Oil on canvas, 21.75 x 30.5 inches. Collection of John Rickett.
The source for the painting is Ariel's song in Act I, scene ii of The Tempest, lines which accompanied the painting in the catalog of the Royal Academy exhibit in 1842:
Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands.
Curtsied when you have and kissed,
The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burden bear.
The painting was one of the public's favorites when it was exhibited, and one critic said it "came nearer to the essence of poetry than anything he had ever seen" (Allderidge, 97). Dadd excelled at "fairy painting," and in 1841 he finished three major works in this genre of fantasy: Titania Sleeping, Puck and Fairies Assembling at Sunset to Hold their Revels. This last painting was exhibited in Manchester in 1841, but it is now lost.
He continued working in this vein and the next year, 1842, he showed Come Unto These Yellow Sands; he also did a sketch for another painting, The Fairies' Rendezvous, but that painting has also disappeared. Dadd's exploration of fantasy and the world of fairies culminated with two works done in the 50s and 60s, Contradiction: Titania and Oberon and The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke, both paintings based on A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Fairy paintings based on passages from Shakespeare like Ariel's song were, Richard Altick says, "an open invitation to artists to paint elaborate stylized arrangements of spirits, the Graces, nymphs, sylphs, fairies," all paintings designed to "lighten the drawing rooms in prosaic suburban villas with iridescent colors and compositional rhythms that were almost audible." A less noble end, he further suggests, is that "in such an unimpeachable literary context, bevies of sleek female nudes could be introduced without qualm, and they were" (330). Altick's judgment on fairy paintings may be a trifle cynical and perhaps in Dadd's case unjust.
Dadd was always intrigued by fantasy and other-worldly subjects, and to him, Patricia Allderidge asserts, "fairy painting was a serious business, an act of the most intensely personal creation. It had nothing to do with the whimsy--despite his ability to charm and please by purely fanciful and playful touches--the voyeurism, sometimes the sadism with which his contemporaries often achieved popularity in this field. For fairy painting was also a way of exploring nature, as his landscape painting later became . . ." (16). Dadd's fantasy, especially later in his career when it is hard to sort out the lucid moments from the mad in his creations, is perhaps closer to Shakespeare's and the plays to which he repeatedly returned for his subjects. Fairy painting was to Dadd what Harry Berger, Jr., calls the "green world" was to Shakespeare: a way of looking at the imaginary creations in order to cast light on our real world.
Dadd seems intuitively to have grasped a theatrical principle in the composition of his fairy paintings, what Patricia Allderidge calls "self-enclosing frames." In Come Unto These Yellow Sands, for example, the picture has an arch at the top that is not unlike the proscenium of a stage, and within the picture itself is the archway through which the sprites dance. This same device, an enclosing stage-like space, is effectively employed in Puck and Titania Sleeping, as well as The Fairies' Rendezvous and The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke, paintings that span Dadd's entire career.