Curator's Choice: Rachel Kennedy, of Duff House, on The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania

By Rachel Kennedy | 02 April 2012
A photo of a woman looking at a fairytale oil painting
Curator's Choice: Rachel Kennedy, General Manager at Aberdeenshire's Duff House, on The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania...

“Each year Duff House receives a work of art – on loan from our partners the National Galleries of Scotland – which is considered to be a masterpiece.

In the past few years we have been fortunate to have paintings by famous artists such as Constable, Rembrandt, Titian and Botticelli.

This year, we have a very special 19th century painting by Sir Joseph Noel Paton (1821-1901), the master of Victorian fairy painting.

It’s called The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania (1849) and was inspired by Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Paton has chosen to focus on the “Ill-met by Moonlight” moment when Oberon, King of the Fairies, meets his Queen, Titania, in the woods at night and tries to claim her changeling child as his own.

It’s this scene that really starts off all the mayhem which makes the play such fun to watch.

The changeling (a human child carried off to the fairy realm) is hiding next to Titania. Mischievous Puck is also there, flying about and creating trouble.

The painting is so visually arresting that you can understand why it and its companion piece, Paton’s The Reconciliation (1847), are so popular with visitors.

It is crammed full of fairies of every size and shape, including some very ugly imps and goblin-type creatures.

Apparently Lewis Carroll counted 165 fairies when he saw the painting in 1857. I haven’t attempted to count the fairies yet but every time I look at it, I see something new.

There are so many different story-lines and mini-dramas going on all over the canvas with strange creatures and even stranger couplings, and the range of flowers, plants, animals and insects, painted is great detail, is astonishing.

It’s a work that inspires you to find out more. It has inspired me to return to the much-loved classic fairy stories I enjoyed as a child and prompted me to look again at another Victorian artist’s work, Richard Dadd.

Of course, Scotland has inspired writers and artists for years, but we don’t always make that connection between the art work and its country of origin.

I like the fact that the artist’s skill was recognised in his own lifetime – he was knighted in 1866 when he was appointed Her Majesty’s Limner for Scotland and became a member of the Royal Household – which let’s face it, is not always the case for artists.

I also love the fact that Paton’s childhood growing up in Dunfermline was steeped in folklore (his mother recited Celtic myths and legends and could recite ballads by heart) and that his own children acted as models for his fairies. I bet they enjoyed that."

  • The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania is at Duff House, Banff until August 31 2012.
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