Once upon a time it was a high and serious undertaking for an artist to paint fairies. The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania (1849) by Joseph Noel Paton (1821-1901) is at the pinnacle of fairy painting, a genre which arose out of a desire to revivify British history painting, and ended up linked to a rebirth of Scottish nationalism. This painting on a Shakespearean them stands not only as a monument to Britain’s greatest playwright and as a tour de force of finely detailed painting, but also ties into concerns about the British Empire and the status of Britain’s own marginalised country-dwelling population. And while it points the way to future art that focused on native myths rather than foreign subjects, it also stands nearly at the end of a great tradition of history painting that incorporated literary and mythological subjects.
The painting imagines a scene from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Act II Scene I, the fairy Puck describes a quarrel between his masters, the king and queen of the fairies:
For Oberon is passing fell and wrath,
Because that she as her attendant hath
A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king;
She never had so sweet a changeling;
And jealous Oberon would have the child
Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild;
But she perforce withholds the loved boy,
Crowns him with flowers and makes him all her joy: (II.i)
The painting shows in the centre Titania surrounded by a halo of light and her husband Oberon in Grecian costume. The Indian prince is hiding behind her as the two fairy monarchs debate his ownership. Around them, there is an extraordinary array of fairyfolk, dancing, playing, and getting up to mischief.
The degree of detail is the most extraordinary thing about the painting, the huge variety of figures, the forest plants, and the little animals. In its own way, this is as much a product of Victorian science as William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay. There is close attention to the varying plants, even as small as a dandelion and bluebells, and to animals including snail, lizard, spider, slug, butterfly, beetles, other insects, and an owl which is being attacked by fairies. Victorians believed that even the supernatural could be subject to scientific investigation, as with spiritualism which sought to uncover the mysteries of the undead, and attempts at the scientific understanding of fairies and spirits; many eminent figurs such as Arthur Conan Doyle believed in the existence of fairies.
The painting was shown in 1850 Royal Scottish Academy exhibition, at the RSA’s building on Edinburgh’s Princes Street, and it proved immensely popular, attracting huge crowds and generally positive critical write-ups. The same year it was purchased by the Royal Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland, for 700 guineas.
At the same time, there was a recognition of the sensationalism of the work. Some less sympathetic critics noted the fanciful character and the extraordinary number of naked bodies. Paton was praised by a contemporary critic for his chaste depiction “multitude of little naked beings without anything that could shock the most puritanical eye”, yet this claim for the work may less a celebration of innocence than an attempt to disguise the prurience in a work which combines sex, violence, grotesquerie, and an eastern eroticism linked to the Empire.
The history of British fairy painting began in the late 18th century. It began with two brothers who founded the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, which opened in purpose-built premises on London’s prestigious Pall Mall in 1789, intending to “employ Shakespeare as the inspiration to initiate an English School of Historical Painting”. Britain’s leading painters of the time, including Joshua Reynolds, Joseph Wright, and Henry Fuseli contributed; Fuseli painted three scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream including Titania and Bottom (c. 1790) which shows the horrific ass-headed Bottom surrounded by beautiful fairy girls.
In the late 18th and early 19th century, several great artists would treat similar subjects: Turner, Blake, Landseer, Robert Huskisson, Daniel Maclise, and William Dyce all painted scenes or figures from the play. British fairy painting found its other great talent in Richard Dadd who painted Puck in 1841, but in 1843 killed his father while suffering mental illness and ended his days in an asylum, where he produced several works including The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke (1855-1864).
He also painted the Crimean War and Indian Mutiny, as in ‘Home’: The Return from the Crimea (1859) and In Memoriam (1858) which showed British women threatened by Indian soldiers about to enter their home, inspired by events at Cawnpore where British women and children were taken as hostages, killed, and possibly raped before. However while Paton could show sensational and violent scenes from legend or literature, In Memoriam was deemed too close to home and he repainted it so that the women were being rescued by British troops, not menaced by Indians.
A man of many artistic talents, Paton found fame illustrating Water Babies by Charles Kingsley in 1963, wrote poetry and sculpted, and (following in his father’s footsteps as an antiquarian) was an expert on antique weapons and armour. Blackwood’s magazine commented in 1855 “never, perhaps, was there a reputation more honourably won, or more cheerfully and cordially acknowledged than his”. He became a pillar of Scottish society, praised as one of the country’s leading painters, and appointed as the Queen’s Limner in Scotland in 1866; shortly afterwards he was knighted.
Paton also depicted religious subjects and scenes from Arthurian legend, such as How an Angel Rowed Sir Galahad across the Dern Mere (c. 1890) which shows his attention to detail and naturalism in the knight’s armour and his horse’s harness, while also appealing to the Victorian passion for Arthurian themes. The work is typical of Pre-Raphaelite imagery: Galahad is brought across a lake while siren-like figures in the water tempt him to stray. He was involved with the Celtic Revival in the late 19th century and was a friend of key figures including William Sharp, who wrote poetry as Fiona MacLeod. He died at the age of 80 and is buried in Edinburgh’s Dean Cemetery.
Despite a wide range of subjects, Paton was best known for his fairy painting. Before his Quarrel he painted The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania (1847; also in the NGS), which shows the fairy couple back together again, under a wedding arch of flying spirits, while Shakespeare’s mortals sleep in the wood. It was submitted for the competition to decorate the newly-rebuilt Houses of Parliament, winning in 1847 a prize of £300 and being highly praised by critics; most of the other winning works were more conventional historical paintings, the grand prize going to the Funeral of King Alfred by Henry William Pickersgill, who is best known for his portraits. Yet as with the later Quarrel, there is viciousness in the Reconciliation, with fairies torturing a frog in the foreground at the bottom of the picture.
