(click image to enlarge)
In the wake of the enormous success of his paintings of Oberon and Titania, Paton produced numerous small fairy pictures, including several more based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (See, for example, Puck and the Fairy of 1847, reproduced in the catalogue to the Chris Beetles Summer Show, 1999, page 4.) The present drawing, originally dated 1848, is probably the first of several attempts by Paton to depict one particular episode described but not dramatised in Shakespeare’s play. In Act II, Scene i, Oberon, King of the Fairies, says to his sidekick, Puck:
Since I once sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song,
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres
To hear the sea-maid’s music.
Oberon’s description acts as an atmospheric prelude to his instruction to Puck to pick love-in-idleness (the wild European pansy also known as heartsease). The juice of that plant makes ‘man or woman madly dote/Upon the next live creature that it sees’ and so significantly affects the action of the play; Titania, Oberon’s Queen, becomes ‘enamour’d of an ass’, while two young Athenian couples find the complexity of their affections further compounded. Paton seems to have been interested in ‘the sea-maid’s music’ as a parallel to that botanical power, music being ‘the food of love’ (Twelfth Night, Act I, Scene i). As such, it was also a parallel to Puck and the Fairy, another representation of the desire that controls the play. Indeed, Paton had originally intended his last painting of the present subject, Oberon Listening to the Sea Maid (exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1883), to act as the pendant to a version of Puck and the Fairy.
Given this suggestion of emotional intensity, it may seem surprising that Paton should dedicate the work, in May 1864, to ‘MP’, almost certainly Margaret Paton, the wife of Waller Hugh Paton, his brother and fellow painter. Yet, he may have intended it to mark their second wedding anniversary, its Shakespearean subject generally signifying nuptials. After all, the 1847 version of Puck and the Fairy had become similarly associated with the marriage of Paton’s sister, the sculptor Amelia Robertson Paton, to David Octavius Hill, a union also solemnised in 1862.