The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke [Richard Dadd]

Rivaat Zarlif


The Bethlem Hospital for the criminally insane commissioned this fairy painting from inmate Richard Dadd.

It's considered his masterpiece and we can see why. The OCD at work here is spectacular. Never has so much minute detail been worked into a single canvas. And after 6-9 years of work, it is still unfinished!

Fairies were a big thing in mid-1800s UK. Unlike today, they were creepy and feared and avoided. Fairies were not just pranksters, but kidnapped people and could spread the deadly disease tuberculosis. They caused unknown illness in cattle and other farm animals. To protect youself, wear your clothes inside out and carry four-leaf clovers.

Dadd's fairies live in a dark world and look none too friendly. The fairy characters are so maddeningly small that you have to enlarge the image a dozen times to see all that is going on. The main character is the Fairy Feller and he has raised his axe to fell a large tree. A band of fairies looks on in anticipation.

Among the gazzilion other figures, the right-hand corner has a tiny chemist (pharmacist) holding a mortar and pestle, and resembles the artist's father. There is also a cross-legged man in a turban and a vigorous explorer in a rain poncho, who is likely the former mayor of Newport, Sir Thomas Phillips. Dadd accompanied Sir Phillips on an ill-fated tour of Europe and the Middle East that helped trigger his paranoid schizophrenia. So this fairy tableaux is really Dick's nightmares come true.