by with more contemporary and liberal views.  As stated earlier, the question must be, here, whether these nymphs represent a primal innocence or whether they speak of a more complex sexuality.

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Alan Lee, Faerie, 1978

The modern faery can be a living community, with young and old.  The situation in nineteenth century art was, by contrast, rather more puzzling.  Many Victorian painters filled their scenes with a variety of sizes and types of fairy.  Whilst some were grotesques, these figures were mostly adult males and females, albeit of a range of statures; examples will be found in the paintings of Richard Dadd, John Simmons, Robert Huskisson and Noel Paton (to name but a few), all of whom imagined a vast variety of forms and sizes of fairy.  Sometimes infants are present, but these are often more like cherubs than real children (as in Midsummer Eve by E. R. Hughes for instance) and as such these figures indicate the classical origins of much of the Victorian style.  Richard Doyle was one of the very few who included definite children in his pictures; they appeared mostly as pages to the fairy court, though, and were accordingly very tiny.   It is only in more recent fairy art work that identifiably juvenile and teenaged faeries have appeared.

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Alan Lee, a bluebell faery

Faery has always been sexualised by humans.  The Victorians, in their different theatrical representations of fairyland, went further and juvenilised it.  What was then seen only on the stage has in recent decades appeared in painting and illustration. Froud and Lee offer us strikingly distinct visualisations of such a world.  Lee’s actually quite demure fays are black eyed and alarming in their self absorption; there is a ferocity and menace in their solitary nakedness- and even that nakedness must be a warning, when we consider the deathly blue skin of the bluebell fay above.  They are a visual reminder that contact with fairies, and especially contact with a fairy lover, could be fatal.

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Alan Lee, the cover illustration to Faeries, 1978.

Froud’s world is, on the whole, more whimsical, but there are perturbing undercurrents. His vision is frequently crowded and carnal; the atmosphere is febrile.  It is an environment where sexuality is flaunted and voluptuous; sexual awareness is pervasive and it does not seem to be the preserve of the maturer members of the fleshly throng. Everything here is promiscuous, polyamorous and uninhibited.  It’s also notable that a higher proportion of his fays seem to be female- self-possessed and confident, perhaps, as you might expect a fairy queen to be.

When I consider Froud’s images, I am reminded of those backgrounds to Peter Blake‘s fairy scenes, where less distinct figures cavort and celebrate in the murk in comparable abandon.  The latter’s pictures are very nearly contemporary with the first designs from the former, so that it seems unlikely that Blake inspired Froud directly, but the parallel is striking nonetheless and may say something about contemporary ideas.  Both painters referred to the crammed nature of their canvases too: in 1997 Blake 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.”

Interviewed by Signe Pike for her book Faery tale in 2009, Froud said something very similar: there is-

“typically a central figure… and around the edges of the picture come crowding all of these faces.  It’s like they all want to be in the painting.  They don’t jostle… but they all sort of… get in.” (p.89)

There’s a more direct engagement here than in many of the Victorian pictures.  We are being invited, seduced, into their world.

Doyle fairy & elf kissing

Dicky Doyle, A fairy and an elf kissing, British Library.

Duality in fairy

To conclude, there seem today to be two main styles for the representation of faery by visual artists.  One is in the tradition Victorian painter Richard Doyle and the later children’s book illustrators: it is a vision of fairy as a place of charming, harmless pleasure, and of sexless innocence.  The fays are often little girls and everything is pretty and safe.  Josephine Wall’s intricate and kaleidoscopic paintings might fall into this category.

It also strikes me here how often we read in contemporary books how it is children, because of their innocence, who are most likely to be able to see fairies.  This thinking has prevailed since at least the time of the Cottingley fairy photographs: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was anxious to obtain further pictures from the two girls because he feared that their encroaching adolescence might soon mean that they would lose their clairvoyance.  Edward Gardner wrote to Doyle  expressing his concern that one of them might soon fall in love and then “hey presto!”, the fairy encounters would be at an end.  How curious it is that sex could become the antithesis of faery, rather than than one of its defining features, as seen repeatedly in earlier art and literature.

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Josephine Wall, The wood fairy

In contrast, as discussed at length here, there is a darker, more traditional and more sensual vision: we are lured in with enticing looks, but indulging ourselves may be a risk.  A contemporary artist who embodies much of what has been discussed- the frames crowded with figures, the nudity, the atmosphere of pagan mystery- may be Mia Araujo.

