How Fairies Brought Toadstools into High Art

We don’t notice toadstools in our high-tech modern life. We hardly ever see them, except on pizza or in a quiche. However, if we go to draw a fairy in our free time, or if we take a look at the gnome in our neighbor’s garden, we’ll notice that the little creature is sitting atop or hiding beneath a mushroom. Mushrooms and fairies are inextricably linked. This connection dates back to the ancient belief in Britain that fairy rings – those circlets of mushrooms that appear in fields – are caused by the dancing steps of fairies (more about the origins of fairy rings).

Fairy Rings and Toadstools, by Richard “Dicky” Doyle, 1870 ~ Lithograph on paper, 27.5 x 38 cm

The literal belief in fairy rings faded out during the Enlightenment in the 1700’s, when superstition made way to science. But before the Enlightenment could push fairies aside entirely, poets and artists drew upon that link forged in legends to enrich their works, thereby introducing it to high art. These craftsmen ensured that fairies and toadstools would live side by side in the popular imagination to this day.

Mushrooms began emerging into high art during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, when some of the era’s most eminent authors chose fairies as subjects. While Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene (1596) does center around a fairy court, Shakespeare deserves credit for introducing the whimsical world of fairy lore into a sophisticated form of literature. As T.F. Thiselton Dyer states in his book Folk-lore of Shakespeare (1883), “Judging, then, from the elaborate account which the poet has bequeathed us of the fairies, it is evident that the subject was one in which he took special interest…It has also been observed that well acquainted, from the rural habits of his early life, with the notions of the peasantry respecting these beings, he saw that they were capable of being applied to a production of a species of the wonderful” (1-2).

Shakespeare’s Queen Mab, from Mercutio’s speech in Romeo and Juliet (1597), became the typical monarch of the Fairy kingdom. During the period following Elizabeth’s reign, it became popular to describe Mab’s court in detail after Mercutio’s example. Jacobean and Restoration poets created vivid and pleasing scenes by describing the objects around the Queen and their minute building materials. Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673) was one such author whose poem “The Pastime of the Queen of Fairies” embodies this trend.

Puck, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1789 ~ Oil on canvas: 81 x 102 cm

It is devoted to describing Queen Mab’s nighttime routine. Lines 23-30 depict the objects involved in her royal meal, one of which is a mushroom:

Then to her dinner she goes straight,

Where all her imps in order wait.

Upon a mushroom there is spread

A cover fine of spiders web;

And for her stool a thistle-down;

And for her cup an acorn’s crown,

Wherein strong nectar there is filled,

That from sweet flower is distilled.

With a tradition of portraying the fairies’ court and the mushrooms therein well established in poetry, painters began to transpose the image from the written word onto canvas. The first serious fairy paintings were illustrations of literature, especially Shakespeare’s plays. Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) kicked off the sub-genre with his 1789 painting of Puck (directly above). As the sprite’s seat, the mushroom takes a primary spot in the composition of this painting, like they had in the descriptive poetry Reynolds used as a model. Henry Fuselli (1741-1825), following in Reynolds’s pattern, depicts a whole fairy court atop a mushroom in his painting Tatiana’s Awakening (1785) (pictured below). The genre of fairy painting took off in the Victorian era (1837-1901): such artists as Richard Dadd, Richard “Dicky” Doyle (top), and George Cruikshank produced works on the subject, almost all of which include mushrooms. John Anster “Fairy” Fitzgerald even put into visual form the banquet image Cavendish and others wrote about (bottom). Mushrooms, serving as tables, diases, centerpieces, and umbrellas, found themselves firmly ensconced in high art, and continued to be a common prop in the visual language of fairyland.

Tatiana’s Awakening, by Henry Fuselli, 1785-89 ~ Oil on canvas, 221 x 279.5 cm

What is small and close to the ground holds a fascination for us in our world of fast-evolving technology that has been removing us from nature for three hundred years. What is close to the ground holds an element of whimsy, but also something of desire that tinges images and descriptions of them with magic. That magic manifests in fairies, and thus fairies transformed the unlovely fungal form of life into something to be admired.

The Fairies’ Banquet, by John Anster Fitzgerald, 1859 ~ Oil on board, 22.5 x 29.5 cm