A curious strand within Pre-Raphaelite painting is the skein that depicts fairies. Indeed, I wonder what John Ruskin – so influential in laying the ideas taken up by the Brotherhood at the outset – thought of them? Perhaps he was shocked that so unrealistic an element could have been thought worthy – like an errant child spending his allowance in a manner frowned upon by the parent. The ideas that Ruskin had thought worthy were Romantic, scientific and anti-classical. Where earlier Romanticism had been seen as a reaction against the scientific worldview which championed the inexorable march of progress, mechanisation and industrialisation, Ruskin pressed the scientific notion of close observation into the service of Romanticism, so that representation should be based solely on what one actually sees. ‘To draw what was really there’ was the watchword from Ruskin to the young men who took up this ideas – so much so that for every face depicted in their works there is a real person to whom it corresponds – as there is to every landscape, every flower, every brick wall and every rock. Such ‘truth’ in the detail meant long research into medieval architecture, in order to portray buildings faithfully when they were to be an element in a painting – as also the wallpaper, drapes and clothing of people in those times. Scenes from the works of Shakespeare were an inspiration, as were passages from the Bible, and also poems by the contemporary poet Tennyson.
And yet, notwithstanding all this, one of the interests of some of the Pre-Raphaelites was the painting of fairies. Thus we find John Everett Millais depicting some fairies in his work Ferdinand Lured by Ariel. Perhaps this was acceptable within the Pre-Raphaelite canon because it portrayed a scene from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Yet ‘draw what was really there’ was a dictum that could not by upheld in this instance! As Tim Hilton puts it, fairies were quite difficult to paint because they were ‘rarely seen.’*[He doesn’t even finish that sentence with an exclamation mark!] Certainly the Victorians were interested in fairies, but for an artist there were very few pictorial precedents – unlike angels where two millennia of Christian tradition had supplied many examples. Hilton thinks Millais’ Ariel to be a ‘hideous green goblin’. Perhaps our 21st century eyes look more favourably upon them thanks to our exposure to computer generated images in numerous films, where the fantastical is conveyed so realistically (was there ever such a thorough-going oxymoron!)
When I was visiting the Pre-Raphaelite room in Tate Britain it was incredible to see before my very eyes the paintings that the books commented on. The vibrancy of the colours in the paintings is astonishing, and the detailed observations are exquisite. One particular painting I thought to be especially delightful was the one with the little people among the blades of grass – The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke, by Richard Dadd. His name was not one I remembered from the book I had been reading, but the detail of the natural elements in his painting – the grass, and daisies and hazelnuts – are all portrayed in the kind of detail typical of the Pre-Raphaelites. What captivated me was the depiction of lots of little people – a flight of fancy and imagination of a tiny world, peopled by all manner of characters going about their business.
Where John Everett Millais’ painting of John Ruskin is a likeness not only of the man himself but also the rocks and the water, and William Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts is a faithful rendition of sheep amongst the briars and fields atop a sea-edged cliff, Dadd’s little people are a delightful rendering of the impossible within the possible – imagination within the natural.
Imagination has had a chequered history. It comes so naturally to young minds where the demarcation between what is ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ has yet to be firmly fixed: it is where those young eyes view the world as wondrous. And as everything is new, everything seems possible. As the world unfolds to them, its enchantment lingers long, bringing joy and possibility and wonder. While scientism has a place – and an important one in our lives – it is not the only monarch that should reign in the land.
[Postscript about Richard Dadd’s painting. After some further research I discovered that Dadd was not a Pre-Raphaelite at all – he even set up a group called The Clique that was directly opposed to the Pre-Raphaelites**. He was a man who suffered from mental afflictions and violence that resulted in him murdering his father, and during his incarceration in Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam) he painted a number of works including this one. It took him nine years. He also wrote a long poem of the same name. This painting has inspired a number of people, not least Freddie Mercury who was really fascinated by the painting and wrote and performed a song of the same title – and someone (David R Fuller) on Youtube has put a great film clip up of the song by Queen with a juxtaposition of Freddy Mercury singing and details of the painting. It’s great, and weird!]
*The Pre-Raphaelites, by Tim Hilton, Thames & Hudson, p. 61
** see Stephanie Pina Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, ‘Freddie Mercury and the Madness of Richard Dadd’