"THE FAIRY FELLER'S MASTER STROKE"
A PAINTING BY RICHARD DADD (between 1855–64)
This work, although unfinished, is generally considered to be Dadd's masterpiece. It was painted for H.G. Haydon, an official at Bethlem Hospital, where Dadd was sent after he became insane and murdered his father in 1843. He was transferred to Broadmoor in July 1864, before being able to complete the painting, but he later wrote a long and rambling poem entitled 'Elimination of a Picture & its subject - called The Feller's Master Stroke', which attempts to explain some of the imagery.
With the exception of Shakespeare’s Queen Mab, Oberon and Titania, who appear in the top half of the picture, the figures are drawn entirely from the artist's imagination. The main focus of the painting is the Fairy Feller himself, who raises his axe in readiness to split a large chestnut which will be used to construct Queen Mab's new fairy carriage. The allusion here is to the Queen Mab of Romeo and Juliet (I, iv) who, Mercutio says, rides in a chariot created from "an empty hazelnut”.
Romeo and Juliet, Act I, scene iv, lines 53-94.
O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Over men’s noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers;
Her traces, of the smallest spider web;
Her collars, of the moonshine’s wat’ry beams;
Her whip, of cricket’s bone; the lash, of film;
Her wagoner, a small grey-coated gnat,
Not half so big as a round little worm
Pricked from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazelnut,
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on curtsies straight;
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees;
O’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are.
Sometimes she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
And sometimes comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail
Tickling a parson’s nose as ‘a lies asleep,
Then dreams he of another benefice.
Sometimes she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five fathom deep; and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,
And being thus frighted, swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That plats the manes of horses in the night
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled much misfortune bodes.
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage.
This is she!
In the centre of the picture the white-bearded patriarch raises his right hand, commanding the woodsman not to strike a blow until the signal is given. Meanwhile the rest of the fairy band looks on in anticipation, anxious to see whether the woodsman will succeed in splitting the nut with one stroke.
The magician-like figure of the patriarch wears a triple crown, which seems to be a reference to the Pope. Dadd saw the Pope during a visit to Rome in 1843 and was apparently overcome by an urge to attack him. Although the patriarch may be interpreted as a father figure, the tiny apothecary, brandishing a mortar and pestle in the top right of the picture, is in fact a portrait of the artist's father, Robert Dadd. This group of figures was intended to represent the childhood fortune-telling game 'soldier, sailor, tinker, tailor, ploughboy, apothecary, thief'. Unusually for Dadd, a note of prurience is introduced into the picture to the left of the patriarch, where two distorted but voluptuous fairy women are ogled by a satyr. Otherwise, the figures range from tiny gnats and centaurs, driving Queen Mabs in her old carriage, to a large dragonfly playing a trumpet.
A later, more finished, watercolour version of the picture is in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
OBERON AND TITANIA
In William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, written in 1595/96, Oberon is the king of all of the fairies and is engaged in a dispute with his wife Titania, the fairy queen. They are arguing over custody of a child whom Oberon wants to raise to be his henchman.
When the audience first meets Oberon and Titania, their relationship is not going very well. Their first appearance is in Act II, Scene I, and they immediately start hurling insults and accusations at each other. Titania accuses Oberon of having affairs with multiple women, including Hippolyta, the fiancée of Theseus, Duke of Athens. Oberon returns the accusation, saying, ''How canst thou thus for shame, Titania, / Glance at my credit with Hippolyta, / Knowing I know thy love to Theseus?'' (Act II, Scene I). Oberon is angry with Titania because she refuses to give him a young Indian servant boy upon whom she dotes.
THE QUARREL OF OBERON AND TITANIA by Joseph Noel Paton
THE SONG BY FREDDIE MERCURY (QUEEN)
Freddie Mercury wrote this song after seeing Richard Dadd’s painting, and his accompanying poem. Queen's song makes reference to the characters in the poem, which follows the medieval theme of the album QUEEN II (1974). Like the painting, Queen's production is similarly complex on this song.
"Where the hell did that come from?" was Roger Taylor's first thought when told Freddie Mercury brought in the song. Taylor declared: "It was full of these mystical references. I was always reading - Lord Of The Rings, of course, Heinlein, Asimov, CS Lewis's adult sci-fi. But I never once saw Freddie with a book. But he had all these words about this painting. Fred was like a magpie. He had this very sharp brain but he was not what you'd call a well-read man.”
Regarding the use of the word 'Quaere' in the repeated lines "What a quaere fellow," Roger Taylor stressed that it was not related to Freddie Mercury's sexuality. The Quaere Fellow is also Brendan Behan's first play, first produced in 1954.
He's a fairy feller
The fairy folk have gathered 'round the new moon shine
To see the feller crack a nut at night's noon time
To swing his axe he swears, as he climbs he dares
The master stroke
Ploughman, "Waggoner Will" and types
Politician with senatorial pipe, he's a dilly-dally-o
Pedagogue squinting, wears a frown
And a satyr peers under lady's gown, dirty fellow
What a dirty laddio
Tatterdemalion and the junketer
There's a thief and a dragonfly trumpeter, he's my hero
Fairy dandy tickling the fancy of his lady friend
The nymph in yellow (can we see the master stroke)
What a quaere fellow
Soldier, sailor, tinker, tailor, ploughboy
Waiting to hear the sound
And the arch-magician presides
He is the leader
Oberon and Titania watched by a harridan
Mab is the queen and there's a good apothecary-man
Come to say hello
Fairy dandy tickling the fancy of his lady friend
The nymph in yellow
What a quaere fellow
The ostler stares with hands on his knees
Come on mister feller, crack it open if you please
A POEM BY RICHARD DADD
Dadd decided to compose a long poem in which he described all the characters in the hope that it would add meaning to his work. He called the poem Elimination of a Picture & its subject–called The Feller’s Master Stroke and from it we are supposed to derive that nothing is random about the figures shown. Every character has a roll to play.
The complete poem is available here
BRITISH CULTURE AND TRADITIONS - A NURSERY RYME
"Tinker Tailor" is a counting game, nursery rhyme and fortune telling song traditionally played in England, that can be used to count cherry stones, buttons, daisy petals and other items. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 802. It is commonly used by children in both Britain and America for "counting out," e.g. for choosing who shall be "It" in a game of tag.
The most common modern version is:
Rich Man, Poor Man,
Beggar Man, Thief.
The most common American version is:
Rich Man, Poor Man,
Beggar Man, Thief,
Skipping version from the 70s:
Who shall I marry?
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief, Doctor, Lawyer, Merchant, Chief.
The "tinker, tailor" rhyme was part of a longer counting or divination game, often played by young girls to foretell their futures. During the divination, the girl will ask a question and then count out a series of actions or objects by reciting the rhyme. The rhyme is repeated until the last of the series of objects or actions is reached. The last recited term or word is that which will come true. Buttons on a dress, petals on a flower, bounces of a ball, number of jumps over a rope, cherry stones etc., may be counted.
When shall I marry?
This year, next year, sometime, never.
What will my husband be?
Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich-man, poor-man, beggar-man, thief.
What will I be?
Lady, baby, gypsy, queen.
What shall I wear?
Silk, satin, cotton, rags (or silk, satin, velvet, lace)
How shall I get it?
Given, borrowed, bought, stolen.
How shall I get to church?
Coach, carriage, wheelbarrow, cart.
Where shall I live?
Big house, little house, pig-sty, barn.
DREAMS, MUSIC & ART: IT’S YOUR TURN NOW!
Listen to Freddie Mercury singing one of his last songs, A WINTER’S TALE. Draw what HE sees
Riccardo Zambon, 11th March 2023