The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke


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.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke

The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke is a painting by English artist Richard Dadd. It was begun in 1855 and worked on until 1864. Dadd painted it while incarcerated in the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum of Bethlem Royal Hospital, where he was confined after he murdered his father in 1843. It was commissioned by George Henry Haydon, who was head steward at Bethlem Royal Hospital at the time.


Dadd had begun his career as a painter of fairy paintings before the onset of his mental illness. After he was committed, he was encouraged to resume painting. G. H. Haydon was impressed by Dadd's artistic efforts and asked for a fairy painting of his own. Dadd worked on the painting for nine years, paying microscopic attention to detail and using a layering technique to produce 3D-like results. Although it is generally regarded as his most important work, Dadd himself considered the painting to be unfinished (the background of the lower left corner is only sketched in).

He signed the back of the canvas with the inscription: "The Fairy-Feller's Master-Stroke, Painted for G. H. Haydon Esqre by Rd. Dadd quasi 1855–64". According to Patricia Allderidge, 'quasi' "may mean that it was set aside during that period or that it took a long time to start". The end date, 1864, coincides with Dadd's transfer to Broadmoor Hospital in Berkshire, the asylum where he spent the remaining 21 years of his life.

In order to give context to his work, Dadd subsequently wrote a long poem by the name of Elimination of a Picture & its Subject—called The Fellers' Master Stroke in which each of the characters appearing in the picture is given a name and purpose—including myriad references to old English folklore and Shakespeare—in an apparent attempt to show that the painting's unique composition was not merely a product of random, wild inspiration.

The painting is in the Tate Britain collection. It was presented to the Tate by the war poet Siegfried Sassoon in memory of his friend and fellow officer Julian Dadd, a great-nephew of the artist, and of his two brothers who gave their lives in the First World War.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke.