21 July 2020 – The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke

I’ve been dreading writing this up as I got a tiny bit soppy and had a cry during today’s folklore. It’s the anniversary of the opening in 1897 of the Tate, in which hangs my favourite painting, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke by Richard Dadd. The painting was never completed despite being worked on for many years, and was painted in the Bethlem Hospital, or the infamous Bedlam, London, where Dadd had been incarcerated after murdering his father, believing him to be the Devil. 

Before lockdown, the original plan had been to go to the Tate, sit in front of the painting, listen to The Art of Slow Looking podcast, and make a creative response. The podcast produced for the Tate discusses how to take your time when looking at paintings, using The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke as an example. And given the sheer complexity of this painting, slow looking is definitely recommended.

But obviously Plan A didn’t happen as the gallery doesn’t reopen until next week. So I enacted Plan B, I slow looked at the faded, water crumpled print in my sitting room instead. By the way, all the details of the painting and the podcast are in the resources below if you want to have your own look.

The gist of slow looking is to stand in front of a piece of artwork, close your eyes for two minutes and try and block out the world. I always find this practically impossible, especially if I then have to write about the experience. I found myself suppressing the rehearsal of phrases about traffic noise, cat purring similes, my breathing, my weird posture. But I did my best and was surprised how quickly the two minutes went (I’d set a timer). Then you just look, taking in the shapes, and the light, the tone, the form, the line, the colour, the context. Which sounds like a load of meaningless concepts but coupled with the background information and perspectives from the podcast, I did find myself really looking. 

And for the first time I can remember, my eye wasn’t drawn straight to this geezer:

He sits just off centre. Instead I read the painting from top left. And saw so many new things. The cricket playing the trumpet, miniscule naked fae, the detail on the chestnuts, the unbroken ones looking like rolled up hedgehogs, a face hiding in folds of material, a look of utter despair. I’ve loved this print for over 35 years but never seen these things. I mean I’ve seen them, but it felt like they hadn’t really registered until now.

As I continued to look, relationships between characters unfolded. One Blue Shoe wants One Red Shoe, but One Red Shoe is indifferent and yet holds all the power as she stares at Red Beard, who stares back. The space between the outstretched arms of the monk and the wee man in the red cap, about to be severed by the fairy feller’s axe. Then I got to wondering about what time the painting is set. Dawn? Dusk? I argued with myself about this for a while, not helped by the even more sludgy colours of my print.

And then I thought I could keep looking at the painting forever. And that made me think of something else, and that made me teary. Emotions surfacing was something else that came up in the podcast, so I was half expecting it, just not with this painting, and not tears. And then I stopped. 

The Art of Slow Looking felt less like an exercise and more of a meditation. I’m half inclined to do it with all my paintings as I felt perfectly relaxed after finishing. But seriously, if you’ve never checked out The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke it’s an absolute bonkers joy. I mean, just look again at this bloke, he’s such a tiny part of the painting, less than 2 inches tall, and yet the detail is just breath taking. 

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https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/dadd-the-fairy-fellers-master-stroke-t00598

https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/richard-dadd-130/art-slow-looking

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