How we see them
Whatever you think they are, fairies thrived in a culture of orally transmitted ideas and narratives which we will never recapture. Who told what tales where and when, and how variations were coloured by religious beliefs, dialect., local landscape and economy - or perhaps just the flair of a particular storyteller - remain largely untraceable elements in the development of the concept. Once a story – or a sighting – gets written down then an aspect of the idea gets fixed (think of William de Malmesbury or Walter Map in the 12th century, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Robin Goodfellow, his Mad Pranks and Merry Jests” in the 16/17th century, and how often we refer back to them for strange events and funny stories they noted down – probably the tip of the iceberg when it came to the narratives that were in oral circulation at the time.)
Of course, the period and medium in which they get pinned down on page or canvas will itself profoundly affect how they are shown, presupposing as it must do the agenda of the audience expected to confront and understand them. Unlike the older oral tradition, this process does not necessarily assume a belief in the veracity of fairy lore and sightings – one would love to know what proportion of those who saw “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” during Shakespeare’s lifetime thought that fairies were “real” outside their representation on page and stage.
When it comes to visual representation, the history of the fairies becomes inevitably enmeshed with changing patterns of cultural, economic and religious politics that might at first seem to have little bearing on the way we perceive them.
Art tends to be something commissioned by the wealthy, reflecting the tastes and beliefs related to their social status. Fairies belong to a different culture, one where spoken words rather than material luxury goods were the standard medium. A wealthy mediaeval landowner might commission a religious painting to serve as evidence of his piety, or maybe a classically-themed tapestry to show his learning or courtly tastes. Fairies would seem a bit down-market, suggesting that the commissioner listened to old wives’ tales.
By the 16th century this situation had narrowed further as the Reformation had virtually shut down the production of Christian pictorial imagery in Britain. It looked too dangerously Roman Catholic, and would not fully blossom again until the latter part of the 19th century. British art began to run along demonstrably “safe” tracks, with portraiture and landscape becoming the most prominent genres. Long after the initial iconoclastic response to the Protestant Reformation had settled, this was still having a profound affect on British art. Painters, no longer expecting to paint religious narratives or altarpieces, were therefore not trained to produce the large dramatic compositions with several figures which were generically categorised as “history pictures”, though a growth in art collecting among the wealthy meant that European examples of this type of art were imported, seen and admired. By the 18th century and the hey-day of the Grand Tour a distinct feeling of national artistic inferiority had developed – why were all the most impressive Old Masters European? Somehow we were felt to have slipped out of the greatest artistic mainstream and tradition. We needed to catch up, to produce art that was imaginative, poetic , intellectually engaging, visually impressive and gave visible evidence that we knew what had been going on in European art over the last couple of centuries. We weren’t going to emulate the grand religious compositions of the High Renaissance because there wasn’t an audience for them unless, of course, they came in as collectable Old Masters, a certification of a collector’s good taste that drove contemporary 18th century British painters such as Hogarth to a high rage. Why weren’t we painting complex scenes of our own society and culture, including the passion for the theatre? Why didn’t we have proper art academies where aspiring artists could be tutoured in that grand tradition from which we had seceded? Why weren’t there exhibitions and galleries where contemporary art could be publicly seen and appreciated, setting up a critical debate as well as boosting the market? Hogarth and his contemporaries began exploring new ranges of secular subject matter but a younger generation took these ideas further when, under the aegis of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1868, with other artistic institutions and galleries soon starting to follow. Art was now immensely chic and could not only be seen by a much wider audience but also acquired much more widely in the form of prints reproducing paintings. It nodded towards the European tradition, but also carried the message that it was British. Classical and historical subjects began to come back into vogue, along with works from literary sources – and which of the latter could be more nationally celebrated than Shakespeare, whose plays were undergoing a celebratory revival of interest led by the theatrical entrepreneur David Garrick? (Incidentally, painted by both Hogarth and Reynolds.) A new iconography was bound to develop if only to add interest to the walls of the Royal Academy exhibitions and new selling opportunities to the print publishers.
And that’s where the fairies come back in (you were wondering, weren’t you?) What I would love to do now is show you a piece of mediaeval folk art depicting a fairy subject and compare it with an 18th century academic work of similar iconography, to illustrate how changes in the art world affected the way fairies were shown (and hence, our concept of them.)
Alas, the former doesn’t exist (or if you do know of anything that fits this description, then please talk to me about it!) Pre-Reformation fairies didn’t fall within approved religious subject matter nor the classical/courtly tradition (some may lurk in the decorative margins of illuminated manuscripts…) so they are absent from the kinds of expensive and status-related art that tends to survive. If they were depicted by journeyman hands in more homely media (perhaps in carvings or painted hangings decorating an inn) then their survival rate was apparently so much lower that they have disappeared.
Instead my earliest (Post-Reformation but at least pre-Academy) example has to be the crude but vigorous woodcut of fairies dancing that everyone uses and about which so infuriatingly little is known. It looks to have come from a 17th century chapbook (like the partially similar woodcut from “Robin Goodfellow” cited earlier) and based on this comparison one’s best guess would be that it decorated a cheaply printed popular publication which, perhaps, gathered the sort of tales and jests about fairy beliefs that had previously been circulating via oral transmission. Without text or even title, though, it’s impossible to establish how a contemporary audience would have read this scene. (Imagine, for example, that it had actually accompanied a political tract satirising a contemporary situation and been the equivalent of a modern newspaper cartoon. How would that change the way we read it? After all, if all the words were lost how might someone centuries from now make sense of a photo-shopped image of the sanctuary knocker from Durham Cathedral with the face of Dominic Cummings superimposed upon it?)