The progression from Shakespeare to Scottish mythology can be seen in The Fairy Raid: Carrying Off a Changeling, Midsummer Eve (1867), now in Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow. This shows a moonlit scene based on the idea from folktales that fairies would steal mortal babies and replace them with evil substitutes, changelings, which would be raised by unwitting parents. Such beliefs were also held about Gypsies. (The modern variation of this is the fear of babies being swapped at birth in hospital and the mother taking the wrong child home.) The Fairy Raid combines images of courtly romance typical of Pre-Raphaelite art with his fondness for naturalistic detail and supernatural mischief.
His work shows the influence of contemporary ideas of exoticism, principally in the figure of the Indian prince hiding behind Titania. This is a very different image to the rapacious mutineers of In Memoriam, but could also be taken as a comment on empire. This was a time when artists were looking beyond Greek and Roman models to more distant lands: Russia, the near east, and north Africa: for example William Allan (1782-1850) travelled in Russia and painted exotic scenes on his return. There was also a fashion for portraits in Arab costume. Dadd had toured the middle east before doing much of his fairy painting.
There was also the influence of genre painting closer to home. The English painter’s George Westmoreland’s country scenes with Gypsies and other marginal groups were very popular and influential on British landscape painting as it moved from the grand estates of Gainsborough to a more picturesque depiction of smaller scenes and peasant life. In Scotland there was a huge fashion for scenes of traditional Scottish village and country life from David Wilkie, David Allan, Alexander Carse, and others.
With a Scottish ruling class surrounded by imperial subjects, unruly Highlanders and other marginal figures, and restive lower classes of industrial and agricultural workers, there is a natural tendency to see the depictions of fairy violence as manifestations of wider anxieties. This is a subject of Carole G Silver’s Strange & Secret Peoples, a study of the Victorian interest in all things fairy. The Fairy Raid speaks to one of the deepest human fears, the loss of a child, but even in this painting there is strange, savage violence, including the flying fairies’ attempt to bring down the owl at the top of the image.
Silver suggests that the surge in fairy art in the late 19th century reflects a growing fear of the other: Gypsies, Scottish highlanders, Irish villagers and travellers, imperial subjects, foreigners. But it may be truer to say it is part of the same process that turned formerly threatening groups such as the Scottish highlanders who invaded England in 1745 into sweet, cute, romantic, backward, and essentially harmless figures. Walter Scott and the Gothic revival did a lot of this, such as in Rob Roy, and the Celtic revival continued the process. At least in the Quarrel and Reconciliation, the fairies are reduced to perpetuating tiny crimes on small animals; The Fairy Raid with its apparent equation of fairy monarchy with the heroes of Paton’s Arthurian painting is even more confused.
Paton’s place in art history is complex. He had links to the Pre-Raphaelites but he does not follow through their formal innovations, their stylisation, and their combination of primitive simplicity with careful opulence. His art relates as much to Rococo, in its luxury and celebration of leisure, its function as conversation-piece for the idle rich, and to Georgian and early Victorian landscape painting in the realism of his trees and plants and animals. In contrast to the Pre-Raphaelites, it still has strong roots in academic painting.
His work also marks a change in the status of landscape painting. If you look at an 18th century landscape painter like Gainsborough, or even a slightly later figure like Constable, the painting is about commanding the land, showing off aristocratic estates, with a high viewpoint and sweeping vistas. But in the 19th century there was a new fashion for the picturesque, with lower perspectives, shorter sightlines, more twisted trees and dense foliage. This is a bourgeois not an aristocratic art: it does not serve to show off the estates of the landed gentry (idealised, free of industry, sometimes free of people) but to decorate bourgeois homes in the city with a myth of Britain as a land of countryside. This too is linked with Romanticism, which arose as a reaction to urbanisation, industrialisation, and agricultural enclosure which destroyed the hedges, bosks, and thickets. If you live surrounded by nature, you don’t need pictures of nature on your walls.
Paton’s art marks the decline of history painting in Britain, and more generally in Europe. History painting, which includes religious, mythological, and literary subjects, was the highest form of art in the academic system prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the UK you can look at two main events that sought to save or re-establish history painting: the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery at the end of the eighteenth century, which sought to re-establish a national school of history painting, began the custom for fairy painting, and the competition to provide paintings for the rebuilt Houses of Parliament in 1847, which was the last major occasion when academic history painting was demanded to play a major social role but which produced no lasting symbols of nationhood. The career of Scottish painter David Scott (1806-1849) is instructive: fancying himself a career as a great history painter, he ended his days bankrupt and possibly mad, although before then he did manage a fine Puck Fleeing from the Dawn in 1837.
Increasingly, art was private, and this was the case in Scotland even before in England – presbyterian Scotland did not have a prominent role for religious art, and with the ending of the Scottish Parliament in 1707 there was less of a public purpose too. Art no longer communicated power or authority or religious purpose, but functioned as conversation piece or demonstration of individual taste. Paintings of Shakespeare’s fairies have a curious status: at once tributes to a British literary titan whose genius is perhaps the most lasting power in the history of these isles, and something utterly insubstantial, fantastical, and illusory. The fairy, tiny, secluded, visible only to children and the insane, is the perfect subject for such a private art, the art of dreams and private fantasy.