A Guest post from Kirsty Stonell Walker

Tuesday, August 28th marked the birthday of Edward Burne-Jones, and while pondering what aspect of his work and life to talk about, I decided on a subject near to his heart....Mermaids.

Mermaids in the Deep (The Mermaid Family) 1878

Mermaids were a common sight in Victorian art, with rather gorgeous versions given to us by Waterhouse, Draper and Poynter, to name a few, but for Burne-Jones the fish-folk seem to have a deeper significance, a resonance beyond their beauty. The above image comes from a series done when he moved into his 'sea-side home' at Rottingdean. He converted the room at the back of the house into a homage to a tavern and called it 'The Merry Mermaid'.  Possibly as a nod to his escape from London, the freedom of the mermaid's flicking tail speaks of flight and freedom, and rather than a bird taking to the air, the mermaid can disappear into the velvet gloom of the underwater world.

Mermaid and Child

In Burne-Jones' mermaid pictures from Rottingdean you get a contrary emotion of not only escape but also maternal care and affection, as if Ned knew that should they need to take flight, they would carry him along with them.  Many of his mermaid images include mothers cradling their fish-tailed offspring.  I wonder how far Ned imagined himself as the merchild, being taken care of by the beautiful mother...

The Sea Nymph

Common to Burne-Jones heroines, the faces of the mermaids are inscrutable, no flicker of expression beyond that of 'aren't I beautiful?', their pale limbs gracefully arched, and their hair in a swirl of sea mist. There is something about the swirls of the sea, especially in the picture just above which is made for Burne-Jones.  That blue is so typical of his work that you could be looking at the folds of one of his classical maiden's frocks.  It's a colour palette that appears again and again in his work and expresses perfectly the Burne-Jones concerns of bright and sombre, the play of life and death that seems to appear in so many of his great pictures.  Possibly the most perfect and famous example of this is, of course, a mermaid picture...

Burne-Jones never pursued the appreciation of authority in the way that some others did (yes, Millais, I'm looking at you), but conversely he didn't refuse honours bestowed.  In 1885, Ned became an associate of the Royal Academy and he exhibited a painting in response, in the Academy during the following summer.  His patron William Graham (father of one of Burne-Jones' favourite young lady friends, Frances) called the Academy 'the gilded cage in Piccadilly' and possibly Ned felt the conflict between wanting to take part and wanting to flee and hide back in the safety of the more familiar Grosvenor Gallery.  The resulting picture is one of his most famous and most difficult works...

The Depth of the Sea (1886)

Most of the readings of this work centre on Laura Lyttelton, friend of Frances Graham,  again a friend of Burne-Jones for many years. She died after giving birth in 1886 and her death at such an early age was a terrible blow to Burne-Jones. Georgie Burne-Jones encouraged the reading that the mermaid was Laura, that the odd smile on the mermaid's face reflected some of Laura's 'strange charm of expression'.  There may have been a hint that Ned had transformed his friend into an immortal creature of myth, to save her from death, that in capturing the dead sailor the mermaid is displaying power over death itself.  In Ned's imagination, Laura plays with death, a smile of victory on her lips before she swims away, free of such worldly concerns.

Rather than being the instrument of escape, the mermaid here is the one who has captured you, is dragging you to your death. Or is she? The sailor is already dead and the mermaid is carrying him off.  Possibly Burne-Jones feared the effect that plunging into the world of the Academy would have on him, maybe he equated it with being the dead sailor. The mermaid claiming the dead body could have had an oddly comforting resonance in this way, that she would claim him if he was lost in the rough sea of the art world. As it was Burne-Jones exhibited nothing after 1886, his mermaid year, and the Academy did not make him a full member. Finally, wishing for his freedom, in 1893 Ned resigned from the RA and swam away.

For me, the mermaid is the perfect symbol of Ned's work, with its hidden power, wickedness but not evil, uncertain temperament, but also gentleness and timidity, as if it doesn't know what a thing of wonder it is to the rest of us. Dearest Ned, I hope you're swimming with the mermaids today.

The VV (who is more than a little in love with mermaids herself) would like to thank Kirsty Stonell Walker for this charming and moving post which was first published in her blog: The Kissed Mouth. Kirsty is the author of Stunner: The Fall and Rise of Fanny Cornforth. She has been researching Pre-Raphaelite art for almost 20 years.




Photograph of Alfred Russell Wallace, courtesy of The Wallace Fund

I started writing almost by accident. I was between contracts, had builders in the house making a terrible racket  and as an escape from the din, I suppose, picked up a book about a more enticing world altogether. 

The book was a slim little travelogue written by Alfred Russel Wallace and called 'The Malay Archipelago'. It describes his fascinating adventures in the steaming jungles of Borneo during the 1850s, as he classifies birds and butterflies while conducting taxidermy on the hoof. 

Collection of butterflies - courtesy of the Wallace Fund

Not for nothing was this book Joseph Conrad’s favourite bedside reading. Conrad was apparently never without a well-thumbed copy of this diary which provides an amazing window into the mind and times of one of the world’s greatest Nineteenth Century naturalists.