Further reading

I have also discussed questions of sexuality in fairyland in various other posts, including considerations of fairies’ passionate natures, of sex and sexuality in the poetry of William Blake and John Keats, some thoughts on ideas of fairy beauty, on representations of sex in the art of Arthur Rackham and Brian Froud and a wider discussion of our evolving views of gender and age in Faery.  For those desirous of an actual sexual encounter with a fay, I recommend a look at my posting on the fairy rules of love.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

‘The fairest of the fair’- Fae beauty

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‘Take the fair face of woman,’ Sophie Anderson

“It was late on an eve in midsummer,
I fell sleeping on the green,
And when I awoke in wonder, I saw
What few mortal men have seen.

Changelings, fays and sprites,
A mighty swarm, all had taken to the air,
And before them passed their Fairy Queen,
She.. the fairest of the fair…”

(from He who would dream of fairyland, by Micheal Patrick Hearn)

I posted not too long ago a comment upon the convention of fairies’ pointy ears, in response to an examination of the question by Morgan Daimler.  I thought more about it, and about conceptions of fairy beauty in general, and decided to review our evolving iconography on this subject.  I have written about fairy physiology, their height and physical form, but I had neglected to discuss that most obvious of features, their faces!

Fairies in folklore

For centuries humans have found the physical charms of fairy men and women irresistible.  Whether it is the many alluring fairy queens of whom we read in medieval romances, the Irish leanan sidhe and her male counterpart gean canach, or long-haired mermaids on the shore, all are so desirable that we would abandon all we know to be with a fairy lover.  Fae beauty is said to exceed that of humans- this is the case with the elf-wife of Wild Edric in the twelfth century story of his fate; the same was the case in Wales in the accounts of the lake maidens and the girls of the tylwyth teg (the fair family) who lured men into their dances (Rhys, Celtic folklorepp.3, 23 & 44 and pp.85-6 & 90 respectively).

Overall, the folklore evidence seems to be that there were types of fairy known to be ugly or deformed- spinner Habetrot‘s distended bottom lip, misshapen through years of pulling thread- springs to mind; and then there were the rest of the elves and fairies, whose features were at least unremarkable or normal and, not infrequently, surpassing human looks.  The fays might be shorter in stature than us, but they were not regarded as any less fair.  Mentions of some repulsive feature- an extra-long tooth or a malformed nose- do not seem to include pointed ears.  Also largely lacking from the folklore of Britain and Ireland is the combination of beauty and deformity that is found in the Danish elle-maids, who may have gorgeous faces but hollow backs or cows’ tails.  The only British example of this type I can bring to mind is the Highland glaistig, a lovely woman who wears a long green dress- that conceals her hooved feet.

Goblins in art

The folklore dichotomy between ‘fair’ and ‘foul’ fairy types is found in our visual arts too.

RGF

Cover of a seventeenth century chapbook

Popular depictions of fairies date right back to the sixteenth century and certain conventions were fixed even then.  One type of fairy consistently found is the hairy Puck-like creature- also known as Robin Goodfellow.  He derives substantially from classical images of the satyr, often with horns and with the pointed ears of a goat.

puck

This image stayed with us for centuries.  Although we may later have spoken about goblins, possibly even elves,  the way they were represented stayed very much the same: they were ugly, if not grotesque, and only partially human.  There are many examples, such as in pictures of Shakespeare’s character Puck by Sir Joshua Reynolds or Henry Fuseli or in paintings of other scenes from  Midsummer night’s dream, for instance, The reconciliation of Oberon and Titania or Oberon and the mermaid, both by Sir Noel Paton.

simmons fairy lying on a leaf

John Simmons, A fairy lying on a leaf

Nubile fairies

The second strand in our art also, I feel sure, derives ultimately from classical art.  In contrast to those satyrs and fauns, the Greeks envisaged naiads, dryads and other nymphs.  They were almost always young, naked women, and later British art- especially in the Victorian period-  is full of nude nubiles with long hair.  These are the young females who sprout wings and acquire wands during the nineteenth century.  As I’ve suggested in a discussion of fairies on the stage and in art, this honouring of classical models may also have been an excuse to produce a little soft porn for the consumer art market, but it was all very tastefully done.

