Fairy subject pictures, often based on Shakespeare’s A midsummer night’s dream and The tempest, were popular in late nineteenth-century England, and catered to the Victorians’ fascination with the ‘spirit world’. Frank Craig’s painting Goblin market, originally exhibited at the Royal Academy, London, in 1911, is a late example of the genre, although fairies, goblins, pixies and elves continued to be the staple of children’s book illustration. Craig was renowned as a magazine illustrator in black and white, but his material was mainly drawn from historical and social narratives. The works he exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1895 to 1915 were also mostly genre paintings, portraits, and medieval and modern historical subjects in the manner of his mentor at the Royal Academy Schools, Edwin Austin Abbey. Goblin market would appear to be unique in Craig’s output and is the most impressive example of a fairy painting since Richard Dadd’s The fairy feller���s master stroke, 1855–64 (Tate Collection, London) and Richard ‘Dicky’ Doyle’s fairy illustrations half a century earlier.
The painting illustrates a passage from Christina Rossetti’s enduring narrative poem ‘Goblin market’, an allegory of sexual ripeness and illicit pleasure, first published in 1862 with illustrations by Christina’s brother, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Illustrators of later editions include Laurence Housman, 1893, and Arthur Rackham, 1933. Craig’s painting depicts the moment when the bewitched maiden, having failed to heed the warnings of her sister, yields to temptation and gorges on the succulent array of summer fruits proffered by the goblins. The artist, who may have represented himself as a middle-aged voyeur dressed in early seventeenth century period costume loitering in the background, faithfully adheres to the poem and crowds the scene with the leering dwarfish creatures described by Rossetti. The maiden, by contrast, is a Pre-Raphaelite beauty whose long tresses, virginal white dress and self-absorption cast her in the mould of John William Waterhouse’s haunting The Lady of Shalott, 1888 (Tate Collection, London). The sharply focused ‘truth to nature’ realism, together with the natural symbolism of the birch forest with a dead sapling in the centre foreground and noxious weeds such as deadly nightshade, nettles and brambles, recalls early Pre-Raphaelite work of around 1850.
This essay originally appeared in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).