All Things Art, January’s Picture Of The Month
Richard Dadd (1817-1886)
The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke
London, 1855-64. Oil on canvas ‘If I were giving [this] a title, I would call it the beautiful unknown because it mirrors the painting accurately with all of its weird and wonderful creatures. The peculiar interruption of scale and lack of perspective amplify the extravagance of the painting. It is almost as if the viewer, who is watching from a distance, is peeping from a bush watching all of these little creatures and absorbing in all of its awe that this painting projects’.
The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke evidenced the extraordinary imagination of Richard Dadd. The precise details depicted in this painting are amazingly accurate for an artist who had been confined in an asylum for a substantial period of time after he turned insane for murdering his father. Dadd payed microscopic attention to detail when painting this and used a layering technique to produce 3D-like results. He used fairly thick paint and applied it in tiny blobs that give the cobbled 3D-like effect to the painting. The most extraordinary fact of all, is that the painting was done from memory.
In this painting, Dadd paints traditional proportionate fairy figures with unsightly creatures, some of whom have aged faces and disproportionate bodies. It is evident in the visual description, these little creatures are the little goblin men (dwarfs and pygmies) or known as ‘The little people’ or ‘changelings’, creatures in Western folklore and religion and were typically described as the offspring of a fairy or dwarf secretly left in place of a human child. Throughout the Victorian period, dwarfs natural and supernatural were associated with malice and evil. They were depicted as a new type of monster and were perceived as ‘freaks’ or ‘others’.
It is perhaps a hallucinatory and colourful vision of creatures and all the creatures seem to be watching the wood man (or ‘Feller’) aiming his axe at a chestnut which appears to be the main focus of the painting and will be used to construct Queen Mabs’ new fairy carriage. With the exception of Shakespeare’s Oberon and Titania, who appear in the top half of the picture, the figures are drawn entirely from the artist’s imagination. In the centre of the painting, man with the white beard raises his right hand, commanding the woodsman or ‘Feller’ not to strike a blow until the signal is given. In the meantime, the rest of the fairies in the picture look on in apprehension as to whether or not the ‘Feller’ will accomplish the task of splitting the chestnut with one stroke.
The painting is ambiguous, however, the content of the picture can be made more intelligible by a poem Dadd wrote: ‘Elimination of a picture and its subject-called The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke’. After this painting, Dadd was viewed as the greatest Victorian Fairy Painter. This painting is recognised as one of Dadd’s masterpiece fairy painting.