Art History 101

As you do, I was having a comments chat yesterday with the estimable Jim, on this post of his, and I happened to mention in passing that part of my degree had included the study of the History of Art. He replied that it would be interesting to see some posts from me on that, but I wasn’t so sure. It has been 46 years since I graduated, and whatever knowledge I may have acquired in my three years of study has rather dissipated over the passing of time. It is still good enough to get me a few right answers on tv quiz shows, but I’m not sure that I could persuade you that I possess some kind of expert status. It’s an idea, though, and it would be fun to renew my acquaintance with what was a very enjoyable time in my life, so you might see something here at some point. The chat did remind me, however, that I once posted a piece on a work of art, and as that was so long ago I think I’m on fairly safe ground in assuming that few, if any, of you will have seen it before. I did once share it with the Senior Salon, but as that was five years ago I’m not sure many will recall it from there, either.

The post was written on 27 June 2013, in response to WordPress’ Daily Prompt – remember them? Without further ado, apart from a little editing, I give you:


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, 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, 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 at being 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!


Back in the present day, a couple of additional notes. I checked the link to the original WordPress prompt, and it still works. You’ll find my piece if you scroll a long way down! There are some good posts there, though many have long since disappeared from the blog world. Unlike me, some know when they aren’t welcome any longer…

I’m also correcting an omission I made in the original post. Back then, I hadn’t really got into featuring much music on my blog, but if I had written this piece now there is no way that I would have left out Queen’s song, especially when someone has created a video for it with the lyrics being highlighted with details from the painting. So here it is:

The uploader of the video quotes from the Tate’s guide to the painting, which I dimly recall buying all those years ago: In a long poem, written about the time he finished it, the painter tells us that they have gathered at the command of the white bearded man in the middle with a gold hat and club. They are watching the Fairy Feller in brown who is about to split open a nut with his axe to make a new carriage for the Fairy Queen, Mab. Her tiny figure can be seen riding in the old one across the brim of the bearded man’s hat. The idea comes from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “Queen Mab .. comes .. drawn with a team of little atomies .. her wagoner a small grey coated gnat … Her chariot is an empty hazel shell” So that was what it was about!

Clive’s history of (a little bit of) art may return at some point. If it does, I may have to change the name of my blog to Take It Easel-ly, though. Don’t hold your breath!