Pre-Raphaelite Fairies

Millais_ariel
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.

hughes, La belle dame sans merci
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).

jones
Edward Burne-Jones, frontispiece to The Fairy Family
rossetti, goblin
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.

 

Image result for rossetti + jane burden as queen guinevere
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.

Image result for preraphaelite fairy
‘Pre-Raphaelite Fairy 04’ by svp-stock on Deviant Art
‘Fairy’ by Philip Malpass

“Fear of little men”-or, ‘How the fairy got her wings’

In William Allingham’s poem The fairies (1883) he gives late expression to a formerly common attitude to fairies:

“Up the airy mountain,/ Down the rushy glen,/ We daren’t go a-hunting/    For fear of little men;/ Wee folk, good folk, Trooping all together;”

fuseli-puck

Henry Fuseli, Puck

The traditional terror of fairies and the change in attitudes in more recent times is something I have touched upon in my posting on fairies and the night and which I wish to analyse in some more detail.

Perilous fairies

Until at least the early seventeenth century,  the conventional view of fairy kind was that they were as dangerous as they were intriguing and enticing.   For example, the eller maids of Denmark were beautiful, but also deadly: anyone lured into dancing with them would be danced to death; they would never be able to stop and would perish from exhaustion. Fairies were the causes of disease and stole human children, food and possessions, as I have previously described.

What I wish to examine here is how these fearsome and sometimes fatal creatures could deteriorate into something cloyingly cute and eminently suitable for little girls to imitate. In Religion and the decline of magic (1971) Keith Thomas prefaces his discussion of fairy beliefs by observing that “Today’s children are brought up to think of fairies as diminutive beings of a benevolent disposition, but the fairies of the Middle Ages were neither small nor particularly kindly” (p.724). When was our fearful respect for the fairies replaced by a simpering, indulgent affection?

Shakespeare’s influence

I have dated the change, as I suggest, to around 1600.  Shakespeare provides us with some evidence of the shift in popular perceptions.  Some commentators view him as the sole culprit, but this is to imbue him with far greater influence and respect than he had at the time.  He may now be seen as a genius and cultural icon, but that was not his status in his lifetime; as a playwright he did not shape views, but he certainly does reflect them.

Take, for example, Midsummer Night’s Dream.  On the one hand there is Puck, whose magic interventions in human affairs might be dismissed as farcically inept, but who should probably best be viewed as mischievous, if not malignant, in his conduct.  He admits to revelling in his tricks, for certain.  At another extreme are the fairies introduced by Titania to Bottom, called Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed; here we have a first hint of the tiny and harmless beings with whom we are so familiar today.  A sense of these fairies’ size is conveyed by their use of glow-worms as lanterns and their hiding in acorn cups to escape Oberon’s fury.  By contrast, there is the encounter in The Merry Wives of Windsor between Sir John Falstaff and some children disguised as fairies.  They may be small, but that does not in the least detract from the horror he feels: “They are fairies; he that speaks to them shall die: I’ll wink and couch: no man their works must eye” (Act V scene 5).  Lack of stature, for Shakespeare’s contemporaries, still did not of necessity denote weakness or an amenable nature.

Science and reason

What exactly changed, then?  I think that there is a number of causes.  The growth of science and industry, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, removed the justification for and threat of fairies.  Previously, as Geoffrey Parrinder remarked, “they helped explain many of the curious happenings of life” (Witchcraft, Pelican, 1958, p.70). By the later 1600s, this function was being superseded as John Aubrey wrote:

Old wives tales-  Before printing old wives’ tales were ingenious, and since Printing came into fashion, til a little before the Civil-Warres, the ordinary Sort of People were not taught to read; nowadayes bookes are common, and most of the poor people understand letters; and the many good bookes, and a variety of Turnes of affaires; have putt all the old Fables out of doors and the divine art of Printing and Gunpowder have frightened away Robin Goodfellow and the Fayries” (Remains of Gentilisme & Judaisme, 1687-89, p.68).

When they were no longer required to explain illness, they were left as merely decorative and un-threatening.  That said, if fairies had become redundant in this environment, their social function could be preserved by transporting them to other worlds.  This appears to be what has happened: green clad goblins have been translated into the ‘little green men’of science fiction.

Secondly, rationalism and religious scepticism has had a role.  Disbelief in a spirit world is sufficient to kill off fairies entirely, but it has also stopped them being taken seriously. Once this had happened, their descent into cuteness and whimsy was easy.

Fairy belief for a long time was treated as a thing of the previous generation.  For instance, John Aubrey recalled that “when I was a Boy, our Countrey people would talke much of them…” meaning  ‘Faieries.’  His contemporary, Sir William Temple, said much the same thing, suggesting that fairy belief had only really declined over the previous thirty years or so (i.e. during the mid-seventeenth century).  Robert Burton, writing the Anatomy of melancholy in 1621, shared these opinions:  fairies had been “in former times adored with much superstition” but were now seen only from time to time by old women and children.

