Victorian Fairy Painting by Jeremy Maas, Pamela White Trimpe, and Charlotte Gere, and: Strange and Secret Peoples. Fairies and Victorian Consciousness by Carole G. Silver (review)
- Victorian Review
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 25, Number 2, Winter 2000
- pp. 115-117
- View Citation
- Additional Information
reviews Jeremy Maas, PamelaWhiteTrimpe, Charlotte Gere. Victorian Fairy Painting. London: RoyalAcademy ofArts, 1997. Carole G. Silver. Strange and SecretPeoples. Fairies and Victorian Consciousness . New York: Oxford UP, 1999. "Museums everywhere now show bad art," claimed TheNew York TimesMagazinelastJanuary, citing the exhibition on Victorian fairy painting as an example, alongwith the recent interest in artists long-banned from the modernist canon (such as William Adolphe Bougereau, N.C. Wyeth, and Norman Rockwell). The paintings in theVictorian faiiypainting exhibition were described as "recently elevated from the purgatory ofkitsch," but then, almost all ofVictorian painting, with its emphasis on subject matter, on the literary and sentimental, would fall under that heading. I'm not so sure though, that the rather complex and often puzzling paintings from this exhibition can be compared with the supremely accessible and seductively realistic art ofRockwell, Wyeth and Bourgereau. Take, for example, JohnAster Fitzgerald's cluttered paintingThe Fairy's Barque (1860) which depicts a group oftiny fairies in bizarre dresses and hats. Two embracing fairy queens are being served beverages on a floating lily pad whose oarsman is a grotesque and hairy bird-like creature with a devilish grin. This painting and many others lead us to ask: what were those Victorians thinking? The likely place to turn for answers to this question is the exhibition catalogue. Unfortunately, the catalogue provides little in the way of insights. This is surprising since the table ofcontents promises so much. There are essays on "Victorian Fairy Painting" (by Jeremy Maas), on "Fairy Writing and Writers" (by Stella Beddoe), on "Fairy Music" (by John Warrack), on "Shakespeare's Fairies in Victorian Criticism and Performance (by Russell Jackson), on "Fairies and the Stage" (by Lionel Lambourne), on "Victorian Fairy Book Illustration" (by Pamela White Trimpe), and a last essay entitled, "In Fairyland" (by Charlotte Gere). Although the catalogue contains well-researched chapters on nearlyeveiy manifestation of the Victorian interest in fairies, the individual essays read more like lists than analyses and, as a result, one comes away more 115 volume 2 5/1 umber 2 confused than illuminated. After all, it is simply notvery helpful to state the obvious (even if it is partially true) - that the interest in fairies has something to do with a desire to escape from the growingindustrialization and materialism ofVictorian life. JeremyMaas suggests this in his essay, and so does Charlotte Gere, who writes, "as modern industrial progress engulfed the English countryside, the Victorians embraced belief in fairies as a reaction to the disenchantment of the world" (63). Unfortunately, that is about as close as this catalogue comes to grappling with some ofthe more complex issues surrounding the Victorian interest in fairies. As a resource for reproductions and bibliographic information , however, the catalogue is worth the money. Carole G. Silverdoes much toremedy the dearth ofhistorical analysis in this rich field, focusing not on the paintings and illustrations, but on fairystories and folklore collections. She discusses at length the "increasinglyscientifically orientedstudy offolklore" (32), not working at odds with a Darwinian view ofevolution, but in concert with it. The new sciences of anthropology, ethnology and archaeology, which collected and investigated what was seen as the last remnants offolk and non-western cultures, are critical to our understandingofVictorian fairy literature. What emerges is a sense that the obsession with fairies was a quintessentially modernist obsession, involving fear of, and longing for, that which lies outside western culture. Chapters on changelings, fairy brides, little goblin men, and miscellaneous evil female fairies are interpreted in light of these scientific developments, and from the related contexts ofcolonialism and the growth offeminism. It is surprising that Victorian faiiy paintings have not been a site ofinteresting scholarship until recently. The 1989 exhibition catalogue The LastRomantics: The Romantic Tradition in BritishArt, Burne-Jones to Stanley Spencer, for example , contained a small section called "In Fairyland," that (the author admitted) was more ofa catch-all for works that did not fit into other categories than a real attempt to understand the images. It is tempting to see a relationship between the renewed interest in fairypaintings and the currentvogue for different types of"outsider" art (afterall, Richard Dadd, the most interesting "fairypainter," was schizophrenic). Unfortunately, the organization ofSilver's book...