Away with the fairies. Edwin Landseer’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania and Bottom, 1848–1851


It is an enchanting scene. A beautiful woman, clad in diaphanous cloth of gold, a flurry of pink roses strewn at her feet and her hair adorned with laurel leaves and glow-worms, gazes adoringly at a man with the head of a gentle ass that is itself crowned with a gay floral diadem. About this couple throng gossamer-winged fairies, elves and a muscular nude yellow goblin. Sir Edwin Landseer’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania and Bottom, 1848–1851, illustrates either Act 3 or Act 4 of William Shakespeare’s famous comedic play of 1595–96. Landseer depicts Titania, Queen of the Fairies, after she has been drugged with a love potion and has become enamoured with the weaver Nick Bottom, who has been magically given the head of a donkey. Titania is attended by the fairies Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mustardseed and Moth, two of whom ride on fluffy white rabbits.

This magical painting was commissioned from Landseer, the pre-eminent animal painter of the Victorian era, by the wealthy engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Brunel, one of the foremost engineers of his day, was the son of the famous French civil engineer, Sir Marc Brunel, who had begun the Thames Tunnel project in 1825, an underwater tunnel built beneath the River Thames in London. Brunel also worked on the Thames Tunnel, before being appointed Chief Engineer of the Great Western Railway, a train railway connecting London with regional locations. He had also made a name for himself as a pioneering designer of transatlantic steamships that travelled between England and the United States of America.

In late 1847, Brunel was planning to expand his living quarters at 18 Duke Street, St James’s, London, and wrote to Landseer and other prominent artists concerning an idea to create a Shakespeare Room. His dream was to make ‘the rendering … of one of our most National of English Poets of past times the occasion … of obtaining a collection of the best examples … [by] the finest English artists of the present time’ … ‘the choice of subjects’, he stressed, ‘I leave to the artist limiting only to selections from the Acted and popular plays of the Author’.1Isambard Kingdom Brunel to Edwin Landseer, 27 Dec. 1847. Quoted in Hilarie Faberman & Philip McEvansoneya, ‘Isambard Kindom Brunel’s “Shakespeare Room” ’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 137, no. 1103, Feb. 1995, p. 109. In 1848 Brunel acquired the premises next door to 18 Duke Street, and ten Shakespearian paintings were duly commissioned for a grand new dining room that was to become ‘the focus of Brunel’s active social life’ and was, accordingly, ‘decorated in a mock-Elizabethan style’.2Faberman & McEvansoneya, p. 110.

John Calcott Horsley, a Royal Academician (a painter who is elected to the Royal Academy) and Brunel’s brother-in-law, recalled the impact of Brunel’s dining room:

This room hung with pictures, with its richly carved fireplace, doorways, and ceiling, its silken hangings and Venetian mirrors, lighted up on one of the many festive gatherings frequent in that hospitable house, formed a scene which none will forget who had the privilege of taking part in it.3John Calcott Horsley, letter to Isambard Brunel, Feb. 1870; quoted in Isambard Brunel, The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1870, p. 507.

Isambard’s granddaughter Celia Brunel, Lady Noble, declared that the Shakespeare Room ‘was considered the last word in sumptuous good taste’.4Celia Brunel Noble, The Brunels: Father and Son, Cobden-Sanderson, London, 1938, p. 187. Isambard’s later biographer, however, was less kind:

It would seem that prevailing fashion had by this time blunted [Brunel’s] good taste, at any rate so far as interior decoration was concerned, for imagination quails at the description of this dining room with its over-elaborate pendant ceiling, its plaster-panelled walls grained to imitate oak, its venetian mirrors and red velvet curtains, its massive dining table staggering like Atlas under the weight of monstrous silver-gilt centre and side pieces presented by the Great Western Railway Company.5L. T. C. Rolt, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. A Biography, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1959, p. 99.

Over the years following their commission in 1848, Brunel’s Shakespearean paintings featured at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibitions to great acclaim, making the completion of his Shakespeare Room, or Shakespeare Gallery, the talk of London. Augustus Egg’s scene from The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Charles Leslie’s scene from Henry VIII appeared at the RA of 1849, while the 1850 exhibition included depictions of King Lear by Charles West Cope, Macbeth by Clarkson Stanfield and another Henry VIII by Leslie. Landseer’s painting with its full title at the time Scene from the Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania and Bottom; Fairies attending – Peas-blossom, Cob-web, Mustard-seed, Moth, &c., was unveiled at the Royal Academy of 1851, before being installed in Brunel’s dining room.

The Royal Academy of 1851

Edwin Landseer, an artistic prodigy who had begun exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1815 at the age of thirteen, rose to become one of the most acclaimed painters working in Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901, renowned for his ability to depict animals, especially animals set against the landscape of the Scottish Highlands. His works were reproduced by engravings and widely distributed, making him a household name in his day. Landseer, a personal friend of the Monarch, taught Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert how to make etchings; in addition, he painted numerous portraits of the Royal family’s children, household pets and gamekeepers. In 1850, Landseer was knighted by the Queen, which was also during the period he was completing Scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania and Bottom.

Landseer was represented at the 1851 Royal Academy exhibition by five paintings depicting mainly Scottish subjects, including his celebrated stag painting The Monarch of the Glen, c. 1849–51 (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh), as well as Scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania and Bottom. His choice of this Shakespearian subject was a natural fit not only for his talents as an animal painter, but also because of the enormous popularity of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Victorian Britain.

While acknowledging Landseer’s contribution of six paintings to the exhibition, The Times (1851) declared five of these to be

paintings of far less originality and skill than Sir Edwin’s charming version of the celebrated scene from Midsummer Night’s Dream of ‘Titania and Bottom with the ass’s head and attendant fairies’ (No. 157), which is to form part of the Shakespeare Gallery of Mr. Brunel. It is one of Landseer’s happiest efforts – imaginative, fantastical, and elvish, yet full of natural grace and reality. Bottom retains his native stupidity without coarseness; his long-eared head has all the patience of asinine suffering, while the attitude of his legs suggests with extreme drollery the domestic habits of the Athenian journeyman. Titania is not a fairy out of a melodrama, but the graceful creation of a poet – doating [sic], deluded, but not impure; and the attendant elves, striding on the down of snow-white rabbits or tossing to and from the summer blossoms, are the very creatures of merriment and delight.6‘Exhibition of the Royal Academy (private view). First notice’, The Times, 3 May 1851, p. 8. This glowing description of the painting was repeated in the paper a week later in ‘Royal Academy of Arts. Second notice’, The Times, 11 May 1851, p. A2.

The critic for The Art Journal (1851) felt that ‘there is nothing very striking in the ideas, but they derive value from beautiful colour and charming execution’, however, was drawn to ‘Mustardseed, a perking yellow miniature of the human form’ and ‘Peaseblossom riding on a supernatural white rabbit’.7‘The Royal Academy. The eighty-third exhibition – 1851’, The Art Journal, 1 Jun. 1851, p. 155.

The Scotsman (1851), declared Landseer’s painting to be

bright and rich, and comprising a difficult variety of colours and substances all exquisitely handled, from the hues that blush and glow on the fairies’ wings to the fur of a rabbit, in which each particular hair seems to be tremulous or waving.8‘London, and the exhibition: seventh article’, The Scotsman, 31 May 1851, p. 2.

