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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

DIY Fairy Houses

FairyRoom has collected ideas for fairy furnishings, but for more ambitious architects, we present Part 2 in our fairy-sized Friday set of articles: tips for constructing a fairy house! Whether to play with or display, fairy houses come in different sizes and levels of intricacy.

My Paradise Cottage offer several Fairy House kits from which to choose: basic, deluxe, spring, summer, autumn — and (as seen in the image at right), a fairy village. These kits provide all you need to create your miniature, magical abode. And while we are less than enamored with the little plastic fairy figurine included in some kits (the pewter ones seem lovely), the moss-covered roofs are charming!

This lovely diagram shows an artfully crafted fairy house by Tatiana Katara.

A helpful WikiHow guide provides step-by-step instructions for building your own fairy house. A nice touch with this how-to is in Step 4 where “Gather materials from the woods or your garden” is suggested. Having construction material from your own garden will make the fairy house feel more authentically placed, as if it had been “truly built” by enterprising sprites gathering materials.

Harvested from PinkandGreenMama.blogspot.com/

Self-described “crafty mama” and blogger, Pink and Green Mama, built this show-stopping fairy house (last image) for her daughters for a steal. She calls it “so much cooler than pixie hollow,” and we agree!

What would your ideal DIY fairy house include? We’d love to see what you’ve made. Share with us! Submit to our Tumblr, @tweetfairies on Twitter, or write on our Facebook timeline.

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Fairies in the Garden, a Garden for the Fairies

Many artists depict fairies in wild gardens. FairyRoom staffers love the idea of keeping an area of your garden beautiful but slightly unkempt. John Anster Christian Fitzgerald’s, Titania and Bottom, (featured in FairyRoom’s article, “Fairy Fitzgerald” and Titania’s Changeling) shows animals and fairies in bushes of heather. Some say heather may open portals between humans and fairies. Butterflies, hummingbirds and fairies share the garden in many pictures, such as Fitzgerald’s Cat Among the Fairies, pictured below.

Bring fairy elements together in your own garden. Perhaps cover a trellis with coral honeysuckle and trumpet vines. Imagine an old bathtub tucked away and filled with hollyhocks, snapdragons, sweet potato vines where fairies can play. Randomly placed candles, lanterns and strings of fairy lights will make an evening encounter ethereal in your garden.

D.I.Y.: We stumbled upon this enchanted post about making outdoor fairy furniture using craft supplies from nature (twigs!) and a handy glue gun. The miniature chair and coffee table are so inviting that any imagination could conjure a fairy sighting.

So Many Ideas! Pintrest abounds with board after board of fairy garden accessories to make — we liked this one a lot, this one, too. But for the less crafty, take a look at the ready-made fairy garden accessories we found here.