“come away, o human child!” my victorian fairy painting investigation

fairy paintings (3 of 10)fairy paintings (2 of 10)

If you’d told my child-aged self that one day I would embark on an academically sponsored research trip to Scotland to investigate fairies [and their representation in three paintings by a particular Scottish artist], she…probably would have shrugged and said “well, it’s not as good as finding a portal to a fay kingdom, but it will do.

As someone who grew up fascinated by fairy lore, I find Victorian fairy painting such a compelling and strange epoch of modern artistic production. For one relatively brief nineteenth-century moment, winged creatures of fantasy held centerstage in the world of fine art – occupying monumental canvases typically reserved for history painting. I won’t reveal too much about my particular research angle yet, but through a number of museum and library visits in Edinburgh and Glasgow, I’ve discovered some truly fantastic archival material to help me on my journey.

The experience of seeing these three J. N. Paton paintings in person after studying them for so long, of course, may be as close to real magic as I’ll ever get.

fairy paintings (1 of 10)fairy paintings (4 of 10)

The two pendant paintings depicting moments from A Midsummer Night’s Dream catalyzed my initial research paper about this particular artist, and as soon as I stepped off the plane in Edinburgh I headed straight to the gallery that has held them since the nineteenth century. In my jetlagged, sleep-deprived state, I nevertheless enjoyed tracing the countless whimsical (and sinister) anecdotal scenes that occupy the first painting’s canvas.

To my horror, the second painting – the one for which I had traveled so far! – did not appear next to its twin in the main gallery. I soon discovered, fortunately, that it had been moved to a modern art gallery instead, as a contemporary artist recently reinterpreted the painting as part of a series responding to “old masters.” I’m sure the other tourists in both galleries watched in strange fascination as I stared in rapt wonder at both paintings, giggling with an almost hysterical delight as I examined their paint textures and minute details!

fairy paintings (8 of 10)

After a few hours of indecision thanks to the questionable weather, I undertook another journey to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow, where the last major fairy painting on my list has taken up residence. I’d never visited this particular museum before, and the architecture astounded me – as did the sheer number of visitors crowding each gallery!

fairy paintings (7 of 10)fairy paintings (6 of 10)

Paton also painted more “traditional” romantic (and Romantic) scenes in a Pre-Raphaelite-adjacent style: this one reminded me of Keats. “Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night…”

fairy paintings (9 of 10)

Finding my last fairy painting proved most challenging in this magnificent temple to knowledge and culture – of course it happened to be in the final gallery I entered, tucked away on the furthest visible wall.

Paton’s ability to create lush, lifelike greenery only improved as he aged! I also appreciated the vaguely Art Nouveau stylings of the custom frame surrounded by gold “twigs.”

fairy paintings (10 of 10)

I often say that I started studying art history by accident – I went to college intending to major in theater and creative writing, and only started taking art historical classes when I fell in love with working in museum education as a seventeen-year-old student docent. The endless wonder and enchantment that propelled me through this research trip renewed my commitment to this course of study and decision to attend graduate school. I babbled in incomprehensible excitement after each of my archives visits, utterly amazed that I’d been able to handle nineteenth-century letters and examine hundreds of the artist’s early sketches!

One unpublished note by a scholar that I discovered during my research described the artist as a man who truly believed in fairies – or wanted to – and surrounded himself with beautiful historical treasures to cultivate a life of wonder. Over a century later, I enjoy feeling as though I’ve found a kindred spirit.

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