Saturday, September 18, 2010

John Anster Fitzgerald - two pictures

[Fairy Banquet] [Giving Alms]
Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium: 97,250 GBP (both pictures)

22.5 by 29.5cm., 9 by 11 ½in.

inscribed and signed l.r.: The original/ sketch/ of The Fairy's Banquet/ J. A. Fitzgerald

oil on board

The inscription on this painting identifies it as a version of, or study for, The Fairies' Banquet (private collection) but it is significantly different enough to be considered an independent work rather than a preparatory study and it has a slightly different title which places the emphasis of the painting on the central figure. The Fairies' Banquet is dated 1859 and the present picture presumably dates from the same year or shortly before. Both compositions depict a court of fairies gathered around a table made from a toadstool where elves and goblins play harps and piped instruments and bring silver trays of fantastical food to the banquet. At the centre of the table is a beautiful fairy queen glittering with dew and fairy-light in whose honour the enchanted gathering is being held.

The work of 'Fairy Fitzgerald' epitomises the Victorian fascination with magical subjects of the elfin-folk of literature, folklore and imagination. As Jeremy and Rupert Maas have explained; 'Fitzgerald's creations are pure magic. His fairy paintings, at their best, present us with a world of vivid yet harmonious colours. They are inhabited by beautiful fairies with translucent wings and diaphanous garments, wood sprites with glittering hair, goblins with fantastic heads, sleeping, walking, dreaming, or tormenting mice or birds. Deep in sunless forest glades or bathed in moonlight, they are framed by honeysuckle, cowslips and Morning Glory, 'nodding violets', 'sweet musk-roses' and 'wild thyme', entwined with writing branches.' (Jeremy and Rupert Maas, introduction to Fairy Painting, exhibition catalogue for a Japanese touring exhibition, 2003- 2004, p. 10)

John Anster Fitzgerald was the son of the derided Irish poet William Thomas Fitzgerald. Details of Fitzgerald's training as a painter are not known and it is likely that he was self-taught. However, by the 1840s he was exhibiting at the British Institution, the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of Artists. His oeuvre was not limited to fairy paintings and among the exhibits he showed over his fifty-year career, were landscapes, historical scenes and portraits. However his best-known and most successful work by far, are the series of fairy pictures produced during the 1850s and 1860s. Unlike the other, more conventional subject pictures, his fairy works were highly imaginative, glorious in colour and shimmering with magical poetry. It is these qualities which have made Fitzgerald the most celebrated of all the Victorian fairy painters, more so now than ever before. After his death in 1906, Aaron Wilson of The Savage Club wrote of Fitzgerald, as 'an artist who will probably be more appreciated in time to come than he was in his own lifetime' (Christopher Wood, Fairies in Victorian Art, 2000, p. 98).

Fitzgerald did not limit himself to painting subjects suggested by literature and unlike other artists his subjects were not drawn purely from A Midsummer Nights Dream or The Tempest. For Fitzgerald these sources were suggestive of subjects but it was within his own imagination that he found his own fairy world. The strange fairy folk were inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch, particularly the creatures in the foreground playing musical instruments. Prints by Bosch were widely available in the mid nineteenth century and collected by artists.

On the reverse of this board is a composition depicting a small child giving alms to a beggar. This more straightforward subject indicates a desire on Fitzgerald's part to paint the type of sentimental genre fashionable in the mid nineteenth century. This offers a glimpse of a rarely seen side of Fitzerald's oeuvre, although most will prefer the unique charm of his more imaginative and fantastical work.

In the 1990s this picture was owned by Stanley J. Seeger, the heir to an American lumber fortune. Mr Seeger is a passionate connoisseur of British art whose collection included works by artists as diverse as the early British watercolour painters such as Turner and Samuel Palmer, Victorian works by Burne-Jones and Edward Lear and twentieth century British art by the likes of Sutherland and Ben Nicholson. His collection also included works by Francis Bacon, Braques, Miro, Egon Schiele and Jasper Johns and no less than three pictures by Picasso. He owned three works by John Anster Fitzgerald.

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