But doesn’t that accolade go to another? Who the devil is this man, Russel Wallace? - I hear you cry. And yes, it is true to say that history has not been kind, with Russel Wallace's contribution to science having long been over-shadowed by his more famous contemporary, Charles Darwin.

But it was Alfred Russel Wallace, not Darwin, who was an inspiration for my book 'Devoured', which launches this week in the UK  and which, in addition to looking at the birth of forensics, has a strong evolutionary theme.

Birds of Paradise, courtesy of the Wallace Fund

In “Devoured” we meet  Professor Adolphus Hatton and his trusty French morgue assistant, Monsieur Albert Roumande. Together, they work out of a seedy basement in St Bart’s hospital, cutting up cadavers for Scotland Yard in the very early days of forensic science. During their first case, we meet an array of other quintessentially Victorian characters, many of whom verge on the outlandish, and many of whom are collectors of flora and fauna, just like Alfred Russel Wallace.

At the beginning of the story, a rich patron of the Sciences has been brutally murdered amidst her vast collection of ammonites, butterflies and tribal masks. Meanwhile, a series of letters has gone missing,  sent from the depths of the Malay Archipelago and penned by a young ingĂ©nue collector, Benjamin Broderig.

Map of the Malay Archipeligo

Throughout the novel, these two stories merge - one in Victorian London, a Human Awful Wonder of God with the constant thrum of industrialisation - the other from the depths of a jungle on the other side of the world, a wonder where nature shimmers and whirs. And that’s where Alfred Russel Wallace makes his own cameo appearance  - playing chess in a remote mountain lodge whilst discussing evolutionary theory with my character, Benjamin Broderig.

But who was this butterfly man? And why does he matter to us? 

The following biography is concise, but I think it clearly shows why few men in history have inspired my respect and imagination quite like Alfred Russel Wallace.

Portrait of Alfred Russel Wallace, courtesy of The Wallace Fund

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823 - 1913) was one of the 19th century's most remarkable scientists. He was an intrepid traveller and one of the greatest collectors of flora and fauna the world has ever seen.  

It was Wallace who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” and he came up with the idea of the process of evolution by natural selection at the same time as  Darwin in 1857 (for which he got a measly footnote in The Origin of the Species), but he also made very many other significant contributions, not just to biology, but also to subjects as diverse as glaciology, land reform, anthropology, ethnography, epidemiology, and 

Wallace is regarded as THE pre-eminent collector and field biologist of tropical regions of the 19th century. Wallace was also a vocal supporter of spiritualism, socialism, and the rights of the ordinary person. Where Darwin was upper class, well connected and married to a Wedgewood, Wallace was from a poor background  and hunted down rare and exotic species all around the world, quite literally to pay the rent and support his extended family. But he was no less a genius, for it. He was actively engaged with many of the big questions 
and important issues of his day.

For more on Alfred Russel Wallace go to: http://wallacefund.info



A few weeks ago the VV went on a visit to the Wellcome Institute on the Euston Road where the current free exhibition, SUPERHUMAN provides a thought-provoking display of the many technological means (both real and imaginary) by which the appearance or capability of the human form has been, or may yet be, enhanced.

One display from the Victorian age was an 1866 illustration by George Du Maurier titled: 'GENERAL ADOPTION OF THE ROLLING SKATE'. Now belonging to the Wellcome Library, this was originally printed in Punch magazine, providing a comical series of cartoons which exhibited various instances in which roller skates might be observed.

The first known pair of roller skates were created by the Belgian, John Joseph Merlin, in 1759 – and what a demonstration he gave when, in 1860, he burst through the doors of a London ballroom whilst skating, and playing a violin, after which he very nearly died when being unable to stop the wheels and crashing into a mirror.  Sadly the violin did not survive.

In England in 1859, The Woodward skate was invented – and this had wheels of vulcanised rubber which aided the traction of the skates. With two wheels placed in the middle of the skate and another one at either end, it was also a little easier to control the direction of the 'roll'.

In due course, rolling wheels were so popular that towards the end of the century they were sold from a shop on Oxford Street, opened up by another inventer, the Swiss born Mr Ritter. Ritter’s oldest surviving boots which date back to the 1920’s show a precarious looking contraption that must have required a degree of skill - not to mention bravery - when heading out in the open air. However, there was a time when many London businessmen could be seen whizzing along the capital’s roads whilst heading to and fro from work. And such was the increasing craze for roller skating as a family leisure pursuit that The Grand Hall at Olympia was opened up; the biggest roller rink ever built, measuring 68,000 square feet – although it had closed within a year.

In New York, many maple-floored rinks were constructed where men, women and children could take part in roller racing, in ‘fancy’ skating or dancing events – and indeed, so popular was the ‘sport’ that Harper’s Weekly Magazine printed a spoof gravestone inscription: a rather wry tribute intended for a devoted skater who had passed on –

Our Jane has climbed the golden stair
And passed the jasper gates;
Henceforth she will have wings to wear,
Instead of roller skates.