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The Truth About Faeries

Anne Anderson and Graham Ovenden

Published by Southampton City Art Gallery, Southhampton (2009)

The Earth Denizens Revealed
Graham Ovenden


The naked man seated, leaning, pointing his dividers, concentrating only on the geomathematical problem that lies before him. His eyes are lowered and see nothing of the parallel universe, for his intent is to enumerate and in doing so must negate the universal mystery.

This is William Blake's consummate image of Isaac Newton; for with Blake, the great artist-poet, mystery is synonymous with spirituality.

The fact that the effigy of Newton placed in the forecourt of the new British Library is based on Blake's invention could be regarded as somewhat confused in sentiment, doubly so as the poet's dictum 'I do not hold with education, it is the great corruption' decidedly contradicts the reason for this institution's great accumulation of knowledge.

To be fair though, within the seeming endless shelving and tunnels of books, manuscripts and related ephemera of the British Library we find not only Newton's material vision of the universe but also the works relating to alchemical law, metaphysical philosophy and all the highways and byways of inventive thought. Even the state of grace is not unrepresented, for amongst the stately tomes, sterile with neglect, are the inspired insights of childhood and their accompanying literature. 'Happiness thy name is joy' is but half the coin of conception found in the folklores that feed the parallel kingdoms of the imagination. The other side is that of shadows, edging at times on the malign ...this growing Gothick obsession being most darkly depicted by the Swiss artist Johann Heinrich Fussli (Fuseli 1741-1825) in such works as The Night Mare (1781) and Titania and Bottom (c. 1790).

It is with the growth of Romanticism in all its faceted indulgence that Faerie as we understand the phenomenon, comes to materialisation. One major source of inspiration in the collation and creative interpretation of folk tales, which may then be wove into Faerie, is the work of the brothers Grimm. Equally important is Goethe's great ballad Erlkonig (1782) which inspired the youthful Schubert to compose his opus 1 (1815), creating the supreme masterpiece of Faerie song. With the evolution of German Lieder and its extended narrative structures, we find numerous excursions into the other world of the imagination. In Carl Loewe's compositions (whose opus 1. 1818 is by coincidence also a setting of Goethe's Erlkonig), we experience a true flowering of Faerie narrative with music. In the visual arts the painter Moritz von Schwind (1804 -1871), Schubert's friend, was so distraught by the great composer's death in 1828 that he left Vienna, walking to Munich, where he finally established himself as Germany's greatest artist in the depiction of Faerie lore.

In 1804 Philipp Otto Runge (1777- 1810) one of the major visionaries of German Romanticism, painted Die Lehrstunde der Nachtigall a prototype image which foretells developments in the high Victorian period. The four engravings entitled The Times of Day etched in 1803 (which incidentally decorated Goethe's music room) remain after two hundred years the masterworks of Flower Faerie imagery. His most important visionary painting is Der Kleine Morgen (1808) which unifies Faerie with Eden. Only William Blake, Runge's older contemporary creates such an authentic vision and we must wait until Richard Dadd paints his few hard wrought pieces (The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke 1855-1864 being one) to find such equally important works.

In 1824 the brothers Grimm's Kinder und Hausmarchen was published in England under the title German Popular Stories illustrated by George Cruikshank. Cruikshank's sense of the grotesque had a considerable influence on his successors and what with echoes of Jerome Bosch (1453 - 1516) and Pieter Bruegel (1525/30 - 1569) coming to the fore towards the forth decade of the 19th century, the world of bug-a-boos, particularly with an imaginative painter of Faerie such as John Anster Fitzgerald take on a disturbing vitality. To a greater or lesser degree fellow contemporaries Noel Paton, Daniel Maclise and Robert Huskisson wove their sensual images around this genre, though often tempered by somewhat insipid heroes and heroines.

The superior literary works, however, still had the ability to bear fruit: Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream inspired Mendelssohn (1809 - 1847) to write a matchless overture and incidental music (1826 & 1843) to this greatest of all Faerie plays. Also Ariel in John Everett Millais's Ferdinand Lured By Ariel taken from The Tempest (1849) proved a fine a graphic example. Delamotte Forque's Undine inspired Gustave Albert Lortzing to compose (1845) one of the most delightful spoken/ music 'magic operas' of the 19th century. Incidentally it is also worth noting that Wagner's first opera, both written and composed, was Die Feen (1833). In America Washington Irving wrote two of the masterpieces of 19th century fantasy The Ledgend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. Incredibly it is still possible to hear Joseph Jefferson's recorded excerpts from 'Rip' which he made in old age in 1896 and 1903.

