The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke

Years ago I saw this remarkable painting as part of an extraordinary exhibit of Victorian fairy paintings. Here is the Tate’s (where it is on permanent display) description of it:

Richard Dadd painted this work in the Bethlem Hospital where he was sent after murdering his father and being declared insane. The scene was drawn from his imagination. It shows the ‘fairy-feller’ poised to split a large chestnut which will be used to construct Queen Mab’s new fairy carriage. The style, subject and shifting scale of the painting all contribute to a sense of the fantastic that fits the critic Herbert Read’s idea of an imaginative tradition running through to Surrealism in the early twentieth century.

Now Neil Gaiman has posted “Me and my Dadd and Mark Chadbourn,” an introduction to a work of fiction. Here’s how it begins:

Reason tells me that I would have first encountered the painting itself, the enigmatically titled Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, reproduced, pretty much full-sized, in the fold-out cover of a QUEEN album, at the age of fourteen or thereabouts, and it made no impression upon me at all. That’s one of the odd things about it. You have to see it in the flesh, paint on canvas, the real thing, which hangs, mostly, when it isn’t travelling, in the Pre-Raphaelite room of the Tate Gallery, out of place among the grand gold-framed Pre-Raphaelite beauties, all of them so much more huge and artful than the humble fairy court walking through the daisies, for it to become real.

If you ever get a chance to see the painting you will understand why it and its history are so beguiling.

3 Comments

Filed under fairy tales, Neil Gaiman

3 responses to “The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke

  1. This painting was at the Frick in NYC a few years ago, and one can gaze upon it for a very long time.
    I had a double major in English and Art History in college (decades ago now) and somehow had missed Dadd. I cannot say I love this painting, but it captured me. The reality of Faerie as a realm (of the imagination if nowhere else) is so limpidly clear.

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  2. More than a few. I saw it there too as part of the Victorian Fairy Painting exhibit 1998-99. (I have the catalog which is gorgeous.) I remember reading about the exhibit when it was up in London and was thrilled when it came here. Oh, those Victorians!

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  3. Oh that’s great. I’d read about Dadd ages ago – fascinating story – but don’t remember ever seeing that image before. Must put seeing it at the Tate on the to do list.

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