In the last century, painters invented a fantastic fairy world as an escape from the distressing realities of Victorian society

The art of fairy painting comes to London this week. At the Royal Academy, "Victorian Fairy Painting" attempts to raise this most whimsical of genres to a serious level, while Peter Nahum's "Fairy Folk in Fairy Land" shows something of the breadth of pixies, nixies, imps and pigwidgeons that lived at the bottom of the Victorian garden.

A picture like Richard Dadd's Fairy Feller's Masterstroke at the RA is exactly as its tide suggests - a masterstroke - one of the great images of its time. Dadd was mad, of course. He shot his father and ended his days in Bedlam, but it wasn't just his tilted brain which led him into the world of little people.

The rise of fairy painting was born of a wider interest in the supernatural and a terrible need to escape the realities of 19th-century England. Plenty of serious artists were touched by the fairy's wand, and were moved to include a cluster of toadstools in the corners of their otherwise sombre landscapes.

Nahum's small commercial exhibition includes some fine things, especially at the odder end of the spectrum. Among the best are Keeley Halswelle's pages of pencil scribbles which, like all good fairy pictures, are by turns amusing and disturbing: a combination which suggests that Halswelle was well on the way to joining Richard Dadd in Bedlam.

`Victorian Fairy Painting' Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London W1 (0171- 300 5615) to 8 Feb 1998. `Fairy Folk in Fairy Land' Peter Nahum, 5 Ryder Street, London SW1 (0171-930 6059) to 20 Dec