Sir Joseph Noel Paton. The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania (1847)

Oil on canvas, approximately 30 inches x 48 inches. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.

The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania (1849)

Oil on canvas, approximately 39 x 60 inches. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Stanley Cursiter's remarks on Joseph Paton's happy childhood with parents who encouraged him to draw and paint suggest that the artist's later endeavors in fairylore might have come to him quite naturally; his mother, Catherine McDiarmid Paton, was "deeply interested in tradition, folklore, the supernatural, and the fairy-stories of the Celts" (86). Whatever its inspiration, Paton's canvas The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania was a popular success and won a prize of £200 at the Westminster Hall competition of 1847, and huge crowds were likewise attracted when a few years later he exhibited the companion painting The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania.

The Art Journal judged The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, shown in 1850 at the the Royal Scottish Academy, "the great original feature of the Exhibition this year." To some the canvas is overwhelmingly busy with too many details to produce a unified effect, but to The Art Journal this was a virtue that revealed a "quantity of thought" in a painting that "contains within itself materials for a dozen paintings." The reviewer concentrates on just a small portion of the canvas (see the detail of the lower left-hand corner) to demonstrate how close attention can reward the viewer:

The numberless episodes which surround the principal action are all alike original and ably pictured forth. The Gnome, who looks forth with yellow care-worn face, holding in his hand the proceeds of his gold-finding; and whose repulsive features are worshipped and smiled on by the little beings near, is again typified by the spider above his head, whose fearful web is thickly studded with the bodies and wings of entrapped insects. The slimy snails who crawl into the dismal cave are also typical of those who cringe and crawl after mammon. Some relief is found from this in another scene, where Beauty is wooed by Riches; but is won by Poesy, who rivets her attention and secures her pure heart. In a similar manner we might enlarge on the various parts of this picture, but enough has been said to show the quantity of thought it exhibits. (12:101)

But as popular as these paintings were with the crowds and some of the reviewers came to see them, they did not please everyone.

John Ruskin, in his remarks on Home (Paton's 1856 painting of a wounded soldier who has just returned home and is attended by his sweetheart and his mother) suggests, with perhaps a hint of disapproval, that Paton surely must have taken greater pleasure in Home than he did in "those fairy assemblies of his" (14.50). But Ruskin took little satisfaction in any of the multitude of fairy paintings of the nineteenth century. In a series of lectures entitled The Art of England (1883), in one lecture called "Fairy Land" he notes that it is "extremely rare to find a good painter condescending" to the fairy genre. "I believe Sir Noel Paton's pictures of the Court of Titania, and Fairy Raid, are all we possess in which the accomplished skill of painting has been devoted to fairy-subject." His impression is, however, that Paton should be admired more for his display of "the exquisite power of minute delineation" than for his ability to "arrest . . . even a momentary credence in the enchantment of fairy-wand and fairy-ring" (23.334). Ruskin's admiration for Paton's "fairy assemblies" is thus qualified. The "enchantment" of Paton's fairies in the Midsummer Night's Dream paintings leave Ruskin unimpressed, but perhaps there are depths in the paintings that the critic might have explored more thoroughly. As we have noted, both Henry Fuseli and Richard Dadd depict a darker side to the characters of Titania and Oberon in their paintings, and Raymond Lister in British Romantic Painting suggests that Paton likewise recognizes the sinister aspects of Shakespeare's play:

The fairy king and queen, having quarreled, are now reconciled, and the unhappy human couple in whom their quarrel has been reflected lie asleep, to be reconciled in their turn on awakening. But Paton has taken the story onto another level, the crowded surging composition being full of psychological suggestions, close in many ways to Richard Dadd's The Fairy-Feller's Master Stroke, but in Paton's work the creations of a sane artist who has dipped into the mysteries of the subconscious.

His discoveries are not invariably pleasant; for instance at the front of the composition a goblin attacks a fish which attempts in retaliation to swallow one of its attackers. There are perverse and malicious spirits, such as the horned Puck above the head of the sleeping man, and the evil leering hatted figure beside him, whose attitude in accentuated by the herm of Pan within the circle of flying fairies to the right of Titania. Many of the figures are distinctly erotic, for example the small group of Oriental musicians on the ground to the left of Oberon and the writhing couple in the left foreground. Perhaps the most disturbing is the conspicuous variation in the size of the figures, from tiny elves and fairies small enough to hold in the palm, through the commanding stature of the fairy monarchs, to the giant proportions of the human beings (plate 68).

Lister here echoes modern critics, among them most notably Jan Kott in Shakespeare Our Contemporary, who outline for us some of the dark aspects of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Shakespeare's play is not all "fairy-wand and fairy-ring," as we learn in Act II, Scene i, when Oberon and Titania confront one another in their argument over the "changeling boy." After the two suggest that each has previously dallied with the mortals--Titania with Theseus and Oberon with Hippolyta--Titania tells us that their argument has had consequences far beyond their mere disagreement:
These are the forgeries of jealousy:
And never, since the middle summer's spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest, or mead,
By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturb'd our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck'd up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land,
Hath every pelting river made so proud,
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch'd his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat; and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain'd a beard:
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine-men's-morris is fill'd up with mud;
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green,
For lack of tread, are undistinguishable.
The human mortals want their winter cheer;
No night is now with hymn or carol bless'd:-
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose;
And on old Hiems' chin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.

All nature and mankind reflect and suffer from the ugliness of their quarrels, just one of the darker aspects that cloud the comedy of A Midsummer Night's Dream.