The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke

Daily Prompt: The Artist’s Eye

Today’s WordPress Daily Prompt reads: ‘Is there a painting or sculpture you’re drawn to? What does it say to you? Describe the experience. (Or, if art doesn’t speak to you, tell us why.)’

This prompt has inspired me to write a piece unlike anything I’ve done before. Indulge me, please, there are no health themes or bad attempts at humour in this one. OK, maybe one or two….

My introduction to art came while I was at school. Having completed some exam work early a group of us had some spare time which the school kindly filled for us. Apart from the additional maths classes they gave us some sessions showing us the work of various artists and telling us something about their life. Guess which subject was more enjoyable!

Those early seeds reaped their harvest while I was at University. I originally intended to study English Literature but apart from the obvious courses – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Adnam* etc. – I focused mainly on the 19th century. With few forms of entertainment, apart from creating large families, the long 19thC winter evenings were often spent reading novels and, in a time where the instant media fix hadn’t been invented, they consumed some very long novels. Very, very long. To a latter-day student, faced with the task of reading at least one of these each week, as well as other reading and the written coursework, this presented something of a problem. Recalling my enjoyment of the subject at school I had the brainwave of taking a minor in the History of Art. This was simple logic really: it doesn’t take as long to look at a few pictures as it does to read reams of mid-19thC novels.

I was accepted for this and struck incredibly lucky. The lectures were all good, much more entertaining than some of the literature ones, and the work was done in close-knit, creative seminar groups of around 8 students. It was very unfortunate for me if there was another male in the group, and if at least 3 of the ladies weren’t stunningly gorgeous. And the pictures and architecture were quite good too! This was when I was introduced to the artist Richard Dadd, who is supposedly who I’m writing about. When I say ‘introduced’ you know what I mean – I’ve never been into science fiction or time travel.

Richard Dadd at work

Richard Dadd at work

Dadd, who painted the picture that has been my favourite since then – 40 years ago – had a troubled life. He lived from 1817 to 1886, and at the end of 1842, whilst on a study trip in Egypt, he became irrational and violent. This was initially diagnosed as sunstroke! On his return to England in spring 1843 his family took him to Kent to recover, but he got worse. In August that year, convinced his father (Dad Dadd?) was the Devil in disguise, he killed him and fled to France. Having been brought back he was diagnosed with what today would be termed paranoid schizophrenia and was committed to Bethlem Hospital (aka Bedlam) and eventually to Broadmoor. It was while he was there that he painted most of the work for which he is known. Amongst these was the Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, which I’m showing here, although the screen fails miserably to do it justice:


I first saw this reproduced in a very good quality art book in the University library, and was immediately struck by the fantastic detail and the range of stories that were being told within. I won’t attempt to recount them here – to be honest, I’m not sure I understand all of them anyway – but the interwoven pictures, the flow of the painting and the sheer depth of Dadd’s achievement blew me away. I could understand why he had taken 9 years to paint it, there was just so much going on in there, as no doubt there was in his troubled mind. The original painting is in the Tate Gallery in London, or Tate Britain as it is now known, to distinguish it from Tate Crap further along the Southbank.

I just had to see it, so I made a special trip to London. Imagine my disappointment to be unable to find it. I asked an attendant who directed me to it, and I was stunned. I hadn’t noticed the small print in the book that told me the size of the painting and, from the scale of activity which it recreates, I was expecting something which stood from floor to ceiling. It is actually 26in high by 21in wide! I got as close as I was allowed and spent a couple of hours getting in everyone’s way while I studied the painting’s exquisite, fantastic detail. I knew then that this would be my favourite painting for all time, and I wasn’t wrong.

What does the painting say to me? That’s not an easy question to answer. I guess that, with my more recent experience of depression, there must have been something innate in me which attracted me to the way someone’s mind could work even when they are severely mentally ill. And that this type of illness is no barrier to creativity and the ability to make something beautiful. Quite possibly it is the reason why they can do it.

Work and life have rather got in the way and I haven’t been back to the Tate for some years. But I’ve promised myself that I’ll reacquaint myself with this masterpiece once I’ve retired and have all the time in the world to enjoy it. I just hope it’s still on display, or Mr Tate will be receiving a very strongly-worded letter of complaint!

I’m not the only one to be inspired by this painting. Any Queen fans out there (the rock group, not HM ER2) may recall their song, also called The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, on their second album. Apparently, Freddie Mercury loved the painting too, and used to delight in taking the band and other friends to see it. I never bumped into them though!

* And a final note for those of you who enjoy English literature but have not previously heard of Adnam. In my time at University, students of all disciplines spent a lot of time enjoying his work – his was the brewery that supplied the campus bars. 😉

17 thoughts on “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke

    • This was an old post that came out top when I added the ‘Top Posts’ widget to my site, so I thought it worth sharing again to new readers via the Salon. I had the advantage of studying History of Art at school and Uni to introduce me to Dadd’s paintings. A remarkable story and, as I say in the piece, the original work of this is mesmerising.

      Liked by 1 person

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  8. Thank You for an interesting look into your soul here Clive. I too find it interesting that when a piece of artwork or an author’s tales are mentioned with the fact that there was an ongoing depression of sorts, that there can be many interpretations as to the validity and appreciation of the said piece in question. I just love your take here that perhaps the medical question was not a barrier but was the reason they were able to produce such a masterpiece after all. So many treasured appreciations in history do have this unique look into the artist and I like you perhaps think we are the better for it in the wonderful works that are available…


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