The Master Stroke

Another Victorian painting today, and I promise to try and find something a bit different next time, as I don’t want it to seem like it was only the Victorians who were interested in fairies (although, as far as I know, it was indeed the most… fruitful period for such art).
So. Richard Dadd, born in 1817 in Chatham, Kent, England, deceased in 1866, in an asylum near London. He was committed to said asylum after murdering his father in 1843. Probably a schizophrenic, and significantly obsessed with details and minute ornamentations, he was luckily allowed to continue working while in hospital; and it is here that he produced his best works, including what is his most famous, most influential and probably best work, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke (1855-1864). Yet again, wordpress’s playing with my nerves, so all you get is a bad version of the painting, which anyway defies the purpose, but. Here is a decent version.


Dadd considered this to be unfinished (see the bottom left corner) and allegedly wanted to add quasi before its title. Another interesting detail is that he used an interesting layering technique to give the picture a 3D-like effect. Apparently the layers of paint are so thick that it makes for a literally 3D experience anyway. He painted using a magnifying glass and the work is full of tiny details that are hard to see in online reproductions – for example, there is a small satyr coming out of the skirts of one of the women on the midleft of the picture.
These are, however, only two of the reasons why it’s hard to understand what exactly is going on in there. In an attempt to make it slightly more comprehensible, Dadd wrote a poem entitled Elimination of a Picture & its subject–called The Feller’s Master Stroke, which I would copy here, were it not for its impressive length. Wikisource has an incomplete and chaotical version; I found a much better one on this blog here (i hope it’s okay to link to it): that page is only for the first part, but there’s a big and very pink link saying “Continues with Part II” which you can click in case you’re sadistic enough to read the rest. Long story short, the Patriarch is the name of the Gandalf-like man in the centre of the painting, and it’s interesting to note the fairies and elves dancing on the brim of his hat and how this hat seems to be part of the natural landscape and to organically evolve into flowers and leaves. Above him, you can see the King and Queen of Fairies, which could be easily interpreted as representations of Titania and Oberon. In front of him and, surprisingly, with his back towards the viewer, is the Feller, who seems ready to cut a hazelnut in two, a reference to Queen Mab’s hazelnut chariot – and here I should quote the bard again, but the last posts have had quite enough of him.

All in all, I think there are three remarkable things about this painting. One is its insanely complex structure: I bet I could look at it daily for a year and still find something new about it. The other is its intimate feeling, as if we don’t randomly enter the Faerie world, but barge in during one of the most important moments of their tiny existence: look at the entire Elven folk gathered around the Feller, with this strange, supernatural sentiment of expectation. The third one is its legacy: The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke is Dadd’s masterpiece and it has since inspired not just painters, but fantasy writers such as Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin, and musicians: most notably, Queen. They have a song which bears the same name as the painting and which they’ve described as “the biggest stereo experiment” they’ve ever done. I think it’s quite good, and I’m not exactly fond of Queen. Enjoy.



Filed under Artlove, Musiclove, Poetrylove, Pseudointellectual

2 responses to “The Master Stroke

  1. Maybe I’m being influenced, but is that the prodigous alchemical royal couple I spot in the middle of the painting?, curiously placed over what seems to be a burning fire in a recess of the ground… There also seems to be some brewing? contraption on the top right corner. And the squatting person on the centre bottom right has an interesting face.

    I don’t know about the feeling, but the level of detail is astounding. There’s this fusion of so many different people and attires and I would say even “quirks” (like using the flowers as fans, or holding up a random hammer, or just the chestnuts on the ground). And so much pointing.

    • ladyruna

      Maybe I’m being boring, but I think it’s just Titania and Oberon (or, well, some versions of them). I also noticed the brewing in the top right corner. And there are so many strange things, like, aye, the squatting person’s face, the grasshopper (?) playing a trumpet, the rather grotesque leg of one of the women on the right, and the (very!) Napoleon-like man next to the pond, with half his leg bare.
      Apparently pointing was used LOADS in paintings a while ago, I don’t know why though.

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