Shakespearian actor William Macready, a notable figure in London social circles, also gave the work his imprimatur, declaring it to be ‘a most brilliant fancy of Titania and Bottom’.9William Macready, diary entry of 3 May 1851; in Sir Frederick Pollock (ed.), Macready’s Reminiscences, and Selections from his Diaries and Letters, Macmillan and Co., London, 1875, p. 394. Queen Victoria herself was enchanted by Landseer’s composition, calling it ‘a gem, beautifully fairy-like and forceful’.10Richard Ormond & Joseph Rishel, Sir Edwin Landseer, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia and The Tate Gallery, London, 1982, p. 190. 

Shakespeare in Victorian Britain

The comedic play A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595–96) had been inspiring British artists since the late eighteenth century, when two of the most prominent artists working in Great Britain were apparently themselves believers in the universe celebrated within Shakespeare’s play.

Poet and artist William Blake, who created a number of fairy watercolours, liked to recount how, walking alone in his garden

I saw the broad leaf of a flower move, and underneath I saw a procession of creatures, of the size and colour of green and grey grasshoppers, bearing a body laid out on a rose-leaf, which they buried with songs, and then disappeared. It was a fairy funeral!11William Blake, quoted in Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake with Selections from his Poems and Other Writings, vol. I, Macmillan and Co., London, 1880, p. 161.

Artist Henry Fuseli, motivated by a plan print publisher John Boydell had in 1789 to create a commercial Shakespeare Gallery in London to nurture history painting in England, painted a dark and highly sexualised vision of Shakespeare’s magical fairy world around 1790, an interpretation that channelled the bawdiness of the original text. Fuseli himself may well have been a believer in fairies, to judge from an anecdote cited by Irish antiquarian Thomas Crofton Croker in 1827:

I have been surprised at receiving from Mr. Balmanno [the New York author and antiquarian] the following account of the actual appearance of a fairy within three miles of the British metropolis. He gives it on the authority of his late friend, Mr. Fuseli, the artist, ‘than whom’, remarks Mr. Balmanno, ‘there never lived a greater lover of a fairy tale’.12Thomas Crofton Croker, letter of 12 Nov. 1827 to Wilhelm Grimm, printed in Thomas Crofton Croker, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. Part III, John Murray, London, 1828, p. xiii.

Fuseli proceeded to retell the account of an eyewitness sighting of a small goblin by the British-Dutch soldier John Stedman, author of The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796), which William Blake illustrated. According to Fuseli, Stedman ‘continued to affirm his belief in the appearance of the goblin to the day of his death’.13Thomas Crofton Croker, p. xiv.

Engravings of Fuseli’s composition, Titania and Bottom, c. 1790 (Tate, London), helped fuel the popularity of fairy imagery in the early nineteenth century. Fuseli himself had been inspired by the manner in which Shakespeare’s writing, both in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and in The Tempest (1610–11), had made fairies seem to be so real. In 1827, English poet Thomas Hood published The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies. As Hood explained to essayist Charles Lamb:

It is my design, in the following Poem, to celebrate by an allegory, that immortality which Shakespeare has conferred on the Fairy by his Midsummer Night’s Dream … the Poet has made this most perishable part of the mind’s creation equal to the most enduring; he has so intertwined the Elfins with human sympathies, and linked them by so many delightful associations with the productions of nature, that they are as real to the mind’s eye, as their green magical circles to the outer sense.

It would have been a pity for such a race to go extinct, even though they were but as the butterflies that hover about the leaves and blossoms of the visible world.14Thomas Hood, The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies, Hero and Leander, Lycus the centaur, and Other Poems, E. Littell and J. Grigg, Philadelphia, 1827, pp. i–ii.

In Hood’s poem, the whole of fairyland is threatened with destruction by the levelling scythe of Time, until Shakespeare steps in as a deus ex machina, conferring immortality on Queen Titania and all her fairy subjects.

Popular interest in the possibility of fairies co-habiting the British countryside alongside the human race was fuelled by the publication of volumes of fairy lore such as Thomas Keightley’s The Fairy Mythology (1828) and Thomas Crofton Croker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1828). By the time Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, fascination with Britain’s fairy heritage was about to spawn a wave of fairy painting that was to maintain momentum for three decades from the 1840s onwards. Jeremy Maas, historian of this movement, has summarised how

No other type of painting concentrates so many of the opposing elements in the Victorian psyche: the desire to escape the drear hardships of everyday existence; the stirrings of new attitudes towards sex, stifled by religious dogma; a passion for the unknown; psychological retreat from scientific discovery; the latent revulsion against the exactitude of the new invention of photography.15Jeremy Maas, ‘Victorian fairy painting’, in Jane Martineau (ed.), Victorian Fairy Painting, Merrell Holberton, London, 1997, p. 11.

Art historian Christopher Wood has noted:

What makes Victorian fairy paintings unique is that Victorian painters, for the first time … tried to paint fairies realistically and accurately, with the greatest possible attention to detail. Such a combination of reality and fantasy may seem an impossibility, yet the Victorians attempted it, and this is what gives their fairy paintings their strange, and at times, disturbing intensity.16Christopher Wood, Fairies in Victorian Art, Antique Collectors’ Club, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2000, pp. 11–12.

The popularity of fairy lore in the Victorian era ensured that Shakespeare’s fairy plays were repeatedly staged in theatres throughout Britain at mid century. Highly popular, too, was German composer Felix Mendelssohn’s great Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826); performances of this piece became especially frequent in Britain after the composer’s death in 1847.

The Midsummer spirit was alive and well in London when Landseer first exhibited his painting at the Royal Academy of 1851. Over the course of a year, from the summer of 1850 to the summer of 1851, prominent British actress Fanny Kemble gave a series of readings from Shakespeare plays in London, to great acclaim, before taking her repertoire to the provinces. The Times (1851) noted how, working without sets, props or musical accompaniment

Mrs. Kemble couples with a rare appreciation of character, and a most finished elocution, the gift of being able to convey to her hearers the distinctness of all the personages she represents without any indication beyond a change of manner and voice, and that not such a change as belongs to ordinary mimicry.17‘St. James’s Theatre’, The Times, 1 Apr. 1851, p. 5.

Her performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in July 1850 was feted by The Morning Post (1850):

The passions of the fairies, and their frolics, the sentiments of the ‘human mortals,’ and their humours, are discriminated with a philosophy which proved that the reader not only appreciates the most metaphysical purposes of her author, but that she possesses the still rarer talent of being able to transform them unimpaired to the minds of her hearers … Here is an Englishwoman reading an English author without adjunct of any kind, and the audience is full, fashionable, and enthusiastic.18‘St James’s Theatre’, The Morning Post, 1 Aug. 1850, p. 5.

Her reprise of April 1851 was also judged particularly favourably:

Exquisitely did Mrs. Kemble interpret the lovely dream, with its gay, soft, and harmonious fantasies – most expressively did she render the golden cadences of its poesy … Indeed, all the subtle and ethereal scenes from Fairy Land, were depicted with a perfectness that delighted the imagination, and enchained the attention.19‘St James’s Theatre. Mrs Fanny Kemble’s readings of Shakespeare’, The Morning Post, 10 Apr. 1851, p. 5.

Mrs Kemble performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream again at St James’s Theatre on 18 June 1851, when Mendelssohn’s popular Overture had played two days earlier in Her Majesty’s Theatre.20‘Readings of Shakespeare by Mrs Fanny Kemble. St James’s Theatre’ and ‘Her Majesty’s Theatre’, The Observer, 15 Jun. 1851, p. 1. See also Marian Wilson Kimber, ‘Reading Shakespeare, seeing Mendelssohn: concert readings of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, ca. 1850–1920’, The Musical Quarterly, vol. 89, no. 2/3, Summer–Fall 2006, pp. 199–236.

