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.