‘Once upon a time, fairies had no wings’.[1] Fairies do not fly, and they are never reported as having wings, not even by those who claim to have seen them. In their literary history, which ranges from medieval sources to Shakespeare, fairies do not have wings despite moving through the air as if flying. According to the Bible, angels do not have wings either, or rather there is no mention of their wings, and yet they often appear to fly and since the early modern period they are nearly always shown as being winged beings.

Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book

It is only through Pope’s ‘The Rape of the Lock’ (1714) that fairies finally become winged creatures; they are ‘airy sylphs derived from Paracelsus’ theory of elemental spirits’.[2] Angels on the other hand were given wings centuries before. Thomas Stothard’s illustrations for the 1798 edition of The Rape of the Lock ‘were the first to give fairies butterfly wings, and these established the convention for nineteenth century artists’.[3] Interestingly though, Stothard’s figures are drawn from images of angels, from the cherub figures we typically refer to as putti and frequently find in the works of Raphael or Murillo. Whilst Stothard is clearly drawing upon art history, he is also taking his cue from the text itself:

Some to the sun their insect-wings unfold,

Waft on the breeze, or sink in clouds of gold.

Transparent forms, too fine for mortal sight,

Their fluid bodies half dissolv’d in light,

One of Stothard’s illustrations for the 1798 edition of Pope’s The Rape of the Lock

Bown writes that ‘both poem and illustration place the sprites halfway between angels (invisible, disembodied) and fairies (visible, embodied).’[4] Angel wings are symbolic; Bown suggests that ‘theologically speaking, angels are composed entirely of spirit, and the bodies and wings which clothe them in pictures represent the spiritual qualities of angelic nature’.[5] Bown suggests an Angels wings are to be understood as a means of providing the possibility of movement, the ability to fly between heaven and earth. Bown suggests the ‘light and airy quality that we associate with depictions of angels’ is the spiritual nature of the angels rather than actual flight. Presumably she is writing from a secular view point, and applying her ‘as if’ belief to angels as well as to fairies.

Burne-Jones, The Flower of God (1863, Private Collection)

Bown turns to Ruskin, a man who struggled with his faith, as her means of drawing distinctions between the conventions of a time when faith was solid, and a time when faith was debated (or I suspect Bown would go so far as to say dissolved). Ruskin’s words are a wonderful insight into the confused mind of the Victorian believer and as such I quote them at length:

Modern science has taught us that a wing cannot be anatomically joined to a shoulder;[6] and in proportion as painters approach more and more to the scientific, as distinguished from the contemplative state of mind, they put the wings of their angels on more timidly, and dwell with greater emphasis upon the human form, and with less upon the wings, until these last become a species of decorative appendage,-a mere sign of an angel. But in Giotto’s time an angel was a complete creature, as much believed in as a bird; and the way in which it would or might cast itself into the air, and lean hither and thither upon its plumes, was as naturally apprehended as the manner of flight of a chough or a starling. hence Dante’s simple and most exquisite synonym for angel, “Bird of God”;[7] and hence also a variety and picturesqueness in the expression of the movements of the heavenly hierarchies by the earlier painters, ill replaced by the powers of foreshortening, and throwing naked limbs into fantastic positions, which appear in the cherubic groups of later times.

Scott, Puck Fleeing Before the Dawn (1837, National Gallery of Scotland).

Bown mentions three Pre-Raphaelite angels: Rossetti’s Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849, Tate) and his Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1849, Tate), and Burne-Jones, The Flower of God (1863, Private Collection). She writes that these wings are ‘clearly not used for flight’.[8] She also suggests that Solomon’s Love in Autumn (1866, Private Collection) is earthbound, unable to fly. Bown takes a hard line view when she says at the time Ruskin was writing ‘the flight of angels had become embarrassing, the symbolic nature of the convention too evident to evoke belief’.[9] The belief of divine beings that could transcend this world for a divine one had seemingly diminished. This ‘un’belief presented an aesthetic problem which I suggest Burne-Jones resolved in two ways: he created a secular angel. Burne-Jones’ secular angel took the form of a group of wingless beings or Classical Cupids which could grace the walls of a gallery. The other form was a more celebratory Catholic angel which graced the windows of many an Anglican church.

‘In contrast, the wings of Victorian fairies are meant for flight’. Bown suggests that new ways of imagining flight were possible once human beings had begun to fly. Did modern life in the form of hot air balloons, really alter the representation of the angel or the fairy in the nineteenth century? Was the realisation that we too could fly, a final ‘embarrassment’?

Montgolfier Balloon Model at London Science Museum

[1] Nicola Bown, Fairies in Nineteenth-Century Art & Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) p. 45.

[2] Bown, p. 47

[3] Bown, p. 47

[4] Bown, p. 47

[5] Bown, p. 47

[6] Compare what Ruskin says of Michael Angelo in this connexion: Vol. XXIII. p. 213.

Footnote and quote from http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/users/ruskinlib/eSoV/texts/vol24/vol24p72.html Accessed 11/10/14 20:30

[7] Purgatorio, ii. 38: “L’uccel divino.”] Footnote from http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/users/ruskinlib/eSoV/texts/vol24/vol24p72.html Accessed 11/10/14 20:30

[8] Bown, p. 49

[9] Bown, p. 49