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Apparitions of an ethereal kind

Is the revival of the fairy phenomenon evidence of a need to satisfy the imagination - or part of a prevailing climate of pseudo-science? Robin Buss goes in search of the little folk.

Fairies, it seems, are the latest thing. They are everywhere - at the bottom of the garden, out in the woods, in the Royal Academy, round the corner in the cardshop or bookstore, and in a cinema near you.

Not real fairies, of course, but the fairies of Richard Dadd and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creatures that we might like to imagine, but (in most cases) don't positively, truly believe in; products of the imagination or shared myths, with much the same reality as characters in history, or fiction, or even - the dead?

Fairies are often described as having most of their reality in the past. Chaucer's The Wife of Bath's Tale, for example, authenticates one legend by another: In th'olde dayes of the King Arthour Of which that Britouns speken greet honour, Al was this land fulfild of fairye, The elf-queene with hir joly compaignye Daunced ful ofte in many a greene mede.

That was the olde opinion as I rede; I speke of many hundred yeres ago, But now can no man see none elves mo . . .

Why are the elves seen no more? Because, the good wife tells us, with her usual impish humour, nowadays there are so many priests and friars wandering around saying their prayers, that they frighten the little people; with the result that a woman can now safely walk the woods and meet no other incubus except the friar himself - with whom her virtue is, naturally, quite safe.

Some 300 years later, the gossip John Aubrey was told that the fairies had left when bells were hung in Inkberrow church, or else that the cannon-fire of the Civil War had frightened them off. A couple of hundred years after that, John Ruskin decided that the building of the factories had driven them from the land. Among other, wilder explanations is that the fairies represent a smaller race, perhaps Neanderthals, whom the invading Celts used as domestic servants when they could lure them out of their hiding-places in the woods.

The new religion replacing the old, a gentler race alienated by modern noise and violence, or a technical, utilitarian society denying the needs of the imagination: each of these successive arguments is lodged somewhere in Nick Willing's film Photographing Fairies, released earlier this year, along with a "rational" explanation involving the use of hallucinogenic drugs.

A young man loses his wife in a tragic accident on their honeymoon before the First World War. He is left without the will to live, but survives the trenches to return to peace-time life as a photographer, eventually making a living by faking portrait groups of dead soldiers with their families. When he is shown pictures of a young girl apparently holding a fairy in her hand, he is highly sceptical, despite the insistence of Conan Doyle that the case is worth investigating. Then a detail in the photograph changes his mind and he sets out for the village where the apparition is supposed to have taken place. He learns that the girl's secret is a flower with the power to induce hallucinations, and he is drawn into violent conflict with the vicar of the parish, who is depicted not as a non-believer but as the priest of a rival faith.

This is only the first of two films based on the real-life case of two Yorkshire girls, who, after 1916, caused much interest among spiritualists, theosophists and credulous old gentlemen in a shaken wartime and post-war world, when they produced photographs showing them holding or looking at what appeared to be fairies.

The second film, Fairy Tale, which is more concerned with Conan Doyle's part in the affair, is due for release in the New Year. And the season's main Christmas film for children - The Borrowers - is also about little people who hide in corners of the house and prefer not to be seen. Neanderthals, again?

What is troubling about Photographing Fairies is not the tragic romance, or the special effects, or the dotty clergyman. It is the fact that the director and scriptwriter refuse to commit themselves on the reality or otherwise of the fairy apparitions. In fact, one of the girls in the original case admitted that the pictures had been faked; what's more, she described how she had done it. You might, therefore, expect a film on the subject to be an expose; you might think it would centre on themes of credulity or the human need for reassurance in a coldly materialist world; you might even consider the power of innocent-looking little girls to dupe lonely middle-aged men. Not a bit of it. What Nick Willing does is not to expose a proven photographic fake but to exploit the camera's ability to make us see and accept the impossible. The film itself is a deliberate and elaborate fake.

At first sight one might be tempted to compare it with those fantasies from the start of this decade - Ghost and Truly, Madly, Deeply - in which a loved one dies, then reappears to haunt the surviving partner, before eventually helping her to make a new start. But the makers of those films played fair. We knew that their pictures were fables and that their internal logic was not supposed to apply literally to our world. Not so with Photographing Fairies: it invites us to participate in the fantasy to the final frame and beyond.

This is romanticism postmodern-style: without absolute truth, my "truth" is whatever may be comforting for me to believe. The needs of the imagination, like the needs of the body, must be satisfied. The crux becomes not truth or falsehood, but belief or disbelief. Remember Peter Pan's warning that every time a child says, "I don't believe in fairies," a fairy falls down dead. What child would risk that? J M Barrie must have wanted very much for his audience to believe.

Some adults who see Peter Pan (now on in repertory at the National Theatre) probably do like the idea of children enjoying a fantasy world, though with the implication, surely, that they will soon (if all too soon) grow out of it. But the idea that there are certain things that properly belong to childhood, such as toys and fairies, assumes that they do not properly belong to adults - to the Royal Academy, say, or to films with a "15" certificate. Isn't 15 the age by which boys and girls should have left fairies well behind? To use them as the instrument in a tale of explicitly sexual adult love, as happens in the film Photographing Fairies, should seem as incongruous as holding funerals for teddy bears.

