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.
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.
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…
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 Keats‘ Belle 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.
Brian Froud, Nippers 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.