John Anster Fitzgerald (1823-1906)
The Fairies' Favourite
Watercolour and body colour heightened with white; signed.
Most of the older fairy painters, whether pioneers like Reynolds, Fuseli and Blake or more senior Victorians such as Landseer, Dadd, David Scott and Noel Paton, derived their subjects from literary sources, notably Shakespeare’s two plays with supernatural themes, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. ‘Fairy’ Fitzgerald occasionally did likewise, but his most characteristic works represent a significant break with this tradition, showing fairy subjects that seem to be essentially his own invention. Often featuring birds and small animals, as well as fantastically attired denizens of the fairy kingdom, they have a hallucinatory quality, as if they were the products of drug-induced dreams. The mood is often sinister or threatening, and it is hard to believe that Fitzgerald was not familiar the work of Hieronymus Bosch. It is also conceivable that he experimented with opium, a hypothesis that would help to account not only for his troubled imagery but the unnatural vibrancy of his colours. Equally, this betrays the influence of the stage, of which he was clearly a devotee; at the Savage Club, where he was a member, he was known for his impersonations of long-dead actors such as Kemble, Kean and Macready, uttered in a rich Irish brogue. Harry Furniss remembered him with affection in his reminiscences, My Bohemian Days (1919): ‘He was a picturesque old chap, imbued with the traditions of the transpontine drama [i.e. the Old Vic] ... He had a mobile face, a twinkling eye, and his hair was long, thick and thrown back from his face ... He was known as “Fairy Fitzgerald” from the fact that his work, both in colour and black and white, was devoted to fairy scenes; in fact his life was one long Midsummer Night’s Dream’.
The subject of this watercolour, and others of Fitzgerald’s involving birds, derive from the ancient English nursery rhyme Who Killed Cock Robin?, but the picture may have been lent form and colour by Fitzgerald’s possible involvement in stage productions such as WS Gilbert's pantomime Harlequin Cock Robin and Jenny Wren, staged on Boxing Day 1867 at the Lyceum Theatre in London with spectacular effects and scenery. The Spirit of Fresh Air, a beneficent Fairy, and her attendant fairies prepare for the wedding of Cock Robin and Jenny Wren. Cock Robin is murdered by the Demon Miasma aided by the rejected admirers of Jenny Wren, the Sparrow, the Cuckoo, and the Raven. The first night was chaos, adding to the comic effect, but the production soon settled down to good reviews. Gilbert went on to write the libretto for Iolanthe, (billed as ’An Entirely New and Original Fairy opera’), in 1882.