In April 1851, also coinciding with Landseer’s showing of Scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania and Bottom at the Royal Academy, London’s Royal Adelphi Theatre staged a revival of a ‘musical, historical, pastoral, comical fairy drama’ titled O’Flanigan and the Fairies; or, a Midsummer Night’s Dream – not Shakespeare’s.21‘Theatre Royal, Adelphi’, The Times, 25 Apr. 1851, p. 4. This was a hugely successful romantic musical drama that renowned Irish actor Tyrone Power had originally staged at Covent Garden in 1836. The playbill described how:

There is hardy a lonely valley or wild mountain range in all Ireland, that is not characterised by names denoting the residence or haunt of the ‘good people’, or ‘fairies’; and the belief that those elfin inhabitants of earth and air, occasionally condescend to interfere with mortals, either in mirth or in malice, still lingers among the peasantry – one of the most poetical of our natural superstitions, and highly congenial to the temperament of an imaginative people.22J. W. C., ‘Tyrone Power: a biography – part III’, The Dublin University Magazine, vol. 40, no. 240, Dec. 1852, p. 718.

Belief in fairies during the Victorian era

From a modern perspective, it seems extraordinary that anyone in England in Landseer’s day could actually have believed in fairies and other sprite, elemental and spirit phenomena. Fairy lore historian Carole G. Silver has documented, however, how

By the mid 1830s, the debate over the actuality and value of the elfin peoples had started and the basic historical, empirical, religious, and linguistic approaches to fairy lore were in place … The romantics had hatched the fairies and the reasons for the cultural fascination with them were to remain and, indeed, intensify throughout the century … Aided, but not caused by Spiritualism, which would become a force in England by the mid 1850s, reinforced by Theosophy, which was to trigger the occultism of the 1880s and ’90s, fairy beliefs would proliferate and expand.23Carole G. Silver, Strange and Secret Peoples. Fairies and the Victorian Consciousness, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999, p. 31.

Another fairy historian, Nicola Brown, has analysed

the wonderful yet appalling modern world the Victorians made, and why they consoled themselves for their disquiet by dreaming of fairies … The Victorians’ recourse to sentimentality in the face of the brutal and deadening rationalism of modern forms of thought, technology and social organisation was an extreme response to an extreme situation.24Nicola Brown, Fairies in Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001, pp. 1, 11.

Belief in fairies was not diminished by Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution first published in 1850, for

Darwin reinterpreted (or misinterpreted) gave rise to the idea of fairies as invisible life forms, not yet understood, that had developed on a separate branch of the evolutionary tree – but that would soon be classified and verified by scientific means.25Silver, p. 7.

In the Victorian era, belief in fairies could also be aligned with the following biblical text: ‘And other sheep that I have are not of this fold’ (John 10:16) and equated with fallen angels; or, from the opposite perspective, ‘for some among the scientifically oriented scholars, the truth of fairy existence filled the void left by a dying Bible’.26Silver, pp. 37, 43. Silver noted how intellects such as Lafcadio Hearn, Robert Louis Stevenson and William Butler Yeats, among others, recorded seeing and communicating with fairies and other elemental creatures.27Silver, pp. 34–5. See also Carole Silver, ‘On the origin of fairies: Victorians, romantics, and folk belief’, Browning Institute Studies, vol. 14, 1986, p. 146.

In 1846 writer Ambrose Merton (pseudonym of William John Thoms) expressed in The Athenaeum that ‘I agree with Mr. Keightley [Irish writer Thomas Keightley] – no mean authority on such a subject – in opinion “that the belief in Fairies is by no means extinct in England” ’.28Ambrose Merton [William John Thoms], ‘Folk-Lore’, The Athenaeum, no. 983, 29 Aug.1846; reprinted in Richard M. Dorson (ed.), Peasant Customs and Savage Myths. Selections from the British Folklorists, vol. I, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1968, p. 55. Twenty years earlier, Thomas Keightley had narrated vividly how

The result of our personal inquiries has been this. We have conversed with a girl from Norfolk, who said she had often seen Frairies [sic]. She described them as clad in white; as living under the ground, where they constructed houses, bridges, &c.; and she added, that it was not safe to go near them when they came above ground. We met another person from Somerset, who, on making a cake, drew a cross upon it to prevent the Vairies [sic] dancing on it … Our informant seemed to entertain no doubt whatever of the actual existence of the Vairies.29Thomas Keightley, The Fairy Mythology, vol. II, Whittaker, Treacher and Co., London, 1833, p. 117.

In 1853, lamenting the manner in which Scottish caricaturist George Cruikshank had co-opted fairytales and his illustrations of them to fit an anti-alcohol and anti-gambling temperance agenda, Charles Dickens opined that

We may assume that we are not singular in entertaining a very great tenderness for the fairy literature of our childhood … In an utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected … every one who has considered the subject knows full well that a nation without fancy, without some romance, never did, never can, never will, hold a great place under the sun.30Charles Dickens, ‘Frauds on the fairies’, Household Words. A Weekly Journal. Conducted by Charles Dickens, vol. 8, no. 184, 1 Oct. 1853, p. 97. Cruikshank’s opening to the tale of Hop-O’My-Thumb is a typical example of what Dickens objected to: ‘Once upon a time there was a certain Count, who possessed many castles and large domains. He was a very good man, but, unfortunately, he had some very bad companions, who led him into drinking habits, card-playing, betting on horse-races, and all sorts of foolish gambling; and these bad men, by these means, got all his money from him’. George Cruishank et al., George Cruikshank’s Fairy Library, Bell and Daldy, London, 1853, p. 3. See also Judd D. Hurbert, ‘George Cruikshank’s graphic and textual reactions to Mother Goose’, Marvels & Tales, vol. 25, no. 2, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 2011, pp. 286–97.

Landseer himself had been introduced to Scottish fairy lore during a visit to Loch Earn in the Scottish Highlands in 1824, when he and the painters C. R. Leslie and G. S. Newton had been ‘rowed down the loch by a fey boatman who beguiled them with stories of the magic wrought by the Highland fairies’.31Campbell Lennie, Landseer: The Victorian Paragon, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1976, p. 35.

One of the most prominent fairy artists at the time when Landseer painted his Scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania and Bottom was Richard Doyle. Landseer most likely knew his work from Punch magazine, and perhaps also saw his engraving The Prince of the Glow Worms from Anthony R. Montalba’s Fairy Tales from All Nations, which Doyle illustrated in 1849. Doyle’s brother illustrator Charles Altamont Doyle was also a prolific painter of fairy scenes, with the difference that he apparently believed implicitly in the existence of his subjects. He professed to have seen fairies in the sketchbook made while he resided at Sunnyside Royal Hospital, founded as the Montrose Royal Lunatic Asylum, in Scotland in 1889, where he was confined suffering from epilepsy and advanced alcoholism.32Michael Baker, The Doyle Diary. The Last Great Conan Doyle Mystery, Paddington Press, New York and London, 1978, p. viii. See also Allan Beveridge, ‘What became of Arthur Conan Doyle’s father? The last years of Charles Altamont Doyle’, Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, vol. 36, no. 3, 2006, pp. 264–70. On Richard Doyle, see Rodney Engen & Lionel Lambourne, Richard Doyle and His Family, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1983. Charles Doyle was also drawn to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Queen Titania (date unknown) was among the watercolour fairy scenes included in a memorial exhibition of Doyle’s work, which his son and author Arthur Conan Doyle organised in London in 1924 that The Times found to be ‘engaging in their enviable fancy’.33‘Art exhibitions. “The humorous and the terrible” ’, The Times, 1 Feb. 1924, p. 8. Another of Charles Doyle’s works, The spirits of the prisoners, 1885–89, depicts a cascade of impish figures tumbling in the moonlight down the façade of the Sunnyside asylum, witnessed by himself as an astral traveller (his self-portrait as a star-lit cloud looms above in the sky).34See Peter Raissis, Victorian Watercolours from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2017, pp. 74–5.