Or is this to misunderstand the phenomenon: is our idea of fairyland distorted by prettified images from the last century? Certainly, earlier fairies, those in Shakespeare, for example, or in country legend, are a good deal more robust and sinister than Peter Pan. The current exhibition at the Royal Academy - "Victorian Fairy Painting" - examines those 19th-century images, classifies them and explores the main sources in classical mythology, Shakespeare's The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream, in ballet and, perhaps, in opium dreams.

It asserts that fairy painting "is an important sub-genre of Victorian art", popular because of the reaction to utilitarian ideas and representing a nostalgia for the past and a desire to keep alive the imaginative world of childhood.

"What have I done," Charles Dickens wrote, "that all the gold and flowers of fairyland should have been ground up in a base mechanical mill and kneaded by you - ruthless unimaginative philosophers - into Household Bread of Useful Knowledge? . . . Am I to be deprived of the delicious imaginings of my childhood and have nothing in their stead?" "This is the first time I've been here," said the woman in front of me outside the Royal Academy, when a man in front of her enquired if he was in the right queue. On arriving at the desk, she loudly insisted that she had not come to see Sensation, the exhibition of young British artists which is running concurrently with the Victorian fairies. Clearly, the academy is trying with these two shows to reach new sections of the public, but how many will take advantage of the special offer of a Pounds 10 combined ticket for both?

Since the main galleries are occupied by sliced cows, dead shark and other sensational examples of young British art, the Victorian fairies have been relegated to the upstairs Sackler wing, reached by a glass-enclosed lift - nowhere for a fairy to hide there. As soon as you step out, however, you are greeted by a little bookstall selling postcards, books, pencils, mugs and other fairy merchandise - but no fairy cakes - including an "Introduction to the Exhibition", with teachers' notes.

The exhibition occupies only four galleries but tells a neatly coherent tale. We start with paintings from the early part of the 19th century depicting scenes from Shakespeare: "Oberon and Titania"; Turner's impressionistic vision of Queen Mab's cave; and David Scott's "Ariel and Caliban".

These romantic visions belong to a rather different realm from the work in room two, which forms the core of the exhibition. Sir Joseph Paton, John Anster Fitzgerald and Richard Dadd approached painting fairies as a task requiring the most meticulous attention to detail, as though believing that this painstaking work was corroborating the reality of what they portrayed. "Photographic realism" is the phrase that comes to mind, though in these paintings everything is in focus, from the smallest leaf in the lower right foreground to the distant tree trunks, usually outlined against the sky on the top left. In complete contrast to Turner's radiant tribute to the power of the imagination, these are scientific, evidential, like the specimens in a Victorian cabinet of curiosities. They remind us, too, of the fact that small creatures with wings are closer to insects than to humans.

Certainly, Fitzgerald's paintings may also use fairy scenes as a pretext for depicting naked women, just as the 19th-century artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema found the same opportunity in his paintings of daily life in Ancient Rome. But the eroticism is undermined, at least for me, by the closeness of the fairies, however naked, to dragonflies, and the fact that they share their moist woodland homes with huge snails, mice and creepy-crawlies of every sort. Fitzgerald's "Fairies in a Bird's Nest" is an unsettling painting, with its Bosch grotesques and its spiky silhouettes, all enclosed in a frame of thorns.

These mid-Victorians' idea of fairyland is unsettling, in part, because the obsession with detail and with this particular subject-matter makes you wonder about the state of mind of the artists, and not only of Richard Dadd, who was confined to a lunatic asylum after killing his father (where he produced the undoubted masterpiece of its genre, "The Fairy Feller's Masterstroke"). This is an inhuman world, heavily over-populated, in which every little creature appears busily and insistently engaged in some mysterious task. Their preoccupations and emotions are beyond reach. A lot of the time, one suspects, they have little to do with themselves except to harness mice to chariots. Very soon they will be so bored that they will start to pull off each other's tiny wings.

The third room is chiefly devoted to illustrations of fairy tales and to paintings of the ballet; the fourth links fairy painting to the current of spiritualism at the end of the century. The key figure here is the writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose involvement with the wee folk started well before the Great War and the events recorded in Photographing Fairies. His uncle, the illustrator Richard Doyle, did several fairy scenes, and Charles, the writer's father, was an amateur artist who specialised in fairies while he was in an asylum receiving treatment for alcoholism. Fairies ran in the family. But the later Victorian paintings and illustrations (those of Arthur Rackham, for example) are more twee, and they lack the conviction of the mid-Victorian visions of "faery".

Yet the academy does seem to have struck a chord: there were plenty of visitors when I went, mainly middle-aged, respectable types, perhaps several, like the woman in front of me in the queue, coming to the RA for the first time. There has been a lot of comment on the significance of this, of the films and of other signs of a fairy revival. Is it part of a climate of credulity and pseudo-science? Fairies are pretty innocuous, when all's said and done, and the craze (if there is one) will surely die or kill off its adherents with boredom. In any case, it is the fairies' habit to be forever fading just out of reach, despite the efforts of film special-effects men and Victorian painters to fix them on screen or canvas. "Indeede it is saide they seldom appeare to any persons who go to seeke for them," Aubrey tells us. Yet some, no doubt, are hoping they may leave behind, in the tills and at the box office, a little stack of fairy gold.

u Book reviews page 22

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