Fairy painting is a peculiarly Victorian phenomenon, or rather a peculiarly Victorian contribution to the Romantic movement. Although its roots stretched far back into the 18th century, it was only in the Victorian era that fairies siezed the popular imagination, with enormous implications for such areas of culture as book illustration and the stage. Readers of Jane Eyre (1847) will recall how the heroine 'busies herself in sketching fancy vignettes', including one of 'an elf sitting in a hedge-sparrow's nest, under a wreath of hawthorn bloom'.
J.A. Fitzgerald was one of the most important and prolific exponents of the genre. Some of the others - Richard Dadd, Sir Edwin Landseer and Sir Joseph Noël Paton among them - may have been greater artists, but there is something about Fitzgerald's vision that is quintessentially Victorian. It was fitting that 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, while his father, William Thomas Fitzgerald, was an indifferent poet whom Bryon ridiculed in English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers (1809). William 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 Watercolours, while showing further works at the Maddox Street Sketching Club. He continued to exhibit at the RA 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 RA 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.'
Although Fitzgerald is best known today for his fairy subjects, his range seems to have been wider. He is often said to have earned his living from portraiture, although little evidence of this activity appears to survive. 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).
In fact Fitzgerald was almost certainly in touch with the Pre-Raphaelite circle through the Gothic Revival architect William Burges. He helped to decorate Burges's Gothic furniture, notably the celebrated Great Bookcase (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), an enormous piece designed in 1859 to hold the architect's collection of books on art and exhibited at the International Exhibition at South Kensington in 1862. The theme of the decoration was Pagan and Christian Art and many artists were involved besides Fitzgerald, who painted a panel of the Sirens. Others included Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Poynter, Albert Moore, Simeon Solomon, Henry Holiday, Stacy Marks, Frederick Smallfield and W.F. Yeames. All these men were friends of Burges, and had something to contribute to his extravagant project. None, however, equalled him in eccentricity and love of fantasy more than J.A. Fitzgerald.
Most of the older fairy painters, whether pioneers like Reynolds, 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. Sometimes the sleepers are actually shown, surrounded by the phantasmagoria of their lulled but teeming brains. The mood is often sinister or threatening, and it is hard to believe that Fitzgerald was not familiar with the work of Hieronymus Bosch (fig. 1). 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. It is as if his scenes are lit by the brilliant limelight that had become popular by the 1850s, particularly for the pantomimes which his paintings sometimes resemble.
The present example is typical in its imagery, and unusually attractive in the emphasis it places on a winsome furry mammal. The address on the backboard - 233 Stanhope Street, Regent's Park - suggests that it was painted after 1872. According to the Royal Academy catalogues, Fitzgerald moved to this address that year, and was still living there when he ceased to exhibit in 1881. If the picture was exhibited, as may well have been the case, research has yet to identify the date and venue.