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  • Dealing with Victorian Fairies
  • Jan Susina (bio)
Victorian Fairy Painting, ed. Jane Martineau. London: Merrell Holberton, 1997.
Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness, by Carol G. Silver. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

These two volumes explore the fascination and multiple meanings that fairies had for the Victorians. Although Rose Fyleman's 1917 poem "Fairies" begins with the line "There are fairies at the bottom of our garden!" (1), during the Victorian period, it seems, fairies could be found everywhere. One might say that the Victorians were obsessed with fairies. They frequently appear in art, music, and literature—for children and adults—as well as in the decorative arts. Charlotte Gere reports that when Queen Victoria visited the Great Exhibition of 1851, she suggested that the Crystal Palace had "quite the effect of fairyland" (64). Benjamin Disraeli privately referred to Queen Victoria as "the Faery," an ironic allusion to Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene. More publicly, Gilbert and Sullivan's 1885 operetta Iolanthe, which was advertised as a "New and Original Fairy Opera," featured Iolanthe the Fairy Queen, who was widely assumed by the public to be a portrait of Queen Victoria.

Victorian Fairy Painting is focused on the visual interpretation of fairies—artwork, book illustration, and theatrical representation. It is the exhibition catalogue for the impressive "Victorian Fairy Painting," organized by Pamela White Tripe of the University of Iowa's Museum of Art in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Consequently, its primary strength lies in its beautiful full-color reproduction of seventy-six images by thirty-five artists. Victorian Fairy Painting stands on its own, however, as an extremely helpful visual companion to Carol Silver's Strange and Secret Peoples, which is a broader study of fairies emphasizing the use of folklore in Victorian culture. Victorian Fairy Painting is a valuable reference work since much of the artwork is in such fragile condition that it was only included in the London [End Page 230] exhibition. Thus, the catalogue is more comprehensive than the impressive but select show that toured the United States and Canada. In addition to the stunning illustrations, Victorian Fairy Painting contains seven short critical essays. The most significant are "Victorian Fairy Painting" by Jeremy Maas, the art historian most responsible for promoting and elevating the status of Victorian art, and "Fairies on the Stage" by Lionel Lambourne, who notes that although literature provided the inspiration for fairy paintings, much of the visualization of fairies was drawn from the theater, opera, and ballet, and especially from pantomime produced for children.

Maas suggests that the Golden Age of fairy painting extended from 1840 to 1870, three decades that correspond with the Golden Age of children's literature. Although fairies have been a part of English and Irish folklore since the fourteenth century, most fairy pictures are based on literary sources. The most common literary references are to William Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night's Dream, The Tempest, and the "Queen Mab" speech from Romeo and Juliet. Fairy tales became appropriate reading for children in England due to the success of Edgar Taylor's English translations of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's German Popular Stories (1823 and 1826). The Grimms' collection of traditional folktales was part of the Romantic movement in Germany, which helped establish fairy tales and fairy painting as a significant part of mid-Victorian culture. But it was also Wilhelm von Schlegel and Christoph Martin Wieland's translations of Shakespeare into German that helped initiate the Romantic movement in Germany. It is significant that the first English editions of German Popular Stories were illustrated by George Cruikshank, whose comic drawings helped make the tales accessible to children. Critics such as William Makepeace Thackeray and John Ruskin widely praised Cruikshank's imaginative book illustrations. Cruikshank would later illustrate his own Fairy Library , begun in 1853; his former friend and collaborator, Charles Dickens, doomed the series with his scathing attack "Frauds on the Fairies" in Household Words (1859), in which he took Cruikshank to task for rewriting traditional fairy tales.

Fairy paintings provided an alternative to the popular genre painting of scenes of ordinary life produced by artists such as William Frith...


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