Harris museum buys 19th century 'Puck' painting

  • 12 April 2011

An important 19th century painting featuring Puck, the mischievous character from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, has been bought for the Harris Museum & Art Gallery in Preston.

Puck by Victorian artist Richard Dadd is a mysterious painting with a fascinating back story. On loan to the Harris since June 2009, the popular work was in danger of being sold by its owners, the Finnis Scott Foundation. The Harris has now successfully raised all the money required to buy it for its permament collections.

The work depicts Puck, a central character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sitting on a toadstool while smaller fairy figures dance around him in moonlight. Signed and dated 1841, the painting is circular in shape set in an ornate gilt frame.

Puck is a key example of Victorian fairy painting, an artistic trend which flourished between the 1840s – 1870s. Richard Dadd is the most famous of the fairy painters. However his career was curtailed when he began suffering from mental illness.

We gave a grant towards the purchase alongside the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Friends of the Harris Museum & Art Gallery and a bequest from Mrs Dorothy Wade, administered by Arts Council England.

Our director Stephen Deuchar said: “This striking, beautifully detailed painting is a wonderful example of the Victorian fascination for other-worldly scenes, and its dark and fascinating back story makes it even more interesting. The Preston connection makes the painting a particularly apt addition to the Harris Museum’s public collections and we’re delighted to have helped make the purchase possible.”

Puck was painted two years before Dadd’s descent into mental illness. The painting’s imagery has dark undertones, possibly alluding to the unrest that was to affect the artist’s life.

In 1843 Richard Dadd murdered his father after which he was incarcerated for life. He was held in ‘Bedlam’ asylum and later in Broadmoor, until his death in 1886.

A companion piece to Puck, called Titania Sleeping, is in the Louvre, Paris, and a later painting by Dadd, The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke, is in the Tate collection, London. Although Dadd is synonymous with the fairy painting genre, because of his illness, he only completed around twelve oil paintings on the subject, making Puck a very work.

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