When Landseer painted Scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania and Bottom, spiritualism, the belief in communicating with the spirits of the dead, was in its ascendancy in Victorian England. From this perspective, fairies were simply other elemental spirits. As Silver has documented

for occultists, at least, Darwin did not empty the world of nature; instead, he peopled it with other if invisible species. The world the occultists created – or perceived – was as richly teeming with life as the visible realm. And they truly believed that the progress of science would reveal the actual existence of the tribes and species they described. Like [the German explorer] Schweinfurth’s [documentation of the] Congo Pygmies, once thought mythical but newly discovered and proved factual, fairies too would be located. Like X-ray beams, they only seemed intangible. The supernatural, affirmed occultists, would prove to be the natural not understood.35Silver, p. 56.

Despite inventing the supremely rational fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle was an ardent believer in both spiritualism and fairies. The latter belief he shared with his father Charles. His investigations into spiritualism had begun in the late 1880s, but were galvanised by the personal losses he experienced during the First World War (numerous family members, including his eldest son and his brother, dying either in the war or from the pneumonia that followed in its wake). In 1916 he published a vigorous defence of his beliefs in the spiritualist journal Light:

in recent years there has come to us from divine sources a new revelation which constitutes by far the greatest religious event since the death of Christ … a revelation which alters the whole aspect of death and the fate of man … when one knows, as I know, of widows who are assured that they hear the loved voice once again, or of mothers whose hands, groping in the darkness, clasp once again those of the vanished child, and when one considers the loftiness of their intercourse and the serenity of spirit which succeeds it, I feel sure that a fuller knowledge would calm the doubt of the most scrupulous conscience.36 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘A new revelation. Spiritualism and religion’, Light, vol. 37. no. 1869, 4 Nov. 1916, pp. 357–8. In his autobiography, Conan Doyle went even further, telling his readers how: ‘I have clasped materialized hands. I have held long conversations with the direct voice. I have smelt the peculiar ozone-like smell of ectoplasm … I have seen the “dead” glimmer up upon a photographic plate which no hand but mine had touched … I have seen heavy articles swimming in the air, untouched by human hand, and obeying directions given to unseen operators. I have seen spirits walk round the room in fair light and join in the talk of the company’. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1924, p. 402. See also Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Wanderings of a Spiritualist, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1921.

In 1918 Conan Doyle confirmed in his book The New Revelation his belief in mediums, and communication with the dead through seances, spirit photography and automatic writing, surprising readers worldwide.  Four years later, Conan Doyle was to shock the world with a new declaration of faith, his belief that two young girls in Yorkshire, northern England, had taken history’s first photographs proving the existence of fairies. Conan Doyle published Elsie Wright’s and Frances Griffiths’s fairy photos in The Strand Magazine in 1920, and then wrote a monograph in which he declared that

The series of incidents set forth in this little volume represent either the most elaborate and ingenious hoax ever played upon the public, or else they constitute an event in human history which may in the future appear to have been epoch-making in its character. It is hard for the mind to grasp what the ultimate results may be if we have actually proved the existence upon the surface of this planet of a population which may be as numerous as the human race, which pursues its own strange life in its own strange way, and which is only separated from ourselves by some difference of vibrations … we see the loom and the shadow of gigantic and fantastic possibilities around us, throwing themselves continually across our consciousness in such ways that it is difficult to ignore them.37Arthur Conan Doyle, The Coming of the Fairies, Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, London, 1922, pp. 9, 88–9.

While Wright and Griffiths would later admit in the 1980s that they had faked four of these fairy photographs, Griffiths maintained to her final years that the fifth, The Fairy Bower, 1920, remained a genuine photograph taken unwittingly by them of real fairies.38See Mary Losure, The fairy ring, or Elsie and Frances fool the world, Candlewick Press, Somerville, Massachusetts, 2012, pp. 161–3. See also David Hewson, ‘Cottingley fairies a fake, woman says’, The Times, 18 Mar. 1983, p. 3; David Hewson, ‘The Cottingley fairies. Secrets of two famous hoaxers’, The Times, 4 Apr. 1983, p. 3.

Rabbit magic

Isambard Kingdom Brunel appears to have allowed Landseer’s painting a leave of absence from his Shakespeare Room in late 1857, coinciding with the production of Samuel Cousins’s masterful mezzotint after the work. As the finest mezzotint engraver of his day, Cousins had recently been elected a full member of the Royal Academy. Both Landseer’s Midsummer Night’s Dream painting and Cousins’s mezzotint were exhibited at J. Gilman’s Gallery in London Street, Norwich, during the first week of November 1857, before travelling to James Ryman’s Gallery in Oxford in mid November. They were then shown at Messrs. J. & R. Jennings in Cheapside, London, in December and finally at Mr Whitcombe’s Picture Gallery in Clarence Street, Cheltenham, in January 1858.  Contemporary accounts lauded Landseer’s painting as new as a gem, beautiful, splendid, ‘of the highest order of merit’ and ‘most brilliantly imaginative’, while stressing the manner in which his love-struck Titania was ‘perfectly free from all impurity’, and praising Cousins’s mezzotint as not only ‘worthy of the picture’, but even actually more improved in parts than the original.39‘Fine arts. A scene from “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, painted by Sir Edwin Landseer, R. A.’, The Norfolk News (Norwich), 31 Oct. 1857, p. 5; ‘A Scene from the Midsummer Night’s Dream’, The Norfolk Chronicle & Norwich Gazette (Norwich), 7 Nov. 1857, p. 2; ‘Fine Arts. A Scene from the Midsummer Night’s Dream. Painted by Sir Edwin Landseer, R.A.’, The Morning Post (London), 2 Dec. 1857, p. 5; ‘Sir Edwin Landseer’s Painting’, The Cheltenham Chronicle, Parish Register and General Advertiser for Gloucester, 5 Jan. 1858, p. 5.

By painting a Titania ‘perfectly free from all impurity’ Landseer had indeed managed to defuse the potentially disturbing sexuality of Shakespeare’s account of the Fairy Queen’s desire for the man/animal hybrid Bottom, presenting his Victorian-era audience with a Queen of the Fairies who seemed appropriately submissive and pure, despite the strange circumstances in which she found herself uncontrollably attracted to the donkey-headed weaver Bottom. In this respect his version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was more akin to the ‘innocent’ reading of the play rewritten for children by Charles and Mary Lamb in their Tales from Shakespeare (1807). It also reflected contemporary theatrical productions that focused more upon the gossamer delights of enchanted fairy realms than on the textual reality of what Shakespeare scholar Jan Kott has called ‘the most erotic of Shakespeare’s plays’, in which

Oberon openly announces that as a punishment Titania must sleep with a beast … But in this nightmarish summer night, the ass does not symbolize stupidity. From antiquity up to the Renaissance the ass was credited with the strongest sexual potency and among all quadrupeds was supposed to have the longest and hardest phallus.40Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski, Anchor Books, New York, 1966, pp. 218, 227.

