Sunday, 2 June 2013

Art Galleries, and A Love of Mermaids.

Not to mention Sirens, Silkies, and their maritime ilk. Waterborne beauties.
I've posted some of the pictures I love on this blog before, John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs, for instance.

Another of my great favourites is John Matthew Hale's "The Mermaids' Rock", which I've known since I was a child, staring overawed at the ship, hurtling inexorably onto the jagged rock, swept on its soft green wave, as those gentle seeming girls watch. It's in Leeds City Art Gallery. Sadly, not on display, right now.

 Another favourite painter was Herbert Draper, Another of those painters of the apparently repressed Victorian era, who got around the taboo of nakedness by painting naked women in a mythical setting.

What can I say? I'm all for pretty naked women, so there's no complaint from me on that basis, and I love boats and the sea. I've been dashed on the mermaids' rock a few times. 
Once, I was sitting in my canoe, off one of the Aland islands in the Baltic sea, waiting for a vast car-ferry to pass, all seemed copacetic, it was a summer's day, clear visibility, I was well clear of his course, bow facing the oncoming ridges of his wake. Spraydeck tight, lifejacket on, paddle at the ready to drive forward and up the oncoming walls of water. I'd done it many a time. All was well, up I go, rising up the first green face, the peak passing under me, the next coming, down I sink, paddling forward into the trough and.... CRASH! A roar of sound as a huge black  table-topped rock appears where there should have been deep water. Oh my. I'm to the side of the channel and in amongst roaring chaos, for a while there's a rock right beside me, six feet above me, green water sluicing me sideways, and there's nowhere to go, and I'm desperately heaving all my strength on the paddle, trying to stay upright, not get drawn under the shelf, and drive forward and toward the ship, into the deeper channel. All this and a blast of ship's siren, brightly coloured  holidaymakers pointing cameras,me churning that paddle like a crazy thing, trying to fly up and sufficiently forward on that next wave to avoid being smashed down on and sucked under the mermaids' rock. phew.
As I'm here, you know that the sirens' clutching hands missed me that day. And I learned not to mess with ships wakes unless I was absolutely certain I was in deep water.

Imagine my surprise and delight in Hull, when, after becoming bored with the P1 Superstock Offshore Powerboat Racing,    I wandered just a couple of hundred yards from the quayside, and into the Ferens Art Gallery where I encountered the original of Ulysses and the Sirens!

Oh my. Breath-taking.

I tried to photograph it myself, instead of using stock imagery, but I was defeated by bright light reflections.

It's a big picture, full of detail, look at those faces, can you imagine actually having paintings like these on your own wall? Of course, you'd be a victorian mansion owner, they're not for cottage-dwellers, but, oh.
When I was a kid, the art gallery in town was my wonderland, my little mind was writing elaborate adventure stories, making up the before and after to the scenes I gazed upon, I knew little of the Odyssey, and when I did get to learn of greek mythology, I often felt disappointed by the stories that were to replace my own. Because I'd already spent rather a long time in the Maritime Museum, I only got to see the ground-floor galleries in the Ferens before he attendants started turning out lights and ushering people out, maybe I'll get to go back and see the upper floor some time.

I did see Lady Elizabeth Butler's painting of "The Return from Inkerman", no mermaids here, but wounded and weary soldiers, in the Crimean war.
What stands out for me in this painting, again,  is the faces. Young men carrying a wounded comrade, weary men, wounded men.

Behind, and to the right of the marching soldier with the bearskin hat, there's a young man, head up, jauntily posing with a pipe in his mouth, gazing back at the viewer, impertinent, unbowed, unbroken in spirit.
Lady  Butler was something of an iconoclast, she pictured the grand scenes of heroic charges, but also the aftermath, the carnage, the broken men, the cost in real terms, of war.
Queen Victoria was amongst the buyers of her Crimean War paintings. (Butler continued to paint into her old age, dying in 1933).

"When permitted to proceed to the Front we doubled towards Inkerman, on passing the Wind Mill we saw a number of our own wounded, also Russian prisoners, being led in by parties of the Guards, we trod over the ground where our old Comrades of the 88th. had thrown off their Coats and Shakos to enable them to work freely — Then the Music of the bullets began to be heard distinctly and felt too, alas! for our poor fellows dropped one after another, and we could do nothing in return. Poor Colonel Crofton (since murdered) said This will not do, lie down, Men! — In a few moments I saw General Cunningham looking anxiously around he entered our midst and said "What Corps is this" I replied your own old Corps Sir "What said he the 20th. – up my lads and follow me," the General waving his sword and we after him, in the direction of the two Gun Battery, where we soon arrived, and found the Coldstreams fighting against fearful odds, and having expended their ammunition were about to retire When our fellows with such a Yell as a Russian never heard before, and many of them for the first and last time dashed in among them, the Volley, and the Bayonet, Butt, stones, rocks anything was good enough for them Had we continued at that play it would have been very well, but we must needs finish and we paid for it, not a man of the Rifle Subdivision of the Company to which I belonged, escaped without a wound.

Now this only concerns myself — I was severely wounded, and well cared for, every one knows how the day ended, and it should also be known that although the whole of the Regt. was not taken into action the remainder being in the Trenches, the casualties exceeded the number of any Corps engaged Guards excepted.

(Signed) James Campbell
Sgt. 20th. Regt."

