Thursday, April 26, 2012

"The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke"

The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke
When I was in the insurance business I was very fortunate to be a frequent traveler to London, and one of the places I haunted was the former Tate Gallery, now known as Tate Brittain.

This is a unique painting that I discovered there, The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke. Even though it's relatively small (only 21.25 x 15.5 inches), it made a strong impression on me with its thick layers of paint and incredible, almost feverish detail, especially when seen from a few inches away. I also was intrigued by the story of the man who created it, Richard Dadd (1817-1886), and where the work was done. 

Richard Dadd was a promising artist who suffered an acute mental breakdown on a trip abroad that eventually lead to the gruesome murder of his father with a knife and razor. Dadd escaped to France where he tried to murder a fellow traveler, but was captured and returned to England.  At a hearing he plead guilty and was sentenced to removal "to a place of permanent safety without coming to trial". 

The "safe place" was Bethlehem Hospital's criminal lunatic department that came to be known as Bedlam, where Dadd stayed until 1864 when he was moved to Broadmoor, spending a total of 42 years in these institutions. At Bethlehem Dadd created his most remarkable paintings, including The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke, which he worked on from 1855-1864.

The painting has layer upon layer of images, from the Shakespere-inspired Fairy-feller himself, shown in the lower right with a hatchet cracking open a hazelnut to make a chariot for Queen Mab from 'Romeo and Juliet", but there also are hidden faces and other imagery. Quite a lot has been written about the painting, but it's never been fully explained. Nevertheless, The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke been a source of inspiration to artists of all sorts for over a hundred years, including Freddie Mercury who created a song of the same name in 1974 for Side Black on the album "Queen II". 

Here are the lyrics:

(he's a Fairy Feller)

The fairy folk had gathered 'round the new moon's shine
To see a Feller crack a nut a night's noon time
To swing his ax, he swears
As it climbs, he dares
To deliver...
The master stroke

Ploughman, Waggoner Will, and types
Politician with senatorial pipe 
He's a dilly dally-oh

Pedagogue squinting, wears a frown
And a satyr peers under lady's gown
Dirty fellow
What a dirty laddie-oh

Taterdamaellion and a Junketer
There's a thief and a dragonfly trumpeter
He's my hero

Fairy dandy, tickling the fancy of his lady friend
The nymph in yellow
(can we see the master stroke?)
What a quaere fellow

Soldier, sailor, tinker, tailor, ploughboy
Waiting to hear the sound
And the Arch-Magician presides, he is the leader

Oberon and Titania, watched by a Harridan
Mab is the queen and there's a good apothecary-man
Come to say hello

Fairy dandy, tickling the fancy of his lady friend
The nymph in yellow
What a quaere fellow

The Ostler stands with hands on his knees
"Come on, mister Feller, crack it open if you please"

I wonder what Richard Dadd would make of the enduring fame of this work, the differing interpretations of the images it contains, and the way it continues to inspire many forms of creativity.

Richard Dadd

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