This is the quasi-demonic, orgiastic Midsummer imagined in Fuseli’s Titania and Bottom, c. 1790 (Tate, London). It was exactly the sort of production that the English Puritan polemicist William Prynne raged against in his anti-theatre treatise Histrio-mastix of 1632 because of:

the wanton gestures; the amorous kisses, complements and salutes; the lascivious whorish Actions; the beautiful faces; the ravishing Musicke, the flexanimous enticements, the witty obscenities, the rhetorical passages, the adulterous representations, with al the other fomentations of uncleannesse in the Play-house.41William Prynne, Histrio-mastix: The Players Scourge or Actors Tragedie, London, 1632, in Edmund S. Morgan, ‘Puritan Hostility to the Theatre’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 110, no. 5, 27 Oct. 1966, p. 342.

The Puritans succeeded in having all English theatres closed in 1642, but even before this their moral censorship flexed its power. Though not a Puritan himself, William Laud, Bishop of London, took punitive action when a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was staged at the Bishop of Lincoln’s house in September 1631. Under his orders, a Puritan court

fined various persons who had witnessed the play … and ordered Mr Wilson ‘a special plotter and contriver of this business’, who did in such a brutishe manner acte the same with an Asses head to sit in the stocks ’attyred with his asse head, and a bottle of hay sett before him, and this subscription on his breast:–

‘Good people I have played the beast.

And brought ill things to passe:

I was a man, but thus have made

My selfe a silly Assse.’42John Tucker Murray, English Dramatic Companies 1558–1642, vol. II, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1910, p. 148.

Samuel Cousins’s superb mezzotint after Landseer’s painting was shown at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1858, when it was unanimously praised as one of the finest reproductive prints ever made. Calling it a masterpiece and ‘a triumph of the engraver’s art’ ’, The Times (1858) felt that

Combining the delicacy of the etching with the telling chiaroscuro of the mezzotint, Mr Cousins has at command just what is wanted to give precision where Sir Edwin is precise and effect where he is broad and exciting.43‘Sir E. Landseer’s Titania and Bottom’, The Times, 25 May 1858, p. 12.

The Illustrated London News (1858) went further, declaring that

The production in question is one of which painter and engraver may well be satisfied to rest their laurels on; whilst the lovers of Shakespeare must hail it as one of the most graceful and poetic realisations of the conceptions of their favourite bard which has ever been produced … A work like this justly entitles the engraver to the academical rank which he has recently attained.44‘Fine Arts. Scene from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Painted by Sir E. Landseer, R.A. Engraved by Samuel Cousins, R. A. H. Graves and Co.’, Illustrated London News, 8 May 1858, p. 474.

It was Cousins’s graphic interpretation of Landseer’s painting that helped ensure that ‘Sir Edwin’s portrayal of Titania and Bottom was a pleasing and attractive fancy that adorned several generations of schoolbooks’.45Lennie, p. 158. Victorian art market expert George Redford felt that ‘the engraving by Cousins is his masterpiece, and perhaps the finest example of translation of a picture into black and white by the modern engraver’s art’.46George Redford recalled see it at Agnew’s in Bond Street in May 1883. George Redford, Art Sales. A History of Sales of Pictures and Other Works of Art, vol. II, self-published, London, 1888, p. 63.

In the year 1857, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream had also been frequently on the mind of the emerging writer Lewis Carroll. In January he saw the play performed at the London’s Princess Theatre in Oxford Street, with the thirteen-year-old Kate Terry playing ‘a beautiful Titania, and her little sister [Ellen, aged nine] as good a Puck as ever’.47Lewis Carroll, diary entry, 22 Jan. 1857, in Roger Lancelyn Green (ed.), The Diaries of Lewis Carroll, Cassel & Company, London, 1953, pp. 101–2. In September he was in Edinburgh with his brother Wilfred, and the two were impressed by ‘two wonderful and really beautiful pictures … the quarrel and reconciliation of Oberon and Titania’. These were Sir Joseph Noel Paton’s The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania, 1847, and The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, 1849 (Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh), two extravagantly busy, Hieronymus Bosch-like compositions by this Scottish artist, the latter of which Lewis’s diary records that ‘we counted a hundred and sixty-five fairies’.48Lewis Carroll, diary entry, 12 Sept. 1857, in Green, p. 122. In November Lewis’s diary is quite specific: ‘Called at Ryman’s [James Ryman’s Gallery in Oxford] to see “Titania”, painted by Sir E. Landseer. There are some wonderful points in it – the ass’s head and the white rabbit especially’.49Lewis Carroll, diary entry, 17 Nov. 1857, in Green, p. 130. This encounter with Landseer’s painting has been recognised as planting the seed for Carrol’s development of his immortal White Rabbit character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).50Green, p. 171.

Titania and Bottom hit rock bottom

Having reached a zenith of reputation and influence in the Victorian era, both Landseer and his A Midsummer Night’s Dream painting descended to a nadir in the early part of the twentieth century. In January 1932 Felton Adviser Randall Davies wrote to the NGV to say:

I may mention Landseer’s well known picture of ‘Titania and Bottom’ painted in the same year as the famous ‘Monarch of the Glen’ and engraved by Samuel Cousins. This belonged to Sir Cuthbert Quilter and was sold with his collection at Christie’s as late as 1909 for £2,000. It is now offered to me for £500, Landseer having fallen to the very bottom of the market almost at the present time. This is a very fine example, and would be the first Landseer in an Australian gallery, I think – I mean there is at present no other.51Randall Davies, letter to the Felton Bequests’ Committee, NGV, 28 Jan. 1932, NGV artist’s files.

Landseer’s painting had remained in Brunel’s collection until the engineer’s death in 1860. The Art Journal recorded how, at Brunel’s estate sale in April 1860

‘Titania’, Landseer’s well-known engraved picture, for which Mr. Brunel paid the artist 500 gs. … was put up by the officiating auctioneer at 2,000 gs., and was finally adjudged to Lord Robert Clinton for the large sum of £2,940.52‘Picture sales’, The Art Journal, 1 Jun. 1860, p. 181

It remained in the hands of Lord Robert Pelham-Clinton, M. P. for Nottinghamshire North and son of Henry Pelham-Clinton, Fourth Duke of Newcastle, until some time after his death in 1867, when it entered the collection of Adelbert Wellington Brownlow-Cust, Third Earl of Brownlow. It was acquired from Earl Brownlow in 1883 by the dealer Agnew, and by 1886 was with Sir William Cuthbert Quilter, First Baronet, Bawdsey Manor, Suffolk.53George Redford recalled seeing it at Agnew’s in Bond Street in May 1883. George Redford, Art Sales. A History of Sales of Pictures and Other Works of Art, vol. II, London, 1888, p. 63. Earl Brownlow had loaned it to the Royal Academy Winter Exhibition of 1874, which was devoted exclusively to showing 532 works by Landseer, who had died in the autumn of 1873. In his turn, Sir Cuthbert Quilter loaned the painting three times for public exhibition during his ownership of it – to the Royal Jubilee Exhibition staged at Manchester in 1887, the Royal Academy’s Exhibition of Works by British Artists Deceased Since 1850 in 1901, and the Franco-British Exhibition in 1908. In an article devoted to Quilter’s collection published in 1897, the art critic Frederic George Stephens described the painting as ‘in some respects the most beautiful and modern of Shakespearian illustrations, fanciful and graceful exceedingly’.54Frederic George Stephens, ‘The Collection of Mr. W. Cuthbert Quilter, M. P. The Modern English Masters – II’, The Magazine of Art, 1897, p. 178.