Nevertheless, doubt seems to have been well established by the 1580s at least.  The best evidence for this is Reginald Scot’s The discoverie of witchcraft (1584).  The book is an assault upon belief in witches, but he compares this extensively with the parallel belief in a supernatural race of beings.  In his introduction ‘To the reader’ Scot remarks that:

“I should no more prevail herein [i.e., in persuading his audience] than if a hundred years since I should have entreated your predecessors to believe that Robin Goodfellow, that great and ancient bull-beggar, had been a cozening merchant and no devil indeed.  But Robin Goodfellow ceaseth now to be much feared…”

Once again, the fairy faith is a thing of the (distant) past.  Later Scot comments that “By this time all Kentishmen know (a few fooles excepted) that Robin Goodfellow is a knave” (Book XVI, c.7).  Scot’s theme is that such credulity is not just old-fashioned; it is now the preserve of the simple and weak.  He repeats these allegations throughout his text: “the feare of manie foolish folke, the opinion of some that are wise, the want of Robin Goodfellow and the fairies, which were woont to mainteine chat and the common people’s talke in this behalfe … All which toies take such hold upon men’s fansies, as whereby they are lead and entised away from the consideration of true respects, to the condemnation of that which they know not” (The Epistle); likewise- “we are so fond, mistrustful and credulous that we feare more the fables of Robin Goodfellow, astrologers and witches and beleeve more things that are not than things that are.  And the more unpossible a thing is, the more we stand in feare thereof” (Book XI, c.22).

Talk of fairies then, was in Scot’s opinion only fit for “yoong children” and its only purpose was to “deceive and seduce.”  Scot is concerned how many in the past were “cousened and abused” by such tales and he admonishes his readers to remember this:

“But you shall understand that these bugs speciallie are spied and feared of sicke folke, children, women and cowards, which through weakness of mind and body are shaken with vain dreams and continuall feare… But in our childhood our mothers maids have so terrified us with … urchins, elves, hags, fairies… that we are afraid of our own shadowes” (Book VII, c.15).

Scot remained confident in the advance of reason, however:

“And know you this, by the waie, that heretofore Robin Goodfellow and Hobgoblin were as terrible and also as credible to the people as hags and witches be now, and in time to come a witch will be as derided and contemned, and as plainlie perceived, as the illusion and knaverie of Robin Goodfellow…” (Book VII, c.2)

King James I/VI in his Daemonologie (1597) was just as scornful as Scot of any belief in ‘Phairie’ but he did not ascribe it to mere foolishness.  For him, it was more sinister- it was a deception of the devil who had “illuded the senses of sundry simple creatures, in making them beleeve that they saw and harde such thinges as were nothing so indeed.” Although the fairy faith was “one of the illusiones that was risest in the time of Papistrie” it was thankfully in decline in Presbyterian Scotland at the time that he wrote (c.V).

Thirdly, fairy belief dwindled as the natural world was increasingly explored, surveyed and quantified.  When every acre of land was being assessed for its productive value and as a capital asset, the fairies were mapped and measured out of existence.  On a crowded island, no space was left for anything except the tiniest of beings to survive.  In fact, even as early as the first quarter of the seventeenth century, Michael Drayton could equate smallness with fairy nature: in his Eighth Nymphal he declares “Why, by her smallness you may find/ That she is of the fairy kind.”

rape-of-the-lock

Stothard, The rape of the lock

The shrinking fairy

The cumulative effect of these societal changes was, as Keith Thomas wrote, that “By the Elizabethan age, fairy lore was primarily a store of mythology rather than a corpus of living beliefs” (Religion and the decline of magic, 1971, p.726).  Deprived of its rationale, the decay set in quickly.  There is a suggestion of flight in Drayton’s Poly-Olbion- “The frisking fairy there, as on the light air borne” (1613, Song XXI) but explicit winged flight is first mentioned in The Rape of the Lock from 1712, in which Alexander Pope imagined fairies “Some to the sun their insect wings unfold/ Waft on the breeze or sink in clouds of gold.”   When, in 1798, Thomas Stothard illustrated Pope’s book with fairies with butterfly wings, the trend was confirmed.  Contemporaneously, we may note a bat winged Puck by Fuseli from 1790 and a tiny winged fairy creature in his illustration of Titania awakening with Bottom dated to 1794. This quickly seems to have become the convention: in subsequent Victorian images fairies are predominantly winged creatures; these wings are either gauzy like dragonflies’ or patterned like butterflies’.

