Tiptoeing Through the Toadstools: Mushrooms in Victorian Fairy Paintings

by Moselio Schaechter

For some time now, I have been mushrooming on the internet, searching for works of art with fungi in them (not on theme, which of course could be of concern to art conservators). At first I though the pickings would be slim – and that only few pieces include mushrooms. Not so. The Baroque Italian and Dutch painters of still lifes incorporated them in their scenes quite often. Recently, I became aware of another mother lode: In British paintings of the Victorian era, mushrooms appear quite frequently in works of art devoted to fairies and fantasies. These paintings, of a genre known fittingly as “Victorian Fairy Paintings,” have received attention in recent years. It has been the subject of exhibitions at major museums, such as New York’s Frick Collection. In these works, mushrooms appear not just as outdoor decorations, but are – at long last – part of the central theme.

'A Fairy Ring' by Walter Jenks Morgan

‘A Fairy Ring’ by Walter Jenks Morgan, RBA, RBSA (1847-1924). Courtesy of The Leicester Gallery

Victorian Fairy Paintings depict scenes of the hidden-from-view world of fairies and elves: little creatures that consorted with mice, butterflies, and birds of their own dimensions. This was a world of scantly clad or nude miniature people who impishly cavorted in the very face of prudish Victorian convention. For proper scale, imagine winged, leggy, half-sized Barbie dolls fluttering around mushrooms. Paintings of this genre were very popular in the middle of the 1850’s and by 1870 had become a craze. To the modern eye, “cute” seems inescapable, yet this ethereal art form has its own fascination even now. Whimsical though they are, these works have a somber purpose and even a melancholic and perhaps sinister side. Much has been written about the origin and success of these paintings: desire to depart from the academic art that preceded them, fascination with romantic subjects in natural settings, popularity of the occult and the supernatural, and, not least, the casual use of laudanum, a mixture of alcohol and opiates.

'Triumphal March of the Elf King by Night' by Richard Doyle

‘Triumphal March of the Elf King by Night’ (1870) by Richard ‘Dicky’ Doyle (1824-83) Courtesy of The Leicester Gallery.

What of the mushrooms? Not infrequently, they are part of the landscape in grassy areas or on the forest floor. Sometimes they serve as seats for fairies or for that knavish sprite, Puck. They tend to be stylized and nondescript, with wide caps and stout stems, often umbonate. Most of them would seem to have gills, although that is hard to tell because they are usually depicted upright. I would guess that the painters had species of russulas or cortinarii in mind. By now, you must wonder: “What about fairy rings?” It turns out that I for one had it all wrong. I was taught to believe that the fairies danced inside the rings. But in several pictures, the fairies are dancing outside a circle of mushrooms or around a single specimen. It’s nice to get straightened out on such matters. You never know!

'Come, Now a Roundel' by Arthur Rackham

‘Come, Now a Roundel’ (1908) by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). Courtesy of The Endicott Studio

In these paintings, mushrooms unquestionably are part of the scene. They are as integral to the enchanting spectacle as are the gnomes and elves themselves. Mushrooms belong in the lower reaches of the forest and their presence there is as natural as the sprites and pixies. They all go together. Most likely, the inhabitants of this miniature world must have been pretty good mycologists.

Mushrooms continued to be depicted in notable works of fantasy. They are portrayed in the illustrations in Alice in Wonderland and in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Here, mushrooms reach gigantic proportions, as witnessed by the narrative: “After we had gone about five hundred yards, we suddenly turned a steep promontory, and found ourselves close to a lofty forest! It consisted of straight trunks with tufted tops, in shape like parasols…. My uncle unhesitatingly called them by their real names. ‘It is only,’ he said, in his coolest manner, ‘a forest of mushrooms.’…. I had heard that the Lycoperdon giganteum reaches nine feet in circumference, but here were white mushrooms, nearly forty feet high, and with tops of equal dimensions.”

Through the ages, many cultures held mushrooms in awe. In the Western world at least, it took the Victorians to give these feelings a visual manifestation.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of Mushroom, the Journal of Wild Mushrooming.