Quilter’s collection was sold at auction in 1909, when Scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania and Bottom was purchased for £2,520 by a Polish-born entrepreneur, Henry Lowenfeld, who had constructed the Apollo Theatre in London’s West End in 1901. By a strange coincidence Lowenfeld, a passionate lover of animals, had grown up on his father’s estate near Cracow with an engraving after Landseer’s painting (probably that by Cousins), and had always longed to see the original painting. When he saw it reproduced in the Christie’s catalogue of the Quilter sale, he was determined to have it at any price. Randall Davies obtained this information from the entrepreneur’s daughter following Lowenfeld’s death in Paris in November 1931, when his widow offered the painting for sale for less than a fifth of the price her husband had paid for it. Davies also sent to Melbourne an amusing reminiscence from the Hon. Violet Emily Cust of the Brownlow family, who recalled her memories of the painting when it was with Third Earl Brownlow somewhat unkindly:

I remember it very well and never liked it, and was rather glad when it disappeared up the spout! but I don’t know who bought it, or who it was bought from. I hope it will have a new lease of life and admiration in Australia.55Violet Cust, letter to Randall Davies, 4 Apr. 1932, NGV artist’s files.

Davies agreed, informing the Felton Bequests’ Committee that:

However it may be viewed as a work of Art in these somewhat contentious days, I venture to think that its history entitles it to a place among the classics in any gallery in the World.56Randall Davies, letter to the Felton Bequests’ Committee, NGV, 20 Apr. 1932, NGV artist’s files.

In 1932 Davies also acquired for the NGV an eighteenth-century portrait by John Hoppner for £3,000, a seventeenth-century Dutch bucolic landscape by Aelbert Cuyp for £892, a 1931 view of Cagnes by Herbert Hughes-Stanton for £450, and Augustus John’s recently painted portrait of his daughter Poppet for £475; all of which underlined the low price for which he secured Landseer’s Shakespearian masterpiece.

Shakespeare Down Under

In an Australia that was still very much Anglocentric in 1932, Randall Davies’s acquisition of Landseer’s painting for the NGV would seem to have been a crowd-pleasing decision. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was performed to acclaim at Melbourne’s King’s Theatre by the Allan Wilkie Shakespearean Company in March 1930, and again at the Princess Theatre in October 1930. The Argus (1930) reported that

Three hundred years have not dulled the delicate beauty nor staled the humour of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ which was played … yesterday afternoon to an audience that was keenly appreciative.

The paper went on to note that the fairy attendants’ ‘dainty dancing was a feature of the performance’.57‘Entertainment. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”,’ The Argus, 10 Oct. 1930, p. 3. See also ‘ “Midsummer Night’s Dream” Lives Again. Buffoonery and faery in the Greenwood’, The Herald, 21 Mar. 1930, p. 2.

The extent to which Shakespeare was an integral part of Australian culture in the early 1930s can be gauged by The Sydney Morning Herald’s exposé of the talents of local schoolchildren in 1932:

There were plenty of unrehearsed incidents in the scenes from Shakespeare which pupils of the Clovelly Girl’s Public School presented yesterday in their school hall. The corpse of Caesar fell off its bier, and, startled by the sudden concussion, scrambled hastily to its feet. Titania awakened too soon at the sound of Bottom’s braying, and had to go to sleep again while he brayed through another verse. From time to time a little actor would turn and beam at her mother in the audience.58‘Shakespearian plays. Performed by schoolgirls’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Apr. 1932, p. 5.

A few months earlier the verse-speaking class of St Mary’s College performed readings of ‘ “Fairies on the Lawn” and “Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden’, before the whole school staged a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Town Hall of Gunnedah in outback New South Wales’.59‘St Mary’s College, Gunnedah. Annual Concert’, The Catholic Press, 31 Dec. 1931, p. 11. Similar productions of the play were staged by metropolitan and rural schools throughout Australia at this period. The Melbourne Church of England Girls’ Grammar School Dramatic Society, for example, presented A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the open-air theatre of the school’s Phelia Grimwade House on Shakespeare’s birthday in April 1932.60‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, The Age, 25 Apr. 1932, p. 12.

The New Sydney Repertory Society even presented a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream played in contemporary dress, in November 1931 and again in December 1932, performances though these performances were judged to be experimental failures:

With Lysander in tweeds and Hermia in floral chiffon and high-heeled shoes – with Demetrius in a double-breasted coat and sand shoes, and Helena in a pleated skirt and a white fur across her shoulders – the situations in the palace of Theseus and the wood near Athens make tremendous demands upon the imagination. It may not be impossible to meet these adequately and to bridge the yawning gaps of time and space involved, but when the duke stalks into the fairy bower in plus fours and a pullover, the mental illusion, maintained with so much effort hitherto, vanishes … the lightness of touch demanded was difficult when most of the people looked as if they had just walked in from Phillip-street.61‘New repertory society. Shakespeare in modern dress’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Nov. 1931, p. 5. When this production was reprised the following year, it was again pilloried: ‘They repeated the performance in the same way on Saturday evening. It would be more accurate to say that they repeated the same offence. Shakespeare’s delightful fantasy simply cannot be played like this. Even to the most indulgent of audiences the spectacle of Athenian maidens in high-heeled shoes, silk stockings, and blouses, is completely destructive of every spark of illusion’. ‘Repertory Theatre. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Dec. 1932, p. 4.

Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was similarly a standard inclusion in musical repertoires across the country during these years.

Given this local context, it may have been expected that the NGV’s acquisition of Landseer’s masterwork might have been feted when the painting arrived in Melbourne in September 1932. This was far from the case. The Age (1932) did at least note that it ‘should find popular favour’, while niggling that it was ‘a bit solid in treatment considering the fantastic nature of the subject, but soundly painted and full of pictorial interest’.62‘New pictures at the National Gallery. Felton Bequest Purchases’, The Age, 30 Sept. 1932, p. 11. Landseer’s painting was among thirteen paintings acquired in 1932 by Randall Davies in his capacity as the Gallery’s Felton Adviser.63‘Gallery pictures. Largest purchase for two years. Cost £6887. Mr. Randall Davies’ selection’, The Age, 29 Sept. 1932, p. 8. In Melbourne there had been a tradition for local artists to attack the purchases made by London-based Felton advisers, and Davies’s choice of the Landseer now faced the same phalanx of criticism.

The renowned Australian Impressionist landscape painter Arthur Streeton, now art critic for The Argus, launched his attack in an article declaring that ‘of the 13 works purchased there are but three which may be classed as fine works and up to the standard of the National Gallery’. These were by Charles Sims, Oliver Hall and Augustus John; the Landseer not making the grade. Indeed, while noting that Landseer’s painting ‘contains a donkey’s head carefully painted, and is embellished with many details illustrating the subject’, Streeton objected that

from a fine art viewpoint the painting is trivial. It reminds one of an American observation regarding certain English pictures of the time. The commentator said that they ‘resembled dictionaries,’ being ‘blistered all over with facts’.64Arthur Streeton, ‘The new pictures. Felton Bequest purchases’, The Argus, 8 Oct.1932, p. 4.

Writing for The Herald, the celebrated watercolourist Blamire Young was even more severe, savaging Landseer’s painting as being both outmoded and overpriced (despite Davies having secured it at a low price):

Those who like the elaborated illustrations that were so popular in the days of Queen Victoria will welcome Landseer’s ‘Titania [and] Bottom’  … That we are all doing our best to forget this period does not seem to concern the Trustees … The acquisition of the Landseer will be something of a shock to many of us. Its price is £500, and if this is the London price it must have cost us nearly [Australian] £700, allowing for the exchange. For this sum the tastes of those who admire this class of picture could have been much more fully satisfied. It would have purchased a good half-dozen pictures quite as enjoyable, each of them, as the Landseer.65Blamire Young, ‘New Gallery pictures. “To suit all tastes”,’ The Herald, 30 Sept. 1932, p. 7.

