'The Fairy Tale', James Sant about 1845/1870

An woman reading a book to a small child and pointing in the air

Artist: James Sant (1820 - 1926)
Oil on canvas, 61 x 76.2cm
Accession number WAG 1160

Like this enraptured small boy with his playthings and study cast aside, the Victorians revelled in a story which fired the imagination. Here, following the boy's transfixed gaze and his mother's uplifted arm, they would have been elevated into the realms of fantasy.

There is no evidence that the painting's title, 'The Fairy Tale', was the title chosen by the artist. The subject seems to be a comparison between nature, to which the woman points, and art, represented by the book (or sketch book) that she holds. The flowers in the basket and the boy's ball and bow may refer to the outside world rather than to the world of books.

With his glossy, realistic finish and sentimentality, James Sant was a typical Victorian artist catering for popular taste. He studied at the Royal Academy Schools under John Varley and Sir Augustus Calcott, and then launched into a highly successful career. Starting at the age of 20, he exhibited at the Academy for 72 years, becoming an Associate and full member in quick succession by 1871. He was Principal Painter in Ordinary to the Queen and in 1889 won the bronze medal at the Paris Exhibition Universelle.

His work was mainly portraits commissioned by wealthy patrons, or subject pictures based around them. However, at the very end of his life, when at last his popularity began to decline, he painted many landscapes, and his style became looser and softer in tune with popular demand. During his career, Sant exhibited 39 paintings at the Walker Art Gallery in the Liverpool Autumn Exhibitons between 1871 and 1915 and showed 24 works at the Liverpool Academy between 1847 and 1864.