Scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream signed and dated 'J.Simmons./1873.' (lower right) watercolour 72.5 x 95.5cm (28 9/16 x 37 5/8in).
PROVENANCE: Purchased for £25 from Grindley and Palmer, Liverpool, 1935 Gifted to the present owner, 1965
Born in 1823, John Simmons is listed in Bristol directories as a miniature painter, living in Clifton. Although primarily supporting himself through portraiture during the 1850s and 1860s, Simmons is most celebrated for his enchanting watercolours of ethereal fairyland scenes, and the present lot is one of the finest and most ambitious examples.
Fairy painting was a genre which found a renewed popularity in the 19th century, these mystical worlds granting the viewer an escape from reality and solace from the hardships of Victorian life. As Jeremy Maas commented, 'no other type of painting concentrates so many of the opposing elements in the Victorian psyche: the desire to escape the dreary hardships of daily existence; the stirring of new attitudes towards sex, stifled by religious dogma; a passion for the unseen; psychological retreat from scientific discoveries; the birth of psychoanalysis; the latent revulsion against the exactitude of the new invention of photography.'1
Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream was a popular theme of the period, painted by artists such as Robert Huskisson, John Anster Fitzgerald, John Atkinson Grimshaw, Francis Danby and Richard Dadd. Simmons painted a number of works in the 1860s and 1870s which draw inspiration from Shakespeare's play. In the present lot, the artist captures a botanical dreamlike world filled with nymphs and sprites, showcasing his furtive imagination with incredible skill. Believed to capture Act II Scene II, the work depicts the sleeping Hermia (the central right figure) and Titania (central left), whom Oberon spikes with a love potion, sprinkling it onto his quarrelling fairy queen's eyes, ensuring that when she wakes she will fall in love with whomever she first sees.
What thou seest when thou dost wake, Do it for thy true-love take, Love and languish for his sake: Be it ounce, or cat, or bear, Pard, or boar with bristled hair...
(Oberon, Act II Scene II)
Using the winding flowers and convolvulus as a decorative motif, Simmons romantically frames the central figures, creating a stage in which their narrative can play out. Blurring the boundaries between reality and dreams, he creates a poetical vision of Shakespeare's play. The complexity of the composition is unusual for Simmons, who usually depicts one or two figures framed by foliage, often capturing his heroine Titania. Painting her in a number of poses, Simmons depicts the fairy queen as a paradigm of Victorian female beauty, often painting her delicately veiled, as here, covered in minutely realistic flowers with wings, opal or agate. Works like his 1866 Titania (Bristol Museums and Art Gallery, featured in the 1997 Royal Academy exhibition Victorian Fairy Painting), and Titania sleeping in the moonlight protected by her fairies (sold in these rooms, 9 March 2004, lot 86) has led Simmons' fairy paintings to be singled out from his contemporaries for their eroticism, the light draperies barely covering the nude bodies beneath. Charlotte Gere notes that eroticism in fairy paintings was a common concept in the Victorian era, explaining, 'suggestiveness in fairy paintings is one of many parallels with Orientalism, the exotic setting exonerating the viewer from voyeurism'.2
As the present lot demonstrates, the soft charm of Simmons' sensual nudes and the delicacy of their painting elevates them above mere objects of carnal desire. Jeremy Maas defended Simmons, stating 'it could be said...that Simmons uses fairy trappings to mask the otherwise blatant exoticism of the paintings, but his evocation of fairyland is too successful for this to remain true.'3
1 Jeremy Maas, The stuff that dreams are made of, Exhibition Catalogue, London, 1996 2 Charlotte Gere, 'In Fairyland' Victorian Fairy Painting, ed. Jane Martineau, The Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1997, p.68 3 Jeremy Maas, The stuff that dreams are made of, Exhibition Catalogue, London 1996