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Arthur Rackham, ‘Fairy song,’ illustration to A midsummer night’s dream.

For some time these two fairy types were held apart, so that the females were pretty and petite and indisputably human, whilst the elves, goblins (and later pixies) had some distinguishing feature that clearly denoted their otherness- often it was the ears, although they could be simply oversized (as in the work of Hutton Lear), or bat-like (Paton, Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania).  Sometimes the heads and bodies might be misshapen, for example by being exaggeratedly rounded.  Arthur Rackham’s work typifies these contrasting poles, as shown in the example below, ‘These fairy mountains.’ At the same time, though, we start to see in some of Rackham’s work an amalgamation of the two types, as in Fairy song above.

these fairy mountains

It’s not always easy to be sure about the physical characteristics of the fairies, either because the maidens have abundant locks or because (in the case of John Anster Fitzgerald) they wear odd, close fitting hats and caps.  That said, it is quite common for those hats to be strangely shaped, with flaps and points much resembling animal ears (Richard Dadd is another example of this style).  We should also note the paintings of Henry Fuseli, whose fairies are women, it’s quite true, but whose faces are often sharp and caricatured, sometimes with disturbingly black eyes.

Flower fairies

By and large, though, the two distinct strains of fairy representation remained separate until the twentieth century.  What then followed was huge popularity of the ‘flower fairy‘ and, as many readers will know, there was nothing in the least supernatural or alarming about the creatures drawn by Margaret Tarrant and Cicely Mary Barker.  The riot of Victorian nudes disappeared to be replaced by nice demure little girls from Croydon with bobbed 1920s hair and pretty party frocks (Ida Rentoul Outhwaite in Australia is another exemplar of this genre).  Meanwhile, the pixies and goblins perhaps became a little quainter and less wicked as children’s book illustration increasingly became the venue for fairy art (see, for example, the work of Rosa Petherick- amongst many).

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Cicely Mary Barker, The poppy flower fairy

Modern fairies

I think it is only much later in the twentieth century that elements of the ‘Puck’ seeped into the drawing of the ‘fairy’ to give us the elves we’d instantly recognise today.  When English artists Alan Lee and Brian Froud drew their celebrated Faeries in 1978 they gave pointed ears to all the fays they drew.  Indisputably, the illustrations in this book (and its many successors) have been extraordinarily influential upon subsequent popular conceptions.

There’s nothing in Tolkien’s books about pointed ears (whether on the hobbits or on the notedly handsome elves) which could form a link in this chain of influence.  In fact, setting aside Tarrant and Barker (despite the huge and continuing popularity of their work) I think that it is other children’s illustrators of the mid-twentieth century who form the iconographic link between artists of the 1960s and ’70s and the Victorian antecedents.  In the innumerable illustrations for children’s books showing fairies, elves and pixies, we witness the final merging of the lovely female fairy and the cute pixy.  There are considerable numbers of these- too many to enumerate here- but as examples I will mention Gladys Checkley, Helen Jacobs and Rene Cloke, all of whose pictures will have introduced young children from the 1930s through to the 1960s to the idea of diminutive, dragonfly-winged fairies with pointed ears.  From these pictures it was a very short step to Galadriel and Legolas as we unavoidably envisage them today.

Jacobs a fleet of fairies

Helen Jacobs, A fleet of fairies

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Gladys Checkley postcard (c.1950)

Further reading

Ideals of fairy beauty (and of sexuality, which tends, inseparably, to be connected to this) are matters I have discussed several times before.  I have compared the work of Rackham and Froud  and I have examined our evolving representations of fairy age and gender.

‘Come unto these yellow sands’- seaside fairies

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Thomas Maybank, ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ (1906)

It is generally (perfectly correctly) our assumption that fairies and elves are beings of woodland and groves.  They may from time to time be found out on rough moorland (pixies and spriggans in the south west of England) or even in human homes and farm buildings (brownies) but we very rarely imagine them at the seaside.  This is mistaken; they have been sighted there and this post presents the scattered evidence for this.

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Richard Dadd, ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ (1841)

Shakespearean fairies

Although in classical mythology the Nereids and Oceanids were marine nymphs, there is only a little traditional British material locating supernaturals on the seashore (for example, at Newlyn in Cornwall the bucca living on the strand had to be offered a share of the catch by fishermen hoping for success) and it is probably Shakespeare in The Tempest who first created the association in the popular mind.  In Act 1 scene 2, Ariel famously sings:

“Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands:
Curtsied when you have, and kiss’d
The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burthen bear.
Hark, hark!”

