Explore the famed faery painting of an artist dealing with mental illness in the mid-1800s

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2021/01/21/explore-the-famed-faery-painting-of-an-artist-dealing-with-mental-illness-in-the-mid-1800s.html


This painting inspired Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men, one of the best YA books ever, IMO.


He didn’t quite finish it either, there at the bottom, but what a great piece. His other works don’t come close to this in density and mysterious resonance.

Since the article doesn’t mention it, I first found the work in a cool book called The Discovery of the Art of the Insane, which gave it a whole four-color coated page of magnificence. In the 80s, I found it as a poster at a newage googoo shop in Virginia Beach. I ran into the artist, in a way, when we happened upon a ‘Bedlam’ exhibit at the Museum of London which providentially included Dadd, as well as Louis Wain and Jonathan Martin (whose path we’d crossed earlier in the trip when a guide mentioned “a lunatic who tried to burn down York Minster”), whose best friend in captivity was a squirrel.


This painting comes up in Alex Bledsoe’s Tufa series. Specifically in The Hum and the Shiver. It’s a great modern fantasy series taking place in the Appalachian mountains. The musical themes running through it are great as well. I found a whole bunch of new favorite songs in those pages.

I thought it was the next book in the series, Wisp of a Thing.

Could well be. In my memory it shows up towards the end of one book then becomes a larger part in a later book, but it’s been years so I’m happy to concede if I got it wrong.

Charles Doyle, father of Arthur Conan Doyle, spent his final years in various mental institutions, where he sketched, wrote, and painted. He, too, was fascinated with fairies and other mystic beings, although his skill did not match that of Mr. Dadd.

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It was the Queen song that I first knew, before finding out about the painting that influenced it.
When I finally saw the original in London, what struck me first of all was how small it is! 54x39.5cm, I was somehow expecting it to be twice that, the reproductions don’t give a sense of scale. The density of detail is astonishing, you really need a good magnifying glass to be able to appreciate how much is packed into a small space, I’d love to have a really high resolution digital copy to be able to zoom right in to the tiniest little details.
As an aside, some years ago on The Antiques Roadshow on the BBC, someone brought along a landscape painting of a desert scene, with an oasis and camels, IIRC, and it was painted by Dadds, while on the Egyptian tour that precipitated his breakdown, apparently as a result of being taken inside one of the pyramids.
The difference between it and ‘…Master Stroke.” was really striking as well.

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