Huskisson is regarded as one of the major exponents of Victorian fairy painting, although he was a far less substantial artist than either Richard Dadd (lot 86) or Noël Paton (lot 235), and he lacked the fantastic and whimsical imagination of his slightly younger contemporary J.A. Fitzgerald (lot 49). He was born Robert Locking Huskinson [sic] at Langar, Nottinghamshire, the son of Henry Huskinson, a local portrait painter, but in 1839, when he was twenty, he moved to London with his younger brother Leonard, who was also a painter. Changing their name to Huskisson, the brothers exhibited at the Royal Academy, the British Institution and the Society of British Artists, but Robert ceased to exhibit in 1854, possibly for health reasons. He was still only forty-two when he died seven years later.
Huskisson belonged to the circle of Samuel Carter Hall (1800-1889), a prolific man of letters who not only produced innumerable books on every aspect of popular culture but edited the Art Journal, the leading (though deeply conservative) art magazine of the day. Mrs Hall, who was her husband's intellectual superior, was also a fertile author, many of their books being produced in tandem. The Halls owned examples of Huskisson's work, and, together with Noël Paton, William Frost, Clarkson Stanfield, Thomas Creswick and others, he contributed illustrations to Mrs Hall's Midsummer Eve: A Fairy Tale of Love (1848). Huskisson was also well know as a copyist, and carried out work of this kind for the great collector Lord Northwick (1769-1859). His picture of the Picture Gallery at Northwick's country house, Thirlestane House, Cheltenham (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven), was exhibited at the British Institution in 1847. William Powell Frith mentions Huskisson in his autobiography, writing that although he had 'painted some original pictures of considerable merit,' he was 'a very common man, entirely uneducated. I doubt if he could read or write; the very tone of his voice was dreadful.'
Most of Huskisson's fairy paintings take their subjects from A Midsummer Night's Dream or The Tempest, and the present example is no exception. It is also typical in owing an obvious debt to the stage. The action is seen through a painted arch reminiscent of a proscenium arch in a theatre, with symbolic figures painted in monochrome on the lateral pilasters in a manner still found in some theatres built or refurbished during the Victorian era. As for the figures ('actors' might be a better word), they seem to be caught in the gaslight or limelight that revolutionised the early Victorian theatre, and were never more effectively employed than in the ballets and pantomimes in which fairies so often played a central role. We might be watching one of the so-called 'transformation scenes' which still conclude traditional pantomimes, in which all the resources of theatrical artistry combine to elicit gasps of wonder and delight from the audience.
The picture is a version of one now in the Tate Gallery which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1847, belonged to S.C. Hall, and was later in the collection of Charles and Lavinia Handley-Read. The two versions are approximately the same size, and almost identical in detail. An engraving after the S.C. Hall version was published by the Art-Union in 1848 (facing p. 306), with the following enthusiastic account:
This little picture is wonderful in every part; there is not a portion of it which has not been studied and painted with a truth and delicacy inimitable: in conception it is truly original, and in execution admirable. The work was hung most advantageously at the Royal Academy, and attracted very great attention, inasmuch as the name of the painter was heretofore comparatively unknown. As we anticipated, however, it brought him numerous commissions, and we shall be greatly mistaken if we do not find him, ere long, occupying a distinguished place among the leading artists of our time.
No doubt it was the enthusiastic reception of the picture at the R.A. of 1847 that encouraged Huskisson to make a second version. Our picture can hardly be more than a year later than the original.
The Victorian Fairy Painting exhibition which was held at the Royal Academy, London, and elsewhere in 1997 included not only the Tate picture but a very similarly conceived subject from The Tempest, 'Come unto these Yellow Sands' (no. 29, illustrated in catalogue). This too is said to date from 1847 and to have belonged to S.C. Hall.