Despite this panning from the two most powerful local critics, hopefully Landseer’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream delighted some of those who visited the National Gallery of Victoria following its unveiling in September 1932, whose viewpoint was perhaps not clouded by the one-upmanship commentary regarding the use of the Felton Bequest funds or the emerging pre-eminence of the taste for modernism in contemporary art. Certainly, it may have provided visual inspiration for the Church of England Girls Grammar School, Geelong, whose students made A Midsummer Night’s Dream the centrepiece of their Shakespeare pageant on 22 April 1933.66‘Shakespeare day. Pageant and fair’, The Herald, 11 Apr. 1933, p. 2. Also for the pupils of Loreto Convent, Mandeville Hall, Toorak, who on 13 November 1933, treated his Grace Most Rev. Dr. Mannix, Archbishop of Melbourne, to a Midsummer performance in which ‘the children wished to lead him, for a while, away from dull realities into a dream-world created by the magic of Shakespeare and brightened by fairy song and dance’.67‘Loreto Convent, Mandeville Hall, Toorak. Entertainment by the pupils’, The Advocate, 16 Nov. 1933, p. 17.

When Landseer’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream arrived in Melbourne in late 1932, the community already had fairies on its mind. From May 1931 local sculptor Ola Cohn had been carving Australian fauna and attendant fairy characters on an ancient red gum stump in the Fitzroy Gardens, Melbourne. As this long-term project slowly progressed, Cohn’s efforts received wide coverage in the Australian press, which regularly featured photographs of the artist at work. As the Riverine Herald reported in November 1932:

when Miss Cohn commenced her work and figures of Australian native birds and animals, also gnomes and fairies commenced to appear, children began to gather in increasing numbers and to ask many questions about these strange little folk. There had to be a reason for the appearance of each one since small people will not be denied, and gradually a wonderful fairy story crept into being.68‘The fairies’ tree’, Riverine Herald, 18 Nov. 1932, p. 3. See also Barbara Lemon (ed.), A Way with the Fairies. The Lost Story of Sculptor Ola Cohn, R. W. Strugnell, Melbourne, 2014, pp. 66–9; and Anna Clabburn, Looking for Faeries: The Victorian Tradition, Bendigo Art Gallery, Bendigo, 2010, p. 15.

Some of these children may well have visited the NGV to see Landseer’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, finding their belief in fairies reinforced in both the Gallery and garden. As Theseus, Duke of Athens, says in Act 5 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream,

as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.69Wolfgang Clemen (ed.), William Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Signet Classics, New York, 1998, p. 70.

Ted Gott is Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria.

Notes

1

Isambard Kingdom Brunel to Edwin Landseer, 27 Dec. 1847. Quoted in Hilarie Faberman & Philip McEvansoneya, ‘Isambard Kindom Brunel’s “Shakespeare Room” ’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 137, no. 1103, Feb. 1995, p. 109.

2

Faberman & McEvansoneya, p. 110.

3

John Calcott Horsley, letter to Isambard Brunel, Feb. 1870; quoted in Isambard Brunel, The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1870, p. 507.

4

Celia Brunel Noble, The Brunels: Father and Son, Cobden-Sanderson, London, 1938, p. 187.

5

L. T. C. Rolt, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. A Biography, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1959, p. 99.

6

‘Exhibition of the Royal Academy (private view). First notice’, The Times, 3 May 1851, p. 8. This glowing description of the painting was repeated in the paper a week later in ‘Royal Academy of Arts. Second notice’, The Times, 11 May 1851, p. A2.

7

‘The Royal Academy. The eighty-third exhibition – 1851’, The Art Journal, 1 Jun. 1851, p. 155.

8

‘London, and the exhibition: seventh article’, The Scotsman, 31 May 1851, p. 2.

9

William Macready, diary entry of 3 May 1851; in Sir Frederick Pollock (ed.), Macready’s Reminiscences, and Selections from his Diaries and Letters, Macmillan and Co., London, 1875, p. 394.

10

Richard Ormond & Joseph Rishel, Sir Edwin Landseer, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia and The Tate Gallery, London, 1982, p. 190.

11

William Blake, quoted in Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake with Selections from his Poems and Other Writings, vol. I, Macmillan and Co., London, 1880, p. 161.

12

Thomas Crofton Croker, letter of 12 Nov. 1827 to Wilhelm Grimm, printed in Thomas Crofton Croker, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. Part III, John Murray, London, 1828, p. xiii.

13

Thomas Crofton Croker, p. xiv.

14

Thomas Hood, The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies, Hero and Leander, Lycus the centaur, and Other Poems, E. Littell and J. Grigg, Philadelphia, 1827, pp. i–ii.

15

Jeremy Maas, ‘Victorian fairy painting’, in Jane Martineau (ed.), Victorian Fairy Painting, Merrell Holberton, London, 1997, p. 11.

16

Christopher Wood, Fairies in Victorian Art, Antique Collectors’ Club, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2000, pp. 11–12.

17

‘St. James’s Theatre’, The Times, 1 Apr. 1851, p. 5.

18

‘St James’s Theatre’, The Morning Post, 1 Aug. 1850, p. 5.

19

‘St James’s Theatre. Mrs Fanny Kemble’s readings of Shakespeare’, The Morning Post, 10 Apr. 1851, p. 5.

20

‘Readings of Shakespeare by Mrs Fanny Kemble. St James’s Theatre’ and ‘Her Majesty’s Theatre’, The Observer, 15 Jun. 1851, p. 1. See also Marian Wilson Kimber, ‘Reading Shakespeare, seeing Mendelssohn: concert readings of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, ca. 1850–1920’, The Musical Quarterly, vol. 89, no. 2/3, Summer–Fall 2006, pp. 199–236.

21

‘Theatre Royal, Adelphi’, The Times, 25 Apr. 1851, p. 4.

22

J. W. C., ‘Tyrone Power: a biography – part III’, The Dublin University Magazine, vol. 40, no. 240, Dec. 1852, p. 718.

23

Carole G. Silver, Strange and Secret Peoples. Fairies and the Victorian Consciousness, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999, p. 31.

24

Nicola Brown, Fairies in Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001, pp. 1, 11.

25

Silver, p. 7.

26

Silver, pp. 37, 43.

27

Silver, pp. 34–5. See also Carole Silver, ‘On the origin of fairies: Victorians, romantics, and folk belief’, Browning Institute Studies, vol. 14, 1986, p. 146.

28

Ambrose Merton [William John Thoms], ‘Folk-Lore’, The Athenaeum, no.  983, 29 Aug.1846; reprinted in Richard M. Dorson (ed.), Peasant Customs and Savage Myths. Selections from the British Folklorists, vol. I, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1968, p. 55.

29

Thomas Keightley, The Fairy Mythology, vol. II, Whittaker, Treacher and Co., London, 1833, p. 117.

30

Charles Dickens, ‘Frauds on the fairies’, Household Words. A Weekly Journal. Conducted by Charles Dickens, vol. 8, no. 184, 1 Oct. 1853, p. 97. Cruikshank’s opening to the tale of Hop-O’My-Thumb is a typical example of what Dickens objected to: ‘Once upon a time there was a certain Count, who possessed many castles and large domains. He was a very good man, but, unfortunately, he had some very bad companions, who led him into drinking habits, card-playing, betting on horse-races, and all sorts of foolish gambling; and these bad men, by these means, got all his money from him’. George Cruishank et al., George Cruikshank’s Fairy Library, Bell and Daldy, London, 1853, p. 3. See also Judd D. Hurbert, ‘George Cruikshank’s graphic and textual reactions to Mother Goose’, Marvels & Tales, vol. 25, no. 2, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 2011, pp. 286–97.