henry-fuseli-titania-awakes-surrounded-by-attendant-faries-1794

Fuseli, Titania and Bottom

All the same, folk belief could still lag well behind popular culture and artistic representations: Ivor Gurney wrote a poem in 1918 that must preserve older Gloucestershire beliefs.  Having waited in a lane at dusk for a lover to return home, he is alarmed by a bustle in the hedgerow:

“Until within the ferny brake/ Stirred patter-feet and silver talk/ That set all horror wide awake-/ I fear the fairy folk.”  (Girl’s Song, September 1918)

There have been stubborn resisters too to the sentimentalising tendency.  Rudyard Kipling in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1908) made clear his feelings; Puck tells Dan and Una (p.14):

“Besides, what you call [fairies] are made up things the People of the Hills have never heard of- little buzzflies with butterfly wings and gauze petticoats, and shiny stars in their hair, and a wand like a school-teacher’s cane for punishing bad boys and rewarding good ones… Can you wonder that the People of the Hills don’t care to be confused with that painty-winged, wand-waving, sugar-and-shake-your-head set of impostors?  Butterfly wings indeed!”

The ultimate result of this decline is some of the twee horrors to be found.  For Christmas, I received a card bearing an illustration by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite.  Along with Cicely Mary Barker, she is one of the prime offenders in the genre loathed by Kipling (and Puck). Amongst her pictures you will find fairies with perfect 1920s bobs and, worse still, gambling with koala bears at drinks parties…

ida-1

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

The resistance to the sentimentalising tendency continues (see for example the remarks of Cassandra Lobiesk on her website Fae folk: the world of fae- see my links page), but after at least a century, it may sadly be a losing battle.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).

 

“Urchins, ouphs and fairies, green and white”-fairy clothing

ar-elves

Arthur Rackham, ‘To make my small elves coats’, Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1908

“Wee folk, good folk, trooping all together,

Green jacket, red cap and white owl’s feather.”

William Allingham, The fairies, 1850

What does a fairy wear?  Nowadays we may well envisage a small girl in a pink tutu with a star tipped wand.  As regular readers will anticipate, this was decidedly not our ancestors’ image of faery kind.  It was, nonetheless, very much as conventional.

Local dress

There were some who regarded fairies as, in many respects, indistinguishable from their human neighbours.  For example, the Reverend Kirk in chapter five of The secret commonwealth asserted that “Their Apparell … is like that of the People and Countrey under which they live: so are they seen to wear Plaids and variegated Garments in the Highlands of Scotland, and Suanochs therefore in Ireland.”  Other evidence from Scotland confirms this.  At her witchcraft trial on 1576 Bessie Dunlop described the fairies she had conversed with: the men dressed as gentlemen, the women in plaids; a later account of the departure of the fairies also has them attired in plaids (with red caps); J. G. Campbell likewise mentions fairies in blue Highland bonnets.

Tell tale clothes

More commonly, there was always something about their dress which betrayed fairy-kind to the humans who encountered them.  Sometimes it was the style of the garments, more often it was the colour.  William Bottrell in Traditions and hearthside stories of West Cornwall states that the typical appearance of the pobel vean was “dressed in bright green nether garments, sky-blue jackets, three cornered hats on the men and pointed ones on the ladies, all decked out with lace and silver bells.”  There is, then, a resemblance to (antique) human fashions combined with distinctive hues.  This tendency to dress in the style of a century before is underlined by the story of the fairy market on Blackdown near Taunton- “Their habits used to be of red, blue or green, according to the way of old country garb, with high crowned hats” (Keightley Fairy mythology p.294).

Fairy colour ways

The quintessential and identifying fairy hue was green.  For example, John Campbell of Barra in the Highlands told a story of  woman seen dressed in green, observing “no woman would be clad in such a colour except a fairy woman.”  Indeed, the ‘green gowns’ was a fairly common euphemism employed to avoid too closely naming the good neighbours.

In about two thirds of the cases where the colour of garments is noted in an account, it is green.  Bourne in Antiquitates vulgares  from 1725 states that they were “always clad in green” and, whilst this overstates the popular view, accounts from Cornwall through Wales and northern England and up to the Highlands repeatedly confirm the fairy preference.  In his Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song Robert Cromek embellishes this slightly, describing “mantles of green cloth inlaid with flowers” and “green pantaloons buttoned with bobs of silk and sandals of silver.”  J. F. Campbell found accounts in his Popular Tales of the West Highlands of fairies in kilts, but these were green and matched by green conical hats.

Some readers will recall that green was the skin tone of the mysterious ‘fairy’ children discovered at Woolpit in Suffolk in the 1100s.  Katherine Briggs has suggested that the colour relates to death- and there may be something in this.  Identity with nature and plant life might be another association.

