A trio of nineteenth-century paintings shows in England

The Tate Gallery proposes the origins in British art of Symbolism, the Royal Academy investigates fairies, while Manchester presents women Pre-Raphaelites



As the century ends and the bad computer fairy Carabosse begins to shake her magic wand, symbolism and magic are in the air, notably at the Tate Gallery which celebrates with a magnificent survey of the potent productions of British Symbolism.

While the origins of the Art Nouveau style have always been recognised as springing from British sources, the closely allied theme of Symbolism is generally thought of as Continental, with its roots in the exotic world of Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal.

The organiser Andrew Wilton and his team argue convincingly that Symbolism also had British roots in the work of Rossetti, Watts, Burne-Jones and their circle.

The amazingly evocative titles of the exhibits tell us what to expect. With dread we wait with “Souls on the banks of the river Styx” (Burne-Jones), or witness “Sleep and Death carrying the body of Sarpedon into Lycia” (William Blake Richmond). We are awed by “Love and Death” (G.F. Watts), and wonder at the mystery of “The Sphinx” by Charles Ricketts. Then we reach the penultimate room in the show, called “The climax” after a work by Aubrey Beardsley and celebrating the 1890s high point of the Symbolist movement with appropriate allegories by G. F. Watts of “Time, Death and Judgement”. But for many visitors the climax of the show occurs earlier with a series of Rossetti’s mystical and erotic women, notably “Beata Beatrix”, his great posthumous portrait of his wife, and the weird “Astarte Syriaca”, a painting which influenced the vampire-haunted females of Edvard Munch.

Such themes became the dominant subjects of many European artists, well represented by works by Odilon Redon, Gustav Klimt, the Belgian Fernand Khnopff, and the Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland, whose great marble phallus composed of writhing bodies is one of the attractions of a visit to Oslo, represented here by a “Horse of Hell.”

While Symbolism dominated the 1890s, sensationalism rules in the 1990s. The Royal Academy, having just “mounted” a sensational display of British taxidermy by Damien Hirst, the spiritual descendant of the great Victorian stuffer Rowland Ward, has found a theme just as controversial, artfully chosen from the opposite end of the “politically correct” spectrum entitled “Victorian fairy painting.”

Fairy painting virtually began with the Shakespeare Gallery venture of the imaginative print dealer Alderman Boydell in 1787. He commissioned leading artists to paint scenes taken from “England’s greatest national writer,” hoping to profit from the sale of reproductive prints.

During the reign of Queen Victoria, these Shakespearean scenes fused with the Romantic interest in folk stories, to provide artists with an escapist, alternative fantasy world. This was particularly useful if, like the great fairy painter Richard Dadd, you had murdered your father and become a life-long resident of Broadmoor where he created his two masterpieces “Contradiction Oberon and Titania” and “The fairy-feller’s master stroke”, both works teeming with tiny figures. Scale was all important to the fairy artist, for ever since Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech in “Romeo and Juliet”, minute stature has provided a passport to fairyland. John Anster Fitzgerald’s eerie fairy creatures painted with exquisite detail echo the disturbing fantasies of Breughel and Bosch. But no visual depictions of minute fairies can ever quite match those of Richard (Dickie) Doyle.

In his large watercolour “The fairy tree”, a boy gazes with wonder at nearly 200 fairies on the bare branches of a tree. On a central branch sits a Fairy King who is having his long moustaches combed by a number of female fairies.

Titania’s promise to Bottom: “I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee” inspired the Scot, Sir Noel Paton, to paint “The reconciliation” and “The quarrel” of Oberon and Titania, both on show. When the latter painting was first exhibited in 1850 Lewis Carroll excitedly counted 165 individual fairies!

The women of the Pre-Raphaelite circle experienced, both during their own lives and posthumously, disproportionate attention and neglect. Attention has been unduly centred upon their role as models, as in the case of Elizabeth Siddal who in life was the archetypical Pre-Raphaelite “stunner”, the model for both Millais and Rossetti’s finest works. In death, after her suicide and the exhumation of Rossetti’s poems from her coffin, she became one of the most potent of Victorian myths, of symbolic importance not only for England but all Europe. But with all the attention paid to her life, her own work has tended to be ignored. The haunting individuality of her watercolours makes them far more than the “Feminine likenesses of Rossetti” which was how they were dismissively described by the painter Arthur Hughes. From the works on show we long to know more of Siddal’s work in 1857 when she moved to Sheffield and enrolled in the ladies class at the art school.

The organisers, Dr Marsh and Dr Gerrish Nunn illuminate the work of Katherine and Lucy Madox Brown, Rebecca Solomon, Rosa Brett’s landscapes and the richly coloured watercolours of Marie Spartali Stillman and Maria Bambaco, members of the Anglo-Greek community which loomed so large in intellectual circles in late Victorian times. Famous for their beauty they posed for many artists, and the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. The exhibition concludes with the work of Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale. She practised Pre-Raphaelite methods of painting far into the twentieth century and also enjoyed fairy painting, running a series of exhibitions entitled “The stuff that dreams are made of” a title which well describes the works in all three current exhibitions.

o Further evidence that fairies are in the air are two films on this theme doing the rounds. “Photographing fairies”, starring Ben Kingsley is already in London cinemas. Its producer Michele Camarda is quoted as saying, “We are tapping into millennium fever, where people are seeking something they cannot find in contemporary religion.” Nearly ready is “Fairy tale: a true story” starring Peter O’Toole and Harvey Keitel. Both spring from the same episode in 1917 when photographs of a little girl surrounded by dancing fairies immediately split the psychical enthusiasts, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, into believers and nonbelievers. They were subsequently shown to be fakes. Sotheby’s London has also ably exploited the moment by their sale, “Realms of the mind: British fantasy art and illustration” on 30 October, with works by artists such as Richard Doyle, Beardsley and Arthur Rackham.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The stuff that dreams are made of'