A Fairy Feller: The painting worshipped by Freddie Mercury

Richard Dadd’s prolific and utopian paintings were met with concern and deep intrigue in the Victorian era. His infamous murder of his father condemned him to a life-long commitment to asylums and a shelter from conventional and mainstream Victorian influences. A side effect of his isolation was his complete devotion to his imagination and schizophrenia. Dadd was given painting supplies and a studio, to which he portrayed his fantasies and delusions with an astounding talent and an affinity for miniature paintings.

His artwork’s precarious lines between creativity and madness were rich with literature and myths. Dadd garnered a devoted following of fellow creatives who would continue to draw inspiration from his acclaimed painting ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke’ (1855-1864). Painstakingly, Dadd spent nine years on his painting without ever finishing it as he was moved between institutions.

Despite being incomplete, ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke’ contains infinite detail and suspense that Queen frontman Freddie Mercury took notice of. The theatrical style of the painting parallels Mercury’s equally theatrical stage presence. Despite Dadd’s painting being used in a scene of ‘The Wee Free Men’ by Terry Pratchett, its most famous interpretation is by Mercury himself. Queen’s song from 1974, equally called ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke’, reflects the painting’s details with complex production and vocals, successfully articulating the visual fairytale.

Dadd’s painting immortalised the atmosphere of suspense. The actors in the painting wait for the Feller to throw his axe down onto the chestnut to split it for Queen Mab’s Carriage. All eyes are transfixed on the potential action, the Feller’s gleaming axe at the tipping point. Infuriated that he hadn’t finished his painting, Dadd wrote a poem attempting to explain it, called ‘Elimination of a Picture & its subject-called The Feller’s Master Stroke’, which Mercury took great inspiration from. Mercury reiterated the poem, which analysed all the minute characters.

His lyrics narrate the scene before him: “He’s a fairy feller/ The fairy folk have gathered round the new moon shine/To see the feller crack a nut at night’s noon time…” and “a satyr peers under lady’s gown, dirty fellow/ What a dirty laddie…/Fairy dandy tickling the fancy of his lady friend;/The nymph in yellow…/What a quaere fellow…”. Mercury recounts the Shakespearian painting with impressive momentum, mimicking the busyness of the painting.

It was revealed that Mercury often visited and analysed Dadd’s painting at the Tate Gallery in London and urged that the band members do the same. One can understand his obsession and repeated visits – the painting is so detailed that you pick up something new every time the eye passes over it.

Simon Reynolds, a journalist for Shock and Awe, conspires that this song is Mercury’s hidden confession about his sexuality. The lyrics, such as “queer fellow”, suggest that the singer has put an autobiographical tone to the paraphrased poem.

Ultimately, the details and layers of ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke’ by Dadd have been an abundant source of inspiration for modern-day artists. His assimilation of art and literature has given birth to music, owing to Mercury’s lyrical skill and vision.

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