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31 Oct 2022

Sean Jefferson and the Fairy Tradition at David Messum Fine Art

Messum's Stand: 58
Sean Jefferson and the Fairy Tradition at David Messum Fine Art
Sean Jefferson, Full Moon, Pear Tree Fairies, oil on panel 91.5 x 122 cm (36 x 48 ins)

Until the late nineteenth century, fairy painting was a serious and popular genre, made famous by Richard Dadd, but also adopted by Richard Doyle and John Anster Fitzgerald who were themselves inspired by the Dutch Masters, Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel. Fairy imagery was heavily based on legend and folklore, which for centuries had fed into the daily routines and rituals of ordinary people and whose study and understanding fell between religion, superstition and science. In the 1600s, the ‘country’ tradition of fairies was popularised in the works of William Shakespeare (Midsummer Night’s Dream), Michael Drayton (Nymphidia) and Robert Herrick (The Fairies), who took spoken-history and recorded them in poetry and drama. Later, fairy elements were incorporated into the work of the great romantic painters such as William Blake, and even later in the work of prominent Pre-Raphaelite artists. It was Edwardian society that began to ridicule the tradition and force the transformation of the genre into one that we associate with childhood and storey books.

Sean explains: “Victorian Fairy Painting in many ways is a precursor of Symbolism, Biomorphic Surrealism and the more mystical Surrealism which is very much in vogue today. The fascination with diminutive fairies really gets going in the Jacobean period with illustrations of the Works of Shakespeare, which provided the inspiration for Victorian Fairy painters including Richard Dadd and John Anster Fitzgerald. Much of this work extends beyond illustrations for children’s books, for instance, the Grimm Tales were not originally aimed at children.”


These finely detailed images are paralleled with richly coloured psychedelic works that stand as an evolution of his more romantic paintings based in folklore and mythology. An iconic style of the 1960s, the origins of these works stem from the boundary between realist and abstract elements, the effect of which is like experiencing what is real and what is not real simultaneously. Sean’s use of intense complimentary colours creates the classic ‘flashing colour effect’ so iconic to the psychedelic art and culture of the 1960s, recalling bands such as The Beetles and Pink Floyd.  Sean describes these works:  “They sit side by side with the fantastical strand of the Romantic Tradition, and the work of William Blake, Henry Fuseli and James Barry, whilst incorporating innovations in the art form since the early 19th century.  Although the core of my paintings fit with the very popular Victorian vision of the genre, I have integrated elements from Surrealist, Psychedelic and Fantasy Art, to emancipate our concept of fairies and to create what I hope is a unique and accessible work of fine art.”