Here we have the conventional fairy circle dance transposed from a glade or meadow, where a fairy ring springs up, to the strand-a novelty that appears to be almost entirely the playwright’s invention.  Milton seems to have imitated this scene in Comus: “And on the Tawny Sands and Shelves, Trip the pert Fairies and the dapper Elves” (lines 117-118).  Without doubt, Shakespeare’s song has provided inspiration to painters ever since, as is illustrated here, and it seems to have created a lasting acceptance that fairies might quite properly be encountered so far from their normal haunts.  Scenes from The Tempest and, of course, Midsummer Night’s Dream were standard fare for Victorian fairy artists, but also we find seashore sprites unconnected with these famous plays.

Yellowsands_Huskisson
Robert Huskisson, ‘Come unto these yellow sands,’ (1847)

Victorian fairies

From the early nineteenth century we have the painting Fairies on the seashore by Henry Howard (see below).  What exactly this tropical scene illustrates is uncertain; it may be his own idea, it may be drawn from literature: Ann Radcliffe in The mysteries of Udolpho (1794) wrote some lines about a sea nymph, who sings:

“Where e’er ye are who love my lay/ Come when red sunset tints the wave,

To the still sands, where fairies play,/ There in cool seas, I love to lave.”

Around the same time Elizabeth Landon wrote an entire poem entitled Fairies on the seashore, which features flower, rainbow and music fairies as well as a sea fairy riding in a nautilus shell in the moonlight.

tarrant sea shore fs

Yeats and the seaside sidhe

In the late nineteenth century it seems likely that W. B. Yeats drew upon native Irish tradition, rather than any English literary or artistic works, when in 1889 he wrote his famous poem The stolen child.  It is voiced by fairies who are abducting a human infant- they tempt the child to accompany them to where:

“the moon glosses/ The dim grey sands with light/ Far off by furthest Rosses/ We foot it all the night,/ Weaving olden dances.”

The scene is Rosses Sands in County Sligo, a place known as a “great fairy locality” according to Yeats himself.  It would be easy enough to assume that these lines were simply the work of a great poetic imagination, but this would be mistaken.  Yeats, like his friends William Russell (AE) and Ella Young, actually met fairies. In his collected letters he tells of an encounter at the Rosses that took place about the time that the verse was composed, when he met and conversed with the queen of fairy and her troop.  In this respect, Yeats prefigures our last evidence by several decades.

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Seashore fairies, Henry Howard (1769-1847)

Fays on holiday?

Finally, in the twentieth century, we have actual sightings of fairies on the beach recorded, incidents which appear to exactly replicate Thomas Maybank’s 1906 version of Ariel’s song (rather than Margaret Tarrant’s more Peter Pan-ish and homely image).  In July 1921 Geoffrey Hodson saw some “queer little elf-like forms” playing on the beach at Blackpool.  They had elfish faces, large heads and ears, little round bodies, short thin legs with webbed feet and were three to six inches tall.  They played amongst the seaweed and stones, but did not go in the water; they seemed unconcerned by the presence of human holidaymakers (Fairies at work and playchapter 1).  In Conan Doyle’s Coming of the fairies, published in the same year, he reproduced an account by Mrs Ethel Wilson of Worthing of seeing fairies on the beach on sunny days: they were like little dolls with beautiful bright hair, she told him.  Unlike Hodson’s elves, these beings played in the sea and rode on the waves, constantly moving and dancing about.  These are fascinating sightings, though it is inescapable that the fays seem to have travelled to the coast very much in tandem with British day-trippers.

Much more recent sightings have confirmed that this link persists, rare as it is.  A Mrs Clara Reed was on holiday at Looe in Cornwall in 1943 when she saw a sea fairy, dressed in a skirt of shells with a bodice of seaweed and shells round her neck.  She spoke with the fairy at the water’s edge, and was told the future: that her sick husband would not die.  A flying fairy being was also seen hovering on the beach in British Columbia during the 1970s (Johnson, Seeing fairies, p.125; Fairy Census no.194).

To conclude, the evidence is patchy and much of it is from literature rather than folklore, but the indication is that fairies might be found in any natural scene, from the sea shore to the mountain top.  If we conceive of them as nature spirits, this would of course be exactly what we would expect.

