The work of 'Fairy Fitzgerald' epitomises the Victorian fascination with magical subjects of the elfin-folk of literature, folklore and imagination. As Jeremy and Rupert Maas have explained; 'Fitzgerald's creations are pure magic. His fairy paintings, at their best, present us with a world of vivid yet harmonious colours. They are inhabited by beautiful fairies with translucent wings and diaphanous garments, wood sprites with glittering hair, goblins with fantastic heads, sleeping, walking, dreaming, or tormenting mice or birds. Deep in sunless forest glades or bathed in moonlight, they are framed by honeysuckle, cowslips and Morning Glory, 'nodding violets', 'sweet musk-roses' and 'wild thyme', entwined with writing branches.' (Jeremy and Rupert Maas, introduction to Fairy Painting, exhibition catalogue for a Japanese touring exhibition, 2003- 2004, p. 10)
John Anster Fitzgerald was the son of the derided Irish poet William Thomas Fitzgerald. Details of Fitzgerald's training as a painter are not known and it is likely that he was self-taught. However, by the 1840s he was exhibiting at the British Institution, the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of Artists. His oeuvre was not limited to fairy paintings and among the exhibits he showed over his fifty-year career, were landscapes, historical scenes and portraits. However his best-known and most successful work by far, are the series of fairy pictures produced during the 1850s and 1860s. Unlike the other, more conventional subject pictures, his fairy works were highly imaginative, glorious in colour and shimmering with magical poetry. It is these qualities which have made Fitzgerald the most celebrated of all the Victorian fairy painters, more so now than ever before. After his death in 1906, Aaron Wilson of The Savage Club wrote of Fitzgerald, as 'an artist who will probably be more appreciated in time to come than he was in his own lifetime' (Christopher Wood, Fairies in Victorian Art, 2000, p. 98).
Fitzgerald did not limit himself to painting subjects suggested by literature and unlike other artists his subjects were not drawn purely from A Midsummer Nights Dream or The Tempest. For Fitzgerald these sources were suggestive of subjects but it was within his own imagination that he found his own fairy world. Thus the present picture does not seem to be based upon any literary precedent although it depicts a theme that fascinated Fitzgerald, the interaction of mortals and fairies. The picture depicts a child dressed in picturesque fancy-dress, who has become lost in the forest and found by the fairy-folk who are gathered around him. It is difficult to be sure whether the fairies' intentions are beneficent or not. On the right side of the composition a court of beautiful female wood-sprites approach the child with gifts of blackberries and a cobweb net held aloft by a pair of yellow butterflies. Smaller goblins and elves bow before him and ghostly pale birds of the forest flutter in the shadows. These fairies appear to be in awe of the boy and there is no suggestion that he may come to harm. However the intentions of the fairies to his left (believed in folk-lore to be the sinister side) are perhaps more menacing. One of the sprites, whose hair is surrounded by shimmering dew-drops, is clipping a lock of hair from the child's head, perhaps to use as an enchantment against him whilst another is looping daisy-chains around the child's feet. A similar subject depicting Titania and the Changeling Child, A Midsummer Nights Dream was sold in these rooms (13 December 2005, lot 12) the subject being the cause of the quarrel between Oberon and Titania, a lost Indian child found by the fairies in the woods. The theme of the abduction of mortals was a favourite for Fitzgerald, examples including The Slave of 1865, The Prisoner of War of 1866 and The Abduction of 1868. The strange fairy folk were inspired by the work of Hieronymous Bosch, particularly the long-legged creatures in the foreground. Prints by Bosch were widely available in the mid nineteenth century and collected by artists.
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