31

Campbell Lennie, Landseer: The Victorian Paragon, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1976, p. 35.

32

Michael Baker, The Doyle Diary. The Last Great Conan Doyle Mystery, Paddington Press, New York and London, 1978, p. viii. See also Allan Beveridge, ‘What became of Arthur Conan Doyle’s father? The last years of Charles Altamont Doyle’, Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, vol. 36, no. 3, 2006, pp. 264–70. On Richard Doyle, see Rodney Engen & Lionel Lambourne, Richard Doyle and His Family, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1983.

33

‘Art exhibitions. “The humorous and the terrible” ’, The Times, 1 Feb. 1924, p. 8.

34

See Peter Raissis, Victorian Watercolours from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2017, pp. 74–5.

35

Silver, p. 56.

36

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘A new revelation. Spiritualism and religion’, Light, vol. 37. no. 1869, 4 Nov. 1916, pp. 357–8. In his autobiography, Conan Doyle went even further, telling his readers how: ‘I have clasped materialized hands. I have held long conversations with the direct voice. I have smelt the peculiar ozone-like smell of ectoplasm … I have seen the “dead” glimmer up upon a photographic plate which no hand but mine had touched … I have seen heavy articles swimming in the air, untouched by human hand, and obeying directions given to unseen operators. I have seen spirits walk round the room in fair light and join in the talk of the company’. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1924, p. 402. See also Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Wanderings of a Spiritualist, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1921.

37

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Coming of the Fairies, Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, London, 1922, pp. 9, 88–9.

38

See Mary Losure, The fairy ring, or Elsie and Frances fool the world, Candlewick Press, Somerville, Massachusetts, 2012, pp. 161–3. See also David Hewson, ‘Cottingley fairies a fake, woman says’, The Times, 18 Mar. 1983, p. 3; David Hewson, ‘The Cottingley fairies. Secrets of two famous hoaxers’, The Times, 4 Apr. 1983, p. 3.

39

‘Fine arts. A scene from “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, painted by Sir Edwin Landseer, R. A.’, The Norfolk News (Norwich), 31 Oct. 1857, p. 5; ‘A Scene from the Midsummer Night’s Dream’, The Norfolk Chronicle & Norwich Gazette (Norwich), 7 Nov. 1857, p. 2; ‘Fine Arts. A Scene from the Midsummer Night’s Dream. Painted by Sir Edwin Landseer, R.A.’, The Morning Post (London), 2 Dec. 1857, p. 5; ‘Sir Edwin Landseer’s Painting’, The Cheltenham Chronicle, Parish Register and General Advertiser for Gloucester, 5 Jan. 1858, p. 5.

40

Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski, Anchor Books, New York, 1966, pp. 218, 227.

41

William Prynne, Histrio-mastix: The Players Scourge or Actors Tragedie, London, 1632, in Edmund S. Morgan, ‘Puritan Hostility to the Theatre’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 110, no. 5, 27 Oct. 1966, p. 342.

42

John Tucker Murray, English Dramatic Companies 1558–1642, vol. II, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1910, p. 148.

43

‘Sir E. Landseer’s Titania and Bottom’, The Times, 25 May 1858, p. 12.

44

‘Fine Arts. Scene from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Painted by Sir E. Landseer, R.A. Engraved by Samuel Cousins, R. A. H. Graves and Co.’, Illustrated London News, 8 May 1858, p. 474.

45

Lennie, p. 158.

46

George Redford recalled see it at Agnew’s in Bond Street in May 1883. George Redford, Art Sales. A History of Sales of Pictures and Other Works of Art, vol. II, self-published, London, 1888, p. 63.

47

Lewis Carroll, diary entry, 22 Jan. 1857, in Roger Lancelyn Green (ed.), The Diaries of Lewis Carroll, Cassel & Company, London, 1953, pp. 101–2.

48

Lewis Carroll, diary entry, 12 Sept. 1857, in Green, p. 122.

49

Lewis Carroll, diary entry, 17 Nov. 1857, in Green, p. 130.

50

Green, p. 171.

51

Randall Davies, letter to the Felton Bequests’ Committee, NGV, 28 Jan. 1932, NGV artist’s files.

52

‘Picture sales’, The Art Journal, 1 Jun. 1860, p. 181.

53

George Redford recalled seeing it at Agnew’s in Bond Street in May 1883. George Redford, Art Sales. A History of Sales of Pictures and Other Works of Art, vol. II, London, 1888, p. 63.

54

Frederic George Stephens, ‘The Collection of Mr. W. Cuthbert Quilter, M. P. The Modern English Masters – II’, The Magazine of Art, 1897, p. 178.

55

Violet Cust, letter to Randall Davies, 4 Apr. 1932, NGV artist’s files.

56

Randall Davies, letter to the Felton Bequests’ Committee, NGV, 20 Apr. 1932, NGV artist’s files.

57

‘Entertainment. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”,’ The Argus, 10 Oct. 1930, p. 3. See also ‘ “Midsummer Night’s Dream” Lives Again. Buffoonery and faery in the Greenwood’, The Herald, 21 Mar. 1930, p. 2.

58

‘Shakespearian plays. Performed by schoolgirls’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Apr. 1932, p. 5.

59

‘St Mary’s College, Gunnedah. Annual Concert’, The Catholic Press, 31 Dec. 1931, p. 11.

60

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, The Age, 25 Apr. 1932, p. 12.

61

‘New repertory society. Shakespeare in modern dress’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Nov. 1931, p. 5. When this production was reprised the following year, it was again pilloried: ‘They repeated the performance in the same way on Saturday evening. It would be more accurate to say that they repeated the same offence. Shakespeare’s delightful fantasy simply cannot be played like this. Even to the most indulgent of audiences the spectacle of Athenian maidens in high-heeled shoes, silk stockings, and blouses, is completely destructive of every spark of illusion’. ‘Repertory Theatre. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Dec. 1932, p. 4.

62

‘New pictures at the National Gallery. Felton Bequest Purchases’, The Age, 30 Sept. 1932, p. 11

63

‘Gallery pictures. Largest purchase for two years. Cost £6887. Mr. Randall Davies’ selection’, The Age, 29 Sept. 1932, p. 8.

64

Arthur Streeton, ‘The new pictures. Felton Bequest purchases’, The Argus, 8 Oct.1932, p. 4.

65

Blamire Young, ‘New Gallery pictures. “To suit all tastes”,’ The Herald, 30 Sept. 1932, p. 7.

66

‘Shakespeare day. Pageant and fair’, The Herald, 11 Apr. 1933, p. 2.

67

‘Loreto Convent, Mandeville Hall, Toorak. Entertainment by the pupils’, The Advocate, 16 Nov. 1933, p. 17.

68

‘The fairies’ tree’, Riverine Herald, 18 Nov. 1932, p. 3. See also Barbara Lemon (ed.), A Way with the Fairies. The Lost Story of Sculptor Ola Cohn, R. W. Strugnell, Melbourne, 2014, pp. 66–9; and Anna Clabburn, Looking for Faeries: The Victorian Tradition, Bendigo Art Gallery, Bendigo, 2010, p. 15.

69

Wolfgang Clemen (ed.), William Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Signet Classics, New York, 1998, p. 70.