Further reading

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

Flower fairies- origins and meaning

gorse-flower-fairy

During the last hundred years or so, fairies have become intimately associated with flowers.  What I want to do in this post is to consider the evidence for such links in traditional folklore beliefs and to discuss how the idea has arisen that fairies are ‘nature spirits’ or ‘guardians of nature’ and have a particular mission to supervise the growth of flowers and other plants, in which work they may resemble bees or ants and are certainly of diminutive dimensions.

Shakespeare

Without doubt, one link in the chain connecting fairies to flora is literary.  Shakespeare perhaps initiated the trend with a the fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  One is required to “hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear” (II, 1).  Of course, we have fairy Peaseblossom in the same play (III, 1) and Oberon’s well-known directions to help Puck find Titania:

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight…” (Act II, 1)

In The Tempest Ariel, who sings “Where the bee sucks., there suck I”  The floral motifs are prominent, indicating a closeness to nature generally and the evidence of small statute is also present.  Robert Herrick and Michael Drayton took the matter of scale to extremes, though for reasons of pure fancy: I don’t believe that they sought to reflect any genuine traditions known to them.  British fairies are of a range of sizes, often adult height, quite often the size of children, much more rarely very small (the medieval English ‘portunes’ of just half an inch in height are an exception).

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Richard Dadd, ‘Titania sleeping,’ 1841, The Louvre 

Herrick imagined a fairy loaf of bread as “A moon-parch’t grain of wheat” washed down with “A pure seed-pearle of infant dew/ Brought and besweetened in a blew/ And pregnant violet” (Oberon’s feast).  Drayton likewise envisaged a fairy palace “The walls of spiders’ legs are made … The windows of the eyes of cats” (Nymphidia).  The conceit of miniature fairies was sustained into the next century by other poets.  For example, in The flower and the leaf John Dryden imagined that a faint track “look’d as lightly press’d, by fairy feet” and William King, like Herrick, surveyed a fairy supper:

“What may they be, fish, flesh of fruit?/ I never saw things so minute./ Sir, a roasted ant is nicely done,/ By one small atom of the sun./ These are flies’ eggs in moonshine poach’d/ This a flea’s thigh, in collops scotched.” (Orpheus and Eurydice)

rowan

Tiny fairies

Increasingly, then, the convention prevailed that fairies were minuscule, but neither in literature nor in folk tales was there any deep attachment to plant life.  As described when discussing fairy clothes, fairies most often were attired in green, which may well be symbolic of growth, but there is still scant suggestion of any special purpose as ministers of Mother Nature.  There are quite a few indications of fairies inhabiting trees.  There is the Old Lady of the Elder Tree whom I have mentioned in discussing my book  The Elder Queen; from the Outer Hebrides comes a story of a fairy maiden who inhabits a tree on a knoll, once a year appearing to dispense ‘the milk of wisdom’ to local women (L. Spence, British fairy origins pp.101 & 186); also from the Highlands and Western Isles we hear a report of ‘tree spirits’, green elves who are often seen in woodland (Spence p.100).  This is about as good as it gets in British tradition.  Lewis Spence in chapter VI of British fairy origins examined the theory that fairies derived from ‘elementary spirits’ and summed up “all nature spirits are not the same as fairies; nor are all fairies nature spirits.” (p.110)  He further stated that “it is a notable thing that in Great Britain and Ireland the nature spirit remains to us in vestigial form only.  To make a list of British nature spirits as known in our islands today is very … difficult… I can think of no genuinely English earth or tree spirits.” (p.113)  He blames homogenisation into “the common hill-fairy, the standard elf of folk-lore.” (p.114)  On the matter of flowers, s I have described before, there are flowers that are believed particularly to repel or to attract fairies, but the surviving stories do not conceive of fairies living within or overseeing the growth of any flowers.

elder

How then do we explain the rapid ascendancy of the flower fairy?  I think that occult science and mystical philosophy are the source; flower fairies are a product of the thought of Paracelsus and Pseudo-Dionysus.  They are nature spirits, part of a ‘celestial hierarchy,’ and are derived from a system of thought very different to native custom.  I shall examine this theme further in due course.

Further reading

Other posts on the natural associations of fairies cover such issues as wood elves, fairy plants and ‘eco-fairies.’