June 6, 2009

The Fairy Art of John Anster Fitzgerald by Guest Writer Arlene deWinter

The Fairy Art of John Anster Fitzgerald
by Arlene deWinter

John Anster Fitzgerald was born into an artistic family in Ireland around 1819. In the 1850's and 1860's, he made a great splash in the Victorian art scene in London with beautiful paintings of fairies.
The quintessential Victorian eccentric, he was fondly recalled by Harry Furniss in My Bohemian Days: "He was a picturesque old chap, embued... He was known as 'Fairy Fitzgerald' from the fact that his work, both colour and black-and-white, was devoted to fairy scenes; in fact his whole life was one long Midsummer Night's Dream."
Over the course of fifty years John Anster Fitzgerald exhibited at the Royal Academy, the British Institution, and the Royal Society of British Artists.

The Artist as Faery Seer

Many of Fitzgerald's fairy paintings are very dark, showing the savage side of nature along with its beauty. It is as if he wanted to undercut the prettiness of his Fairy creations with something disturbing, real, even sinister. This could have been a mere formal concern, for, with the exception of Richard Dadd's work, Victorian fairy art is almost sugary in its prettiness. But if you know anything about Irish Faery Tradition, you know that fairies are somewhat to be feared. They make the milk curdle, steal children, and lead unwary traveler astray...

Therefore it is: "Oh, the Good People, the Gentry, the Fair Folk.." Leaving them offerings of milk and cakes on the threshold at night. All of this was done placate them, for insulting the fairies could make one a target of their mischief. One could be driven mad by the fairies, thus in Ireland they describe a mad person as being "away with the Fairies."

The painting below may be an early work of John Anster Fitzgerald. It has all the marks of psychic perception of the kind that may have led Fitzgerald into Faery. A sensitivity to ghosts, who are far closer to the living, can often be a sign, of developing Faery Seership.

This painting is crude enough to be beginning work, or a sketch. It looks as if Fitzgerald could see the activity around this house, and quickly recorded it to make it real for himself. As a Faery Seer, I see stuff like this all the time. The painting is accurate, as to the insect-like shapes, of those beings who come out of the trees and grasses. In Irish tradition, Banshees, or White Ladies, shriek to announce a death; the ghosts of the former inhabitants of this ruined house appear on the roof under the rays of the moon. The association of Faery and the Country of the Dead is an intimate one.

Visions Induced by Drugs
In the Victorian era, some very scary, highly narcotic drugs were proscribed for pain relief and to calm the nerves. One of the most common was laudanum, a derivative of opium, and chloral a kind of mixture of brandy and opium. Opium addiction was a problem, and many artists, whose imaginations were fired by the hallucinatory effects of these drugs were easily addicted to them.

Were Fitzgerald's lovely, ethereal visions indeed pipe dreams? Some art historians make a strong case for this.

A series of paintings called "The Stuff That Dreams Are Made On" (the title of course from Shakespeare's Midsummer Nights Dream) could be said to show the deterioration of an opium addict's imaginings from Faery Glamor, to Romance, to violence.

The Nightmare looks almost Vampiric. The use of such a theme in Fitzgerald's day would not have to be the result of drugs, for Bram Stoker's Dracula, and before that, John Polidori's The Vampyre, were highly popular. Vampire dramas thronged the stages of London and Paris during the Victorian years.

Influence of Theater and Heironymous Bosch

Copied straight out of the Garden of Earthly Delights by Heironymous Bosch, this detail proves that Fitzgerald not only knew his art history, that he used much sophistication and humor in his imagery. It is a credit to his originality as a painter that he can borrow from such an illustrious source and get away with it.

Many Victorian paintings are of theater scenes. Shakespeare was immensely popular at the time, and scenes from Shakespeare's plays are used in the art of the Pre-Raphaelites, and the fairy artists as well.

For a painter of Fitzgerald's interests, scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream would be a given. But he also painted Ariel coming out of the tree from The Tempest, illustrations for the folk song Who Killed Cock Robin? (fairies of course), and Faery gatherings that looks like they sprang from Yeats's early poetry.

The Faery Hoard

I first learned about the art of Fitzgerald in London, 2005, at a talk given by a known expert in all things Faery. She had slides of many beautiful works of art, well known ones such as the Cottingly Fairies, and the strange world of Richard Dadd. Suddenly this glorious, ethereal, imaginative image was thrown up on the screen. The expert said, "This is the work of a little known artist, John Anster Fitzgerald."

She went on to say that, until recently, his entire collection of fairy paintings had been in the hands of a wealthy old woman in the countryside in England. People were allowed to view these paintings by special invitation. This expert was one of the few to have seen Fitzgerald's art in its entirety before the owner's death, which must have been close to 2005.

Despite appearances online, Fitzgerald's work has been available only recently. Many works hang in the Frick Collection in New York.

I can't resist showing these two mysterious images. One shows that dream life of the fairies, and the other that Fitzgerald believed that, as part of the natural world he so accurately and lovingly depicts, the fairies are mortal after all.

Visit Arlene deWinter’s site http://www.winterspells.com/


Lady Euphoria Deathwatch said...

Hi Dorlana,

Thank you yet again for your offerings here.

You have such a nice way of showing the dark side of fairy tales and the art of them.

Such balance, much like life itself.

Thank you.

Hugs, Euphoria

Dorlana said...

Hi Euphoria,
Thanks and you're welcome :) I think that is why so many people are interested in fairy tales - because there are so many different levels. I really appreciate all the degrees of fairy tales, and Arlene deWinter’s article certainly explores the darker side. (You should check out her blog.) Readers should also check out your site – great dark tales!

Heidi Rosenau, The Frick Collection said...

Thanks for the reference to The Frick Collection in New York. In fact, none of the works hang here or reside in our collection, but we were the fortunate venue for a travelling exhibition on this topic about 11 years ago. The paintings came from collections all over the world, private and public, and there was an excellent catalogue (we've sold out our copies of the book long ago).

Arlene deWinter said...

How cool to hear from Heidi at the Frick Collection! News travels fast, It also shows how much information can be skewed -- as in the lady in London saying the paintings were hidden in an old mansion in the English countryside until recently, when the owner died.
But something about such art brings out the romanticizing tendencies in us all.
Thanks for the heads up, Heidi, and Dorlana,and I will check out Euphoria's site as well.