Richard Dadd trained at the Royal Academy Schools in London from 1837-42. His early works reveal the influence of Fuseli, and in this painting there are echoes of Blake as well, in the figure of the white bearded patriarch in the centre for instance. Dadd painted a wide range of subjects but he is best known for his two fairy fantasies inspired by Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream
. This is the second of them and although Shakespeare's Oberon and Titania appear in the centre towards the top, the rest is Dadd's pure invention. Dadd's work was always imaginative, but the hallucinatory power that this painting possesses seems to have appeared after he became insane and murdered his father in 1843. He was incarcerated for the rest of his life, first in the criminal lunatic department of Bethlem Hospital in London (now the Imperial War Museum) and then, from 1864, in the newly opened Broadmoor Prison. Sympathetic staff enabled him to continue painting in both places and by the end of his life he had produced a large body of work, mostly in watercolour. This picture was painted for an official at Bethlem Hospital, G.H. Haydon, and Dadd left it behind, slightly unfinished in the foreground, when he was moved to Broadmoor. The following year he wrote a long rambling poem which describes, although it does not really explain, the picture. Dadd recounts that he imagined 'A Fairy band... / Fays, gnomes, and elves and suchlike fled / To fix some dubious point to fairies only / Known to exist ...' However, they are now all watching the fairy woodman to see if he will split the hazlenut with one stroke. The Patriarch in the centre wears a triple crown, which appears to be a reference to the Pope. Dadd visited Rome in 1843 and later confessed to his doctors that while attending one of the Pope's public appearances he had been overcome by an urge to attack him, only refraining, because he was so well protected. Dadd explains that the gesture of the patriarch's right hand is to command the Fairy Feller not to strike the nut until the order is given. Dadd introduces occasional satirical elements: directly below the Patriarch, in a pink cloak, is a 'Politician ... with a senatorial pipe ... / To hear him talk, Lord! how 't'would make you laugh.' To the left of the Patriarch are two maidservants, one holding a mirror and the other a brush. They are painted in an almost fetishistic way, with bulging calves and breasts and introduce a sexual note relatively rare in Dadd's art. He adds emphasis in this case by including a voyeur, a satyr, just visible by the rear foot of the maid to the right, peering up her skirt. Dadd devotes sixteen lines of his poem to this incident, in what may be a meditation on his enforced celibacy in prison.
At the top of the painting appears a group of figures representing the childhood fortune-telling game 'soldier, sailor, tinker, tailor, ploughboy, apothecary, thief'. Dadd's father was an apothecary and the one here looks very like him, judging from a portrait drawing done by Dadd in 1838. It has also been suggested that the Fairy Feller is a portrait of Dadd himself.
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.77