J.A. Fitzgerald was one of the most important exponents of the phenomenon of Fairy Painting, which seized the popular imagination in the Victorian era. He was represented by more works than any other artist in the major exhibition devoted to the subject that opened at the Royal Academy in 1997 and was subsequently seen in Canada and the United States.
It is probably no accident that many of the artists who attempted fairy subjects were Irish or of Irish extraction. Francis Danby, Daniel Maclise and the brothers Richard and Charles Doyle are examples, and Fitzgerald himself was another. His grandfather, after whom he was named, was a colonel in an Irish regiment of the Dutch army. His father was William Thomas Fitzgerald, an indifferent poet, who did not marry until he was about sixty, and John Anster was the third of six children whom he fathered in quick succession.
The artist was born in London, where he continued to live all his life. Nothing is known of his formal or artistic education, but in 1845, when he was twenty-two, he made his debut at the Royal Academy. He was also to support the British Institution, the Society of British Artists (to which he sought election in 1864), and the Royal Institute of Painters in Water-Colours, while showing further works at the Maddox Street Sketching Club. He continued to exhibit at the Royal Acedemy until 1881, but there was then a long interval until 1902, when he contributed one more picture before his death four years later. It is possible that this late appearance was connected with his being awarded an Royal Academy pension.
Little is known of Fitzgerald the man, but at the Savage Club, of which he was a member, he was known for his impersonations of long dead actors such as Kemble, Kean and Macready, uttered in a rich Irish brogue. Harry Furniss remembered him with affection in his
reminiscences, My Bohemian Days, 1919. 'He was a picturesque old chap, imbued with traditions of the transpontine drama [i.e. the Old Vic]...He had a mobile face, a twinkling eye, and his hair was long, thick and thrown back from his face... He was known as "Fairy Fitzgerald" from the fact that his work, both in colour and black-and-white, was devoted to fairy scenes; in fact his life was one long Midsummer Night's Dream.'
By the late 1850s he had become a regular contributor to The Illustrated London News, specialising in fairy subjects for the magazine's Christmas numbers. His characteristic style clearly owed much to the Pre-Raphaelites, whose influence is very evident in a work such as 'Christmas', a genre scene exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1858 and sold in these Rooms on 2 November 1990 (lot 274c). Fuseli and Blake or more senior Victorians such as Landseer, Dadd, David Scott and Noël Paton, derived their subjects from literary sources, notably Shakespeare's two plays with supernatural themes, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest. Fitzgerald occasionally did likewise, as in 'Titania and Bottom: Scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream', which was sold on 25 June 1998 (lot 306) for the world record price of £386,500. His most characteristic works, however, represent a significant break with this tradition, showing fairy subjects which seem to be essentially his own invention.
Often featuring birds and small animals, as well as fantastically attired denizens of the fairy kingdom, they have a hallucinatory quality, as if they were the products of drug induced dreams. It is hard to believe that Fitzgerald was not familiar with the work of Hieronymus Bosch. It is also conceivable that he experimented with opium, a hypothesis that would help to account not only for his troubled imagery but the unnatural vibrancy of his colours. Equally, this may betray the influence of the stage, of which he was clearly a devotee.
The theme of the bird's nest was one that appealed to Fitzgerald and he depicted Fairies nests, perhaps having displaced the occupants or violating the eggs, a theme that also appeared in the work of Hieronymus Bosch. Birds such as Robins were believed to bury the bodies of people who died or were murdered in the woods, this relationship with humans gave fairies ambivalent feelings towards them and they are depicted held captive (see Victorian Fairy Painting, exhibition catalogue, London, 1997, p. 123, no. 46). Another theme involving birds shows fairies feeding fledglings, as in the present work. Sometimes there may be the sinister suggestion that the food is poisoned, however in the present work the mood feels more benign.
Fitzgerald exhibited four watercolours from the address on the label attached to the reverse between 1867 and 1870, entitled 'The race', 'The abduction', 'The reconciliation' and 'The discovery'. Fitzgerald did on occasions sign 'FG' in monogram, although this has led to some confusion over attributions (see C. Gere, Victorian Fairy Painting, London, 1997, p. 125, no. 48).
A watercolour by Fitzgerald entitled 'The Wounded Squirrel' was sold Christie's, London, 28 November 2001, lot 29 (£124,750).