Popular as green was, it was by no means exclusive.  Other traditional choices were:

  • red– Evans Wentz recorded Welsh fairies in “gaudy colours (mostly red)”, in “soldiers’ clothes” with red caps and some pixies at Land’s End in red cloaks (Fairy faith pp.142, 155 & 181).  Professor John Rhys found that Welsh witnesses in Victorian times often referred to the Tylwyth Teg ‘the red coats’ by way of euphemism;
  • white– Welsh informants told Evans Wentz that the Tylwyth Teg were ‘always’ clothed in white and Thomas Heywood in his Hierarchie of the blessed angels employs ‘white nymphs’ as a euphemism for the fairies (p.507);
  • blue– for example, Sikes in British goblins (chapter V, part iii) describes the Tylwyth Teg seen at the ‘Place of strife,’ Trefeglws, Llanidloes, Montgomeryshire, as “the old elves of the blue petticoats.” In the Suffolk story, Brother Mike, the fairies appear in blue coats, yellow breeches and red caps;
  • other– on Shetland the ‘grey neighbours’ are grey clad goblins.  Walter Scott records Border fairies clad in “heath brown or lichen dyed garments.”  John Rhys learned that the fairy women of Cardigan dressed “gorgeously in white, while the men were content with garments of a dark grey colour, usually including knee-breeches.” Meanwhile, around the River Teifi, the fairy women were said to dress “like foreigners, in short cotton dresses reaching only to the knee-joint.”  He felt this was exceptional, as generally fairy dresses had very long trains and local girls who dressed in a more showy fashion would be likened to the Tylwyth Teg.  At the other extreme, some supernatural beings traditionally abandon human clothing altogether and appear dressed in skins or leaves (Briggs, Dictionary, pp.110-11).  In the hands of poets, an opposite tendency applies and clothing can become highly elaborate and literary.  For instance John Beaumont in 1705 decked out his fairies in “loose Network Gowns, tied with a black sash about their middles, and within the Network appeared a Gown of a Golden Colour… they had white Linnen Caps on, with lace about three Fingers breadth, and over it they had a Black loose Network Hood” (A treatise of spirits).

To summarise the matter of preferred clothing colours, we may quote the words of John Walsh of Netherbury, Dorset; in 1566 he was suspected of witchcraft and gave evidence. He stated “that there be iii kinds of fairies- white, green and black.  Whereof the blacke fairies is the worst…”

Oddities and exceptions

Lastly, some supernaturals, the hobgoblins and brownies, dispensed with clothing altogether, relying on their hairiness or coarse skin.  For them, the gift of clothes was the ultimate insult which drove them away from their chosen home.  You may recall Dobby the house elf of Hogwarts school, dressed in an old tea-towel.  Joanne Rowling knew her folklore.

Authors and artists aside, the folklore conception of fairy dress was of relatively simple garments. Susan Swapper of Rye told her 1610 witchcraft trial that the fairy woman she met dressed in a ‘green petticoat’ and plainness seems to be the norm- as in accounts of ‘long green robes.’  Sometimes something more elaborate is suggested; Angus Macleod of Harris in 1877 relayed his mother’s description of fairies dancing: “Bell-helmets of blue silk covered their heads, and garments of green satin covered their bodies and sandals of yellow membrane covered their feet” (Wentz p.116).

Fairy headwear

A particular identifying feature, indeed, was the fairy’s cap.  It is regularly mentioned, most often red, although blue and yellow are also recorded, and again allusions occur from the south-west through Wales and the north-west up into Scotland.  The shape is often pointed or conical- for example, a mid-twentieth century encounter near Perth was with a “wee green man with peakit boots and a cap like an old gramophone horn on his head.”  The same informant ten years later had a rather more prosaic sighting of two small men in bowler hats…

By the twentieth century, conceptions of the style of fairy clothing had shifted away from the traditional forms to something much more influenced by art- both high and popular.  Strains of whimsy and of floaty, flimsy ballerina type garments became pervasive, as typified perhaps by Cicely Mary Barker, whose fairies were, in the main, genteel young ladies, dressed perhaps for an Edwardian fancy dress party.

edwardian-fairies

Summary

To summarise, descriptions of fairy clothing tended to fall into one of three categories:

  • the otherness of the fairies was emphasised by the brightly coloured and elaborate nature of their attire;
  • likewise, their otherness was indicated by the fact that they wore clothes of an earlier era: to the Victorians they appeared dressed in the fashions of mid-eighteenth century Georgians; or,
  • by way of contrast, the very vicinity and intimate proximity of the ‘good neighbours’ was shown by the fact that they wore garments almost identical to those of human kind.

Lastly, readers will doubtless have observed how long-established one image is: the pixie or gnome dressed in his green jacket and red, pointy cap is deeply ingrained in the British imagination.

Further reading

See too my posting on the significance or symbolism of the different colours of fairy mentioned in folklore.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).