Rheam was born into a Quaker family in Birkenhead, and studied art at Heatherley's, in Germany, and at Julians's in Paris. He was still apparently living at Birkenhead in 1889, but about 1890 he moved to Cornwall, settling first at Polperro and then at Newlyn. The move was probably encouraged by his cousin H.S.Tuke, who lived in Falmouth but often visited Newlyn and was well known to the artistic community that had grown up there in the 1880s. A year older than Rheam, Tuke too had studied both in London and abroad, although his spell in Paris in the studio of J.P. Laurens, was probably a year or two earlier than Rheam's time at Julian's. The circumstances of Rheam's move to Newlyn were told by Stanhope Forbes, the community's acknowledged leader. 'The annual cricket match between the artists of St. Ives and Newlyn was one of the chief sporting events of the year, and about the time I speak of, St. Ives had acquired two notable batsmen and Newlyn seemed likely to endure defeat. But in a fortunate moment the situation was saved, for Harry Rheam, that notable cricketer, was imported at great expense from Polperro. He remained with us ever after and we had reason to remember gratefully the rivalry between the two colonies in the noble game' (Newlyn, Plymouth and Bristol, 'Artists of the Newlyn School 1880-1900, 1979, p. 235 (eds. Caroline Fox and Francis Greenacre).
Rheam appears in one of Fred Hall's caricatures of the Newlyn artists, made in 1890, and indeed looks more like a cricketer than an artist. In 1900 he married Alice Elliott and they lived at Boase Castle Lodge, Belle Vue. Later they moved to West Lodge in Penzance, remaining there until Rheam's death in 1920. It is curious that his early Birkenhead address should appear on the back of our picture of 1903. Presumably this means that he kept some foothold in the north or was staying with his family whom he despatched the picture to London for exhibition.
To judge from Rheam's Witt Library file, his output was fairly small. He exhibited only twenty pictures at the Royal Academy between 1887 and 1919, although he was a regular contributor to the Royal Institute of Painters in watercolours, of which he was a member, and he exhibited once at Suffolk Street. He died at the age of sixty-one, and it is possible that his health was poor.
The present picture, a delightful example of 'Last Romanticism', is undoubtedly one of Rheam's masterpieces, although the quality of his work was consistently high. He painted a number of such literary subjects; others included that hardy perennial of the Romantic tradition, Keats's La Belle Dame sans Merci, and 'Quia Multum Amavit', a theme that had intrigued Burne-Jones. However, from the time he settled in Newlyn, he also painted numerous fishing and coastal scenes.
Rheam was not typical of the Newlyn artists in preferring watercolour, meticulously handled, to the bold 'square brush' oil technique that so many of his colleagues adopted, but his subject matter was characteristic. While this is obvious as regards his studies of local life, it is also true of his more imaginative work. For although the essential direction of Newlyn painting was determined by the influence of French naturalism, this by no means precluded fantasy and symbolism. The community's most consistent exponent of this field was T. C. Gotch, who had settled in Newlyn in 1887. He had been a close friend of Tuke since their student days at the Slade, and he would have known Rheam as well. The present picture seems to echo Gotch's work, both in terms of the emphasis placed on children (albeit here masquerading as elves) and the processional composition. Gotch's A Pageant of Childhood (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1899, makes a particularly interesting comparison, being an outstanding example of his taste for processional designs and painted only four years earlier than The Fairy Wood.
Another Newlyn artist who combined realism with fantasy was Elizabeth Stanhopes Forbes, Stanhope Forbes's Canadian born wife, and she too offers a parallel to our picture, even closer in date. This is the series of watercolours illustrating the story of Sir Gareth of Orkney which she published with her own text as a book entitled King Arthur's Wood in 1904. Though bolder in handling than Rheam's picture, these drawings are very similar in imagery and spirit, and the artists must have been in touch.