Christine Strelan - Between the Covers

Angels and Fairies

Iain Zaczek

Flame Tree 2005

Zaczeks book is a collection of popular art, mainly from the 19th century. The works vary enormously; there are the sombre angels of established artists like Edward Burne-Jones, hideously kitsch postcard illustrations of saccharine cherubs, the winsome elves of Arthur Rackham, John Fitzgeralds sinister, Bosch-like sprites, and flower fairies so twee they make my teeth hurt. Zaczeks commentary provides fascinating background information about the artists: Henry Fuseli, for example, used to eat a plate of raw beef before bed, believing it would bring him vivid dreams. Some of the most mysterious images in the book come from Richard Dadd, the Patron Saint of Outsider Art. Returning from a visit to Egypt, he believed Osiris had instructed him to kill demons; the god was obviously still cranky about that missing organ. Dadd then murdered his father with an axe, and continued painting from the lunatic asylum in which he was confined. At the other extreme, there are pious bourgeois artists, portraying pink-cheeked children with fluffy wings in clumsy moral allegories.

Regardless of their quality, these illustrations tell us a lot about the society that embraced them. Like most repressed cultures, the Victorians were sentimental; at their worst, these sugary creatures make me want to drop an anvil on them from a great height. They were also in complete denial of sex, and many of their scantily clad fairies are just hot chicks with wings on. As the Industrial Revolution was chomping up great swathes of the countryside, nature came to be seen as part of a vanished world. The romanticised woods and gardens here suggest their longing for a simpler, less mechanised existence. The 19th century also saw a craze for botany. Flowers and plants feature strongly in these works; in fact, Arthur Rackhams trees easily steal the show from his rather vapid fairies.

Zaczeks collection tells us a lot about how humans would like to imagine angels and fairies. Anyone intrigued by it and wanting more should also seek out Brian Froud and Alan Lees landmark Faeries compendium. Froud is one of only two recent artists in Zaczeks book, and has already done a great job of reclaiming the Twilight Kingdom for adults.

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.

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