Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Fantastic in the Fine Arts: The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke

I discovered Richard Dadd quite by accident on a trip to London in 2009.  My wife took me to the Tate Gallery, and I’m so grateful that she did.  I came across The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.  I just stood there and studied it, losing all track of time.  I imagined what the master stroke could be and how all the fairies and gnomes fit into the story.  After declaring it the best fantasy painting in my life experience, I then read that Dadd had been deemed insane for killing his father, committed to a mental hospital, and then as therapy painted The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke over a period of  nine years, 1855-64.  My fascination grew ever more.

The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke, Richard Dadd, 1855-64

Dadd explained the painting with his poem "Elimination of a Picture & its subject - called The Feller's Master Stroke."  I found Dadd’s poetry nonsensical and utterly inaccessible.  One line that stands out is “Her chariot is an empty hazelnut.”  The Feller, “fay woodman holds aloft the axe,” is about to split a nut to build a chariot.  The description at the Tate states, “The main focus of the painting is the Fairy Feller himself, who raises his axe in readiness to split a large chestnut which will be used to construct Queen Mabs' new fairy carriage.”  Yet the only reference I can find in the poem is, “She is the faires’ midwife, and she comes.”  Shakespeare’s descriptions of fairies inspired Dadd, and in turn Dadd inspired the front man for Queen, Freddie Mercury, who wrote and produced a song about the Fairy Feller.  Here are the lyrics which I find to be much more accessible description of the painting:  

He's a fairy feller
Ah ah the fairy folk have gathered
Round the new moon's shine
To see the feller crack a nut
At night's noon time
To swing his axe he swears
As he climbs he dares
To deliver the master stroke

Ploughman, "wagoner will" and types
Politician with senatorial pipe
He's a dilly dally oh
Pedagogue squinting wears a frown
And a satyr peers under lady's gown
He's a dirty fellow
What a dirty laddie-oh

Tatterdemalion and the junketer
There's a thief and a dragonfly trumpeter
He's my hero ah
Fairy dandy tickling the fancy
Of his lady friend
The nymph in yellow (can we see the master stroke)
What a quaere fellow

Ah ah ah ah ah ah
Ah ah ah ah ah ah
Soldier sailor tinker tailor ploughboy
Waiting to hear the sound
And the arch magician presides
He is the leader

Oberon and Titania watched by a harridan
Mab is the queen and there's a good apothecary man
Come to say hello
Fairy dandy tickling the fancy
Of his lady friend
The nymph in yellow
What a quaere fellow
The ostler stares with hands on his knees
Come on mister feller
Crack it open if you please

My favorite commentary on this painting can be found here with its speculation that “Perhaps the picture can also be seen as a re-enactment of that momentous split second before which Dadd acted on his impulse to attack his father, an event which tragically sealed the fate of both father and son.”