With the publishing of Hans Christian Anderson's Fairy Tales in English in c1847 and the gathering evolution of a far more fanciful, less didactic view of literature for children, (culminating in the publication of the masterpiece in the genre, Lewis Carroll's Alice s Adventures In Wonderland 1865) there is both a broadening and concentration within the depiction of Faerie. Broadening in the sense of the diffusion of wonder which is very apparent in the later chromo-lithographic artists and their matching insipid texts: concentration in the works of such an artist as EVB (Eleanor Vere Boyle The Story Without An End 1874) who on occasions reaches an authentic visionary status despite her technical limitations. Two of the greatest illustrators of children's Faerie literature are Richard Doyle (1824 - 1883) and Arthur Hughes (1830 - 1915). Doyle, who with William Allingham and Edmund Evans the engraver created the masterpiece of Victorian fantasy Fairyland (1870) which contains not only the vibrant and gently sensual imagery of fairy folk but an equally pleasing and masterful production. Each page of this book is a joy. Hughes's association with both Christina Rossetti (Speaking Likenesses 1874) and George McDonald are equally fruitful. In fact the Hughes/ McDonald partnership should be recognised as holding an equal status of importance as that of Carroll and Tenniel. Some of the cuts for At the Back of the North Wind(1871) are amongst the finest visionary graphics drawn since Runge's The Times of Day and Blake's Songs of Innocence. In old age Hughes went on to forge a partnership with George McDonald's son Greville.

Through the evolving change of graphic styles, from the close engraved tonality of Burne Jones's title page and frontis for The Fairy Family (1857) to the Arts and Crafts obsession in creating a more linear image of the universe: Laurence Housman's illustrations and cover to Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market (1893) is a jewel of an example. Then onwards to the flowering of the Edwardian masterpieces of theatre and book illustration. Pan may never grow old in word, nor will his graphic contemporaries, Rackham, The Robinson Brothers, Dulac, Nielson and Caley Robinson lose their youthful freshness of design and decorative delight. Also one musician just prior to the Great War composed what decidedly is England's greatest fairy opera. The Immortal Hour 1914 by Rutland Boughton (1878-1960) proved an enormous success and led to a succession of operas first created and performed at Glastonbury (1914-1927) often dealing with the Arthurian legend, of which he created a cycle of five complete operas.

The First World War curbed much of the freedoms and genuine innocence of the Edwardian era, with the culture of Germany and her allies looked upon as the work of barbarians. The fairy clothed in light was now burdened with a sable cloth more befitting of Poe's Mask of the Red Death than the radiance of Shakespeare's Titania. There was however one great work that came into existence in 1915/16 through the collaboration of Edward Elgar and that fine writer of ghosts and Pan, Algernon Blackwood. The Starlight Express based on Blackwood's tale A Prisoner In Fairyland contains incidental music of the very first order composed by Elgar and as with Tchaikowsky's ballet The Nutcracker (1892) and Humperdinck's opera Hansel and Gretel (1890-93) we possess a trinity of excellence which transcends the vulgarity of fashion. Like Faerie they are immortal.

One particular phenomenon that occurred towards the end of that futile carnage of war was the appearance of 'authentic' photographic images of fairies. With hindsight we see the graphic nature of these Cottingley creations, the fairy figures are as ingrained in the late teens stylistically as any book production of the period. Yes, a rather wonderful spoof on the part of two young girls, which a war weary nation found solace in, took to their hearts and many believed, even great minds such as Arthur Conan Doyle. Like Elgar and Blackwood's 'wombled' adults depicted in The Starlight Express, whose children of grace and their fairy allies would make whole again, Cottingley showed a possible path back to sanity and innocence: the re-attainment of the Garden of Eden was not entirely beyond hope. A poet and novelist such as Walter de la Mare, whose marvellous art bridges the period of hostility, entering into one of fruitfulness, none the less is often melancholic, loss is never far from the edge of experience. We see after the cessation of hostilities in 1918 a desire not only in writers such as de la Mare but in children's literature and illustration in general, a need to recreate the eternal golden afternoon of the Edwardians. The percussive nature of modernism might well become the darling of the official concert halls, the Roger Frys of the visual arts promote a sterile graphic mediocrity in which light, the symbol of our spirituality, has no place but then children see beyond the horizon and are far wiser in the matter of grace than we adults. Faerie thus re-enters, but now with greater whimsy and less passion. Even so the Edwardian lark still ascends and children (as they always will) find wondrous dwellings in the realms of the sky. Also there was the expansion of graphically drawn moving film culminating in the premier of Disney's Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs in December 1937 with numerous landscape backdrops designed by the 'Edwardian' illustrator Kay Nielson; Hayao Miyazaki's two consumate fairy stories in cartoon format Spirited Away (2001) and Howl's Moving Castle (2004) do more than justice to the memory of Disney's great creation. Equally the recording industry and the growing importance of radio broadcasting, all added to the vocabulary of Faerie.