Robert Huskisson

The Midsummer Night’s Fairies

exhibited 1847

On display at Tate Britain

Medium
Oil paint on mahogany
Dimensions
Support: 289 x 343 mm
frame: 430 x 483 x 45 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1974
Reference
T01901

Display caption

In the 1830s and 1840s, increasing numbers of fairy pictures appeared on the walls of the Royal Academy, and by the middle of the century the taste for fairy painting was well established. Many of the subjects were taken from Shakespeare’s play ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, as was this example which ‘attracted very great attention’ when shown at the Academy in 1847. Titania, Queen of the Fairies, has been lulled to sleep by her attendants, who are just disappearing from view in the shadowy distance to the left. Huskisson includes a painted frame resembling a proscenium arch, thus increasing the theatrical effect.

Gallery label, November 2016

Catalogue entry

T01901 THE MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S FAIRIES exh. 1847

Not inscribed
Oil on panel, 11 7/16×13 1/2 (29.0×34.3)
Purchased from the Fine Art Society (Benson Trust) 1974
Coll: Samuel Carter Hall by 1848; ?sold Foster's 23 April 1855, bt. Sir George Walker (see below); ...; Charles and Lavinia Handley-Read; by descent to Thomas Stainton
Exh: R.A. 1847 (54); Victorian and Edwardian Decorative Art, R.A., March–April 1972 (A43, repr.); Paintings, Watercolours and Drawings from the Handley-Read Collection, Fine Art Society, June 1974 (36, repr.)
Lit: Jeremy Maas, Victorian Painters, 1969, pp.160–1, repr. p.161; Patricia Allderidge, Richard Dadd, Tate Gallery 1974, p.147
Engr: Fred Heath in Art Journal, October 1848, facing p.306 (repr. in Richard Dadd, Tate Gallery 1974, p.147)

Subjects from the fairy world of A Midsummer Night's Dream were exhibited in the 1830s and 1840s by, among others, Henry Howard, E. W. Wyon, Maclise, Joseph Noel Paton and Richard Dadd. T.1901 was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1847 as ‘The Midsummer night's fairies’, with Oberon's lines from Act 2 Scene 1: ‘There sleeps Titania some time of the night, Lull'd in these flowers with trances [sic] and delight’. The Art Union in 1847 published an engraving after Huskisson's ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ with the comment: ‘When we selected it for introduction into our Journal, he was entirely unknown; his production from The Midsummer Night's Dream, exhibited at the Royal Academy during the present year, has, however, made many persons familiar with his genius; for it is not too much to say that it was among the most attractive of the works exhibited. Within a few months therefore, he has passed from obscurity to fame ...’ (p.378). The proprietor of the Art Union, S. C. Hall, owned both T01901 and ‘Come unto these yellow sands’, and it may be that he was given these pictures by the artist in return for featuring his work in the magazine. S.C. Hall frequently sold his pictures at auction, and a label on the back of T01901 indicates it was sold at Foster's on 23 April 1855 and was bought by Sir George Walker. T01901 does not appear, however, in the catalogue of that sale.

The Athenaeum of 29 May 1847 (No. 1022, p.577) noted that ‘The Midsummer Night's Fairies, by R. Huskisson (54), reminds us not a little of a design or two by Maclise; whose imagination and fancy in similar subjects seem to have warmed the young painter’. The writer is presumably thinking of Maclise's ‘Scene from Undine’ exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1844 (now Royal Collection). T01901 is closer to Richard Dadd's ‘Titania sleeping’, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1841 (private collection); as the catalogue of the 1974 Tate exhibition points out, both Dadd and Huskisson exploit the spotlighting of the main group, a proscenium arch to frame the scene, and fantastic details like the dewdrops. Dadd saw the engraving after Huskisson's picture in the Art Journal and borrowed back certain elements when he painted ‘Contradiction. Oberon and Titania’ in the 1850s. Huskisson lacked Dadd's interest in the more sinister aspects of fairyland. His flaccid female nudes resemble those of William Etty in pictures like ‘A Bivouac of Cupid and his company’ (R.A. 1838; now Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal). In T01901 the pose of Titania is adapted from Giulio Romano's ‘Sleeping Psyche’ in the Sala di Psiche in the Palazzo del Te at Mantua (the same pose Joshua Reynolds had used for his ‘Death of Dido’ in 1781), while the pose of the sleeping Hermia derives from the famous Vatican Ariadne.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1974-6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1978

Explore