The Moth Fairy

AMELIA JANE MURRAY Also known as LADY OSWALD (1800-1896)

The Moth Fairy (Isle of Man, c.1860)

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Watercolour, pen and black ink on an embossed mount


11.50cm high
7.70cm wide
(4.53 inches high)
(3.03 inches wide)
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Description / Expertise

Amelia Jane Murray was born on the Isle of Man, the daughter of Lord Henry Murray and the niece of John Murray, 4th Duke of Atholl. Her mother, born Elizabeth Kent, came from a good old Lancashire family, tracing descent from the Lancelyns of Poolton Lancelyn. The Dukes of Atholl, and before them the Earls of Stanley from whom they were descended, had for generations been styled Kings of Man; and although this title lapsed when the British parliament, alarmed at the amount of smuggling on the island, purchased the sovereignty on behalf of George III in 1765, the Murrays were still the island's leading family. In 1794 the 4th Duke had been appointed Governor, a post he was to hold until 1828 when he sold his remaining rights to the Crown for nearly half a million pounds, resigned and left the island; and several of his family were in key positions, including his brother, Amelia Jane's father, who was Lt-Colonel of the Royal Manx Fencibles. He was to die in 1805, when his daughter was five, but Emily, as she was always known, and her five brothers and sisters had a privileged childhood, living at Mount Murray, a house five miles south of Douglas, and enjoying the social life that centered round the Assembly Rooms in this fashionable and expanding town, or attending the balls at the Governor's newly-built residence, Castle Mona. In 1829, rather late in life by the standards of the day, she married Sir John Oswald of Dunniker, a man twenty-nine years her senior and a widower with six children. She went to live in Fife, Scotland, where she had two children herself. Her husband died in 1840 but she lived on until 1896, dying at the same age as the century.
Her attractive fairy paintings, many of them with embossed borders which suggest that they were once in a `keepsake' album, date from the 1820's and are Emily's, as she was always known, main claim to fame since she more or less gave up painting after her marriage in 1829. She was inspired by the rich folklore of the Isle of Man, epitomised by the name of her birthplace, Port-e-Chee, which in Manz Gaelic means `Fairy Music'. But wherever she lived she might have been drawn to this theme, since the Romantic period saw an explosion of interest in fairy lore.
Her fairy drawings contain motifs, which suggest knowledge of flora and fauna. As for the fairies themselves, they are neo-classical nymphs who seem to owe much to the published designs of John Flaxman and Thomas Stothard.
Fairy painting has as great a vogue in Britain as fairy lore itself, and Emily Murray's watercolours make a charming and distinct contribution to the genre. She was a forerunner to the later tradition of fairy paintings by Danby, Severn and David Scott and the young Daniel Maclise, described by Lionel Lambourne as `closely akin to Emily's watercolours' in feeling. The traditions continued to flourish during the Victorian age through the works of Richard Dadd, Noel Paton and `Dicky' Doyle. Nor did the tradition end here, enjoying a final flowering at the turn of the century in the illustrations of Arthur Rackham, W Heath Robinson and H J Ford.
This is one watercolour from a rare collection by Emily Murray, which was exhibited in the Manx Museum in 1984. It was also reproduced in colour in A Regency Lady's Faery Bower, Amelia Jane Murray (Collins, London, 1985).