Faerie Queens and Art

Tristan and Isolde by John William Waterhouse

Faerie Queens have long been inspiration for artists.    They factor heavily into Celtic lore and legends.   Celtic culture itself heavily influenced the Arthurian Legends!   Arthurian legends would inspire many generations of artists.

Edmund Spenser wrote the epic poem The Faerie Queene during the reign of Elizabeth I.   The poem is an epic journey throughout a Britain very reminiscent of Arthurian Legend.   The poem served as an allegory for life as a courtier in the royal Tudor court of Elizabethan England.    The name of the Faerie Queene of the title is Gloriana, and this would also serve as a nickname for Elizabeth I!

Other notable Faerie Queens include Rhiannon, Melusine (both of whom have blog posts here at White Rose of Avalon devoted to them), Mab, Maeve, Aine, Titania and Macha (a form of the Morrigan).    Mab was the name of the Faerie Queen in a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley!    Titania is the name Shakespeare used for his Faerie Queen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream!   Maeve, Aine, Macha, and Mab are all found in Celtic lore, and are especially connected to Irish belief.

During the Victorian period Faery legends and lore became exceedingly popular.   Fairy Art during the Victorian period often focused on tiny winged flower fairies (the Tinkerbell kind).   There was of course much done by a set of Victorian artists known as The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood that utilized medievalism and Arthurian Legends!    Within this set of     artists much was placed on naturalism and truth in nature.   Their Faerie Queen types of paintings were more real and looked like the medieval perceptions of Faery lore!    

Sir Edward Burne-Jones was especially inspired by ancient cultures and medievalism.   One of his most famous paintings is The Beguiling of Merlin which depicts Merlin just before he was betrayed by Vivian (or Nimue) who was the Lady of the Lake, a faerie woman herself!   Other artists that have painted in the Pre-Raphaelite style, but were not members of the Brotherhood as they came decades later, include Edmund Blair Leighton and John William Waterhouse!

Both Leighton and Waterhouse painted Faerie women and Queens.   These are powerful and beautiful women who used their intelligence to get where they wanted in life.   As I mentioned above the faerie art of the Victorian period was largely focused on diminutive flower fairies.   This is the most common perception we have of fairies today!

The case of the Cottingley Fairies became famous in 1917 when two little girls took photos of them playing with fairies in a garden.    In the end there were five photos, and people became intrigued with debating whether the photos were real or doctored!   Famous people including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame, were staunch believers in the validity of these photos!   The girls confessed to having used cardboard cutouts to fake the photos, four of them at least.   Even on her death bed one of the girls insisted that the fifth photo had been genuine! 

The Cottingley Case was again an example of small flower fairies.   Today our main perception of fairies is exemplified in Tinkerbell!   The faerie Tinkerbell was born in Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up which was first performed in December of 1904 at the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre.   In 1911 J.M. Barrie would adapt Peter Pan into the novel Peter and Wendy.    Disney would take this tale and make it’s iconic animated film in 1953!   In this film we see Tinkerbell, for the first time, as she has become ingrained in our collective imagination!     She is a tiny blonde fairy with her hair in a bun, wearing a green dress and flats, and having shimmery iridescent wings.   

This has been a historical look at faeries and Faerie Queens in art!    I hope you have enjoyed my thoughts, and the content of this article!!!   Let me know your opinions on Faerie Queens in art in the comment section below!

Note on Image: The image at the top of this post is Tristan and Isolde by John William Waterhouse.   I found the image on http://www.john-william-waterhouse.com/.   As I mentioned in my post on Tristan and Isolde last week, Isolde can be seen as a Faerie Queen, hence the use of this painting here!

Further Reading/Watching

  • The Faerie Handbook: An Enchanting Compendium of Literature, Lore, Art, Recipes, and Projects by The Editors of Faerie Magazine
  • Fairies: The Myths, Legends, & Lore by Skye Alexander
  • The Fairy Bible by Teresa Moorey
  • The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser
  • Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
  • Peter Pan (1953)
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)