Fairies who inspired artists; The Victorians desperately wanted to believe in fairies, on stage and off Sophie Anderson was a supreme female painter of the Victorian fairy world.
In spite of Hazlitt's warning a century ago that 'the boards of the theatre and the regions of fancy are not the same thing', Christopher Wood, in this very beautiful book, which is joyful in both its remarkable contents and its illustrations, can point out that throughout the Victorian period, and in spite of Hazlitt, there was certainly no lack of productions of Shakespeare's fairy plays.
A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest inspired a multitude of productions in the theatre and pictures in the art galleries, many of them painted with a soft-porn element which indicates that it was perfectly OK to the strait-laced Victorian, for a woman to dance around half naked in a picture or to be led off into the bushes by an equally scantily clad male elf, just so long as she was a fairy because they lived somewhere else.
The Victorians desperately wanted to believe in fairies, on stage and off. Christopher Wood attributes this escape into a fantasy world as one way of detaching society from the crass materialism and social injustices which belonged to the scientific age of early Victorianism.
But there was more to it. Obviously, they sent children down the mines and encouraged the development of working class ghettos in most British cities, but they did give us Pre-Raphaelitism (with the best collection in the world at Birmingham Art Gallery) and they gave us with that concept the greatest and most long-lasting romantic art movement in British art history.
It seems logical that the postulation of an imaginary fairy realm went some way to soothing the need in many a Victorian breast, to assert the fanciful at a time when materialism and bourgeois vulgarity and spending power shaped a conflicting period of spiritual duress.
Appropriately, it was a Celtic artist, Joseph Noel Paton, who is remembered today as a Scottish Pre-Raphaelite, but who set Victorian imaginations on fire with his epic scenes taken from A Midsummer Night's Dream thus underlining an artistic maxim: if in doubt take a Shakespeare play, it sets you beyond criticism.
Paton's The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania , which was painted in 1847, anticipates the minutely jewel-like style with its thousands of details which was used later so marvellously by the Pre-Raphaelites. In a Paton painting everything that can move does so, or swims or puts out buds at a great rate. In fact, his reconciliation painting seems to us today to be a riot of colour, and Christopher Wood notes that there would appear to be 'a fairy bordello going on for good measure'.
In Paton's wonderland a bubble could turn into a fairy shell boat or a spider become a monster. And flies - well, we have to turn to Hollywood and the movies for that particular development which takes us into horror and that is something Victorian fairy painters did not seem to care for very much.
But who can seriously doubt the influence of a canvas such as this and others like it on Victorian thinkers and those who set out to make a philosophy. Some were seriously mad, such as Richard Dadd, a famous psychotic and artist, who painted a remarkable canvas with astonishing detail called The Fairy Fella's Master-Stroke - a picture as rare and as psychologically disturbing as anything you are likely to see.
Dadd languished in Bethlehem hospital, an insane asylum where he was incarcerated after murdering his father.
The picture took Dadd nine years to complete and is a vision of the fairy world on Ecstasy. And that is not quite so far fetched as you may think if you consider for a moment that Dadd's doctors may have given him opium for sedation.
The idea of little people taking over one's mind - something which apparently happened to Dadd - occurred later to a certain Daniel Schreber who was the chief judge to the Dresden Court of Appeal. In 1893, Schreber suffered hallucinatory delusions and during a stay in a German clinic, spoke of 'little men' who stood around his head interfering with his person and subjecting him to thought compulsions.
But the Victorian fairy world as seen in the popular Victorian pantomimes and ballets also became the inspiration for Christina Rossetti's poem Goblin Market, where the tiny Trolls sexually awaken (metaphorically, of course) one of the two sisters who venture among them in order to taste their forbidden fruit, thus initiating a very fruity Troll orgy.
And, of course, Goblin Market lent itself perfectly to the book illustrators and fairy painters notably Laurence Housman and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (who did a beautiful illustration for the book) but he was, of course, Christina's brother.
The illustrators reaped the benefits which came with the golden age of the fairy book and so their illustrations appeared by the late 1890s in vellum bindings with silk ties generally limited to around 500 copies and signed by the artist.
Notable amongst the latter was Arthur Rackham, whose illustrations for Peter Pan had brought him fame and fortune around 1904. A wonderful draughtsman, Rackham had a taste for the grotesque influenced by Aubrey Beardsley and Charles Ricketts, and his drawings clearly anticipate Walt Disney in their sense of threat and nightmare where anthropomorphic trunks have faces which twist menacingly into hideous smiles.
Some people say that Rackham is enough to give any sensitive child a permanent nightmare, yet his work today is unsurpassed possibly because it is non sugary and at its best epitomises the Edwardian fairy world, a world that is much closer to us as W B Yeats noticed in his encounters with the fairy folk than the muscle bound warriors and oversexed heroines of the sci-fi books.