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 Academy 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 a 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 Christie's, Londons, 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 Christie's, London, 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.
Fitzgerald often introduced animals into his fairy subjects, but they are generally birds or small mammals, sometimes the mood is rather sinister with birds held captive or defending their nest against attack. However Fitzgerald was capable of depicting a more light hearted ambiance where the mood is mischievous rather than menacing, such as here with the figure riding the rabbit. However the sheep in the present watercolour are unusual, as is the snowy landscape. One of the fairies is carrying a large thorn, however the sheep do not look as if they are anxious or threatened and as in another watercolour by Fitzgerald The Wounded Squirrel, the fairies may be caring or protecting the animals; the imagery of a protective hedge of brambles in The Wounded Squirrel is repeated in the present composition.
Fitzgerald exhibited a painting entitled Winter at the Royal Academy in 1861 and a work by the same title at the British Institution in 1867.
A watercolour by Fitzgerald entitled The Wounded Squirrel was sold Christie's, London, 28 November 2001, lot 29 £124,750.