Even though, therefore we have an incomplete context, the woodcut suggests the form contemporary visualisations aimed at a popular market would have taken. It shows a rolling hilly landscape where one particular hillock has a door – fairies live in mounds, in rural environments. A mask-like face grins down from a tree – this countryside is occupied by something not human. Eight figures dance in very seemly fashion in a circle - fairies dance in rings- with a regular alternation of the men (in breeches and flat hats) and women (in long skirts and tall hats) as though this was simply a country dance, neatly executed. Their clothes conform to contemporary patterns, not high fashion but respectable daily wear, and they have no wings. Indeed, take them out of their visual context and we wouldn’t say “fairies” at all. They could be a rather restrained variant of Bruegel’s dancing peasants at some rural celebration. If the round object in the foreground is a spotted toadstool, however, and if the elements of the scene are intended to be drawn to a consistent scale, then they are tiny. Is this how the fairy folk were generally visualised, as smaller variants of contemporary humans wearing clothes that would have passed without comment in a social situation? This might explain why we find no earlier images of fairies – quite possibly we wouldn’t recognise them if we saw them.
Compare this with the work of Henry Fuseli (1741 – 1825), a Swiss painter (he Italianised his name) who worked for years in London, initially encouraged in his career by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Following several years absorbing the Grand Tradition of art on the Continent, in 1779 he settled in London, eventually becoming Professor of Painting and Keeper at the Royal Academy, and regularly exhibiting there. Around 1790 he produced the painting “Titania and Bottom “ (now in Tate Britain) as part of Alderman Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, and ambitious project which invited artists to produce works illustrating the plays of Shakespeare, to be shown in a gallery in Pall Mall and also reproduced as engravings and for a special edition of the plays.
The swiftest look at Fuseli’s fairy vision takes us to a world far removed from that of the earlier woodcut. Of course these are also Shakespeare’s fairies, but Fuseli doesn’t follow the path of depicting a contemporary stage production (as, for example, Hogarth had done in his “David Garrick as Richard III”.) These are the fairies of art, inhabiting a vaguely defined but dramatically lit space and clustering towards the central pair of figures to provide a dramatic and energetic composition. Their physiques are elongatedly elegant to the point of Mannerism (Fuseli’s admiration for Michelangelo is apparent) and Titania is both idealistically beautiful and nude – when are the homely fairies of folklore described thus? But it makes sense here because her pose offers a quotation from an Old Master source, Leonardo’s “Leda and the Swan” (known through variant copies – Fuseli would have seen the one in the Galleria Borghese).
Further, the display of idealised naked figures on gallery walls was fast becoming a staple element of the contemporary art scene, with Academic training based not so much on the life class as on drawing from the classical statues of Greece and Rome – mastery of the nude was essential for the ambitious “history painter”. Alongside this nudity the costume of the various fairy attendants, though it does seem to nod predictively towards the simple, high-waisted gowns of Neo-Classicism, would certainly not have passed unnoticed in the real world of 1790. These are not the respectably dressed country folk of the woodcut, nor yet actors in character, but beings generated by the world of 18th century art politics, posed for maximum visual drama. There is no consistency of scale amongst the group which ranges from the presumed human size of Bottom to the tiny figure poised on his hand – and while the fairies of folklore are described in different accounts as being of various sizes, there are no early descriptions that describe such a wide diversity within a particular group or variety. Of course, by giving Titania’s attendant’s names such as Cobweb, Mustard Seed and Moth Shakespeare had already suggested a diminutive scale (possibly indicating that child actors originally took these roles) but Fuseli takes this notion to an exciting and disturbing extreme. To the right a seductive female figure leads a tiny bearded man on a leash - an interpolation of allegorical content along the lines of youth versus age, fantasy versus philosophy or perhaps the dangerous power of female beauty? (Dominant female figures and submissive men are a feature of Fuseli’s art.) Some of the figures are swoopingly graceful, some look stunted and doll-like (homunculus beings appear elsewhere in his work) while the moth-winged headdress (or head) of the child at the front plays again with our ideas of scale., as well as suggesting some kind of uncanny hybridisation. The fairies do not have wings – these artistic additions would creep in as the popularity of fairy paintings grew, via a tangled web of references that includes classical art, angels, natural history and Pompeii – but Fuseli did also anticipated this idea in a later work, “Titania, Bottom and the Fairies”  (1793-4, Zurich)
in the foreground of which a tiny female fairy dances with a muscular, Michelangelesque nude male who sports not only wings but , like the Mothman of urban legend, the entire face and head of a moth.
Fuseli also painted a third “Midsummer Night’s Dream” subject (again for Boydell) “Titania’s Awakening”, now in Winterthur.
So where does our image of the fairies come from? Are they the sturdy little country folk, sensibly dressed and with their feet firmly on the ground? Or are they classically beautiful creatures who (even where they haven’t yet developed wings) swoop and hover in an erotically charged dimension free from the restrictions of gravity, scale and serviceable clothing? Fuseli envisaged his fairies through the filter of 18th century ambitions for “High Art” in Britain, and what he produced would colour indelibly that ensuring tradition of gossamer-winged exquisites who graced the walls of the Victorian Royal Academy exhibitions before they diminished into petal-clad nature spirits suitable for childish consumption. And the irony is that Fuseli, product of the Age of Reason though he was, had a natural bent towards folklore and the supernatural, illustrating virtually every weird motif in Shakespeare as well as producing that iconic image of unconscious terror, “The Nightmare”. He was drawn to the traditions of the uncanny, he knew the dramatic interpretations of Shakespeare but of course what he then painted was conditioned by the world of art. We don’t think twice about encountering Fuseli’s fairies on a gallery wall, but I doubt anyone ever encountered them in a country lane.
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