Here's another Lady Butler painting,, again a part of my childhood, it hangs in Leeds Art Gallery. "Scotland Forever!", ( 'Scotland Forever!' is the war cry of the traditional Scottish regiments. It was most famously used by the Scots Greys on their timely and victorious charge at Waterloo in 1815)
By the end of this charge, 107 riders would be killed, 97 wounded, and 228 horses of the original 416 lost.

"Lady Butler writes, 'I twice saw a charge of the Greys before painting "Scotland for ever!" and I stood in front to see them coming on. One cannot, of course, stop too long to see them close.'"


  1. Yep, I have always considered mermaids as being very inspiring.

    1. Inspiring, indeed, but I've often wondered about the respiring... I assume they're like seals, and just hold their breath as they cavort beneath the waves, but then again, they have fish-scaly netherparts..... Do they have gills too?
      Not quite sure where mermaids fit on the fish vs mammals spectrum.

  2. Ah Victorian porn, how often I have admired such. I mean I love pre Raphaelite stuff.
    I'm sure he only used one model for that first picture. She of course used the back stairs into his studio, guests used the front stairs!
    The tired soldiers brought to mind a quartermaster reporting the return of his regiment from the front line during the great war.
    Tired out, depleted, stumbling, not marching, the darkness around them as they struggled back.
    On and on came the lines of tired men, mentally and physically shaken, grateful for the quartermaster and his kitchens offering tea to keep them alive.
    Not so keen on charging horses mind. They would be further apart in real life.

    1. Which first picture? Waterhouse? Nymphs? Maybe he had the whole water-polo team!
      I'll bet the downstairs neighbours complained continually about water dripping from the ceiling lamp.

      As for the tired soldiers and the quartermaster, strangely, the scenario you describe was the subject of Lady Butler's first great triumph at the Royal Academy, "Roll Call"
      was a painting which drew crowds, and made her an overnight sensation, it depicted the Grenadier Guards after a battle, possibly Inkerman, but she did not specify.
      It was painted to commission, but several people offered her larger sums than her agreed fee, if she would sell it to them. She refused, pointing out that it was made for and promised to someone.
      However, Queen Victoria saw it, wanted it, and the commissioner was left with no choice but to step aside.

      "When her painting 'Calling the roll after an engagement, Crimea' (popularly known as 'The roll call') was exhibited at the Royal Academy in May 1874, it caused a sensation; so great were the crowds that flocked to see it that a policeman had to be stationed beside it - a procedure only previously paralleled by the rail put up to hold back crowds of viewers when Wilkie's 'Chelsea pensioners reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo' and Frith's 'Derby Day' were exhibited at the Academy in 1822 and 1858 respectively. The leading painters of the day, Millais among them, joined in the popular acclaim, and the twenty-seven-year-old painter and her work were singled out for praise at the Academy Banquet by both the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army. Crimean veterans vouched for the accuracy of the most minute details of the painting, and, at her request, 'The roll call' was taken to the bedridden Florence Nightingale and earned her approval.

      The painting had been commissioned for a sum of £100 (raised to 120 guineas) by Charles Galloway, a Knutsford industrialist, and the owner found himself the recipient of offers from people who wanted to buy the painting from him, the Prince of Wales among them; but he refused to part with it. 'The roll call' was briefly taken to Buckingham Palace in order that Queen Victoria could view it - the first time this had happened to any Academy picture - and the Queen expressed a wish to buy it; this time Mr Galloway could not reasonably refuse, and agreed on condition that the artist paint another picture for him (Miss Thompson took the opportunity of her new-found fame to raise the price from £126 to £1,126). "

  3. Wonderful paintings...and how beautiful they must be to view in real life. That swell is about to overcome Ulysses and his fair maidens. 'Tis the ocean to which I refer!!

  4. Love it when you do these man. Feel like I been to school now!
    i think it was Kafka that said "There is but one thing deadlier than the sirens singing...its the sirens silence"
    Something like that.
    Loved the part about the big rock you nearly hit. I know that feeling. I had a similar experience.

    1. Ha! I remember that story, I'll bet the sirens run a little boater's market on a weekend, full of stolen engines and whatever else they can grab.

  5. I'm not a fan of near-dead experiences, so I have to remember that if I ever go canoeing I have to avoid cruise ship and supertanker routes. Except when there are seductive aquatic maidens present of course, they are worth the risque.

    According to Draper's painting there are two kind of sirens, with and without tail.Or maybe the tail disappears when they are out of the water, but that doesn't seem scientifically possible.

    The large paintings are impressive, it's nice so see color images of the Crimean War after watching many sepia photographs.

    1. The Crimean war pics, yes, me too.
      Lady Butler, in many of her pictures, depicts soldiers quite clearly, not as heroic ideals, but as the real people they must have been, city boys, farm lads, in ragged muddy uniforms, weary after battle, looking out for each other.

      All far from home, fighting for something they don't understand. Just like now.

  6. The with or without tail thing, it fascinates me too.
    I've spent a lot of time hanging around rocks, watching the waves crash, and hoping for the answer. In these days of wetsuits and flotation vests, it seems the sirens might be approachable...


  7. I wonder what kind of birds are those?

    1. House-sparrows, I'm sure. Nothing to worry about. Maybe the men dropped some crumbs while eating cake upon the march....

    2. Oh good . . . I was hoping not vultures waiting for a meal on those left behind.

      Birds of victory.

    3. He's pulling your leg, goatman. There them be birds of carrion .... vultures you see. Such morbidity for a lady ....


      ps. I was hoping for garden pics ???


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