The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke

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Richard Dadd. Fairy Fellers' Master-Stroke. 1855–64. Oil on canvas. 54 × 39.5 cm. Tate Gallery, London

The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke is a painting by English artist Richard Dadd. It was begun in 1855 and worked on until 1864. Dadd painted it while incarcerated in the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum of Bethlem Royal Hospital, where he was confined after he murdered his father in 1843.[1] It was commissioned by George Henry Haydon, who was head steward at Bethlem Royal Hospital at the time.


Dadd had begun his career as a painter of fairy paintings before the onset of his mental illness. After he was committed, he was encouraged to resume painting. G. H. Haydon was impressed by Dadd's artistic efforts and asked for a fairy painting of his own. Dadd worked on the painting for nine years, paying microscopic attention to detail[2] and using a layering technique to produce 3D-like results. Although it is generally regarded as his most important work, Dadd himself considered the painting to be unfinished (the background of the lower left corner is only sketched in).[3]

He signed the back of the canvas with the inscription: "The Fairy-Feller's Master-Stroke, Painted for G. H. Haydon Esqre by Rd. Dadd quasi 1855–64".[4] According to Patricia Allderidge, 'quasi' "may mean that it was set aside during that period or that it took a long time to start".[5] The end date, 1864, coincides with Dadd's transfer to Broadmoor Hospital in Berkshire, the asylum where he spent the remaining 21 years of his life.[6]

In order to give context to his work, Dadd subsequently wrote a long poem by the name of Elimination of a Picture & its Subject—called The Fellers' Master Stroke[2] in which each of the characters appearing in the picture is given a name and purpose—including myriad references to old English folklore and Shakespeare—in an apparent attempt to show that the painting's unique composition was not merely a product of random, wild inspiration.

The painting is in the Tate Britain collection. It was presented to the Tate by the war poet Siegfried Sassoon in memory of his friend and fellow officer Julian Dadd, a great-nephew of the artist, and of his two brothers who gave their lives in the First World War.[2]

In other works[edit]

The Queen song "The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke" from the album Queen II was born of Freddie Mercury's appreciation of the work; it makes direct reference to the painting's characters as detailed in Dadd's poem.

Terry Pratchett's novel The Wee Free Men contains a scene inspired by the painting.

The painting, the art of the insane, and Dadd are mentioned in the novel, Mortal Love, by Elizabeth Hand.

The work is a central plot element in the novel The Witches of Chiswick by Robert Rankin.

Neil Gaiman wrote a tribute to the painting for the July/August edition of Intelligent Life magazine.[7]

The painting appears in Alex Bledsoe's Tufa novels.

Former Gorky's Zygotic Mynci singer Euros Childs included an instrumental song titled "The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke" on his 2009 solo album, Son of Euro Child.

Mark Chadbourn's "The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke", about a contemporary young man looking for meanings in the painting, won the British Fantasy Award for best short story in 2003.

Octavio Paz devoted a chapter on Richard Dadd and this painting in particular in his book The Monkey Grammarian.

The Throbs album The Language of Thieves and Vagabonds cover art has fragments of the painting (Geffen Records, 1991).[8]

The penultimate issue of Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics is titled after the painting and includes a sequence featuring the life of Dadd, who is depicted as being trapped in the painting following his death.


  1. ^ Allderidge, pp. 24–29.
  2. ^ a b c "The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke 1855–64", tate.org.uk, Retrieved 16 June 2017
  3. ^ "Richard Dadd", PopSubCulture(dot)Com Biography Project
  4. ^ Winkfield p. 61.
  5. ^ Allderidge, p. 31.
  6. ^ Allderidge, p. 33.
  7. ^ "NEIL GAIMAN'S FANTASY PAINTING". 1843 magazine. 14 June 2013. Retrieved 26 April 2019.
  8. ^ "The Throbs – The Language Of Thieves And Vagabonds". Discogs. Retrieved 26 April 2019.[better source needed]


  • Allderidge, Patricia (1974). Richard Dadd. New York and London: St. Martin's Press/Academy Editions.
  • MacGregor, John (1989). The Discovery of the Art of the Insane. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-04071-0
  • Winkfield, Trevor (2014). Georges Braque and Others: The Selected Art Writings of Trevor Winkfield (1990–2009). New York: Song Cave. ISBN 978-0-9884643-3-9.

External links[edit]