Up until I was 17 this was the only image I had ever seen of Waterhouse’s masterpiece, Hylas and the Nymphs. Even so it captivated me when I saw it and strengthened my resolve to become a painter. There was something so poetic about the half submerged forms, like classical statues in still, clear water. The non-verbal communication, the magnetic gaze of the nymphs, is so intensely powerful that it has a quality one usually finds in music or poetry. The black and white image is from a collection of Royal Academy annuals that belonged to my grandmother’s father. I would spend hours looking at the annuals on Sunday afternoons after lunch when we had returned from our usual Sunday walk with my grandparents. Hylas and the Nymphs featured in the 1897 annual and the book was always my favourite because of this painting. As a result the year 1897 became synonymous in my mind with a type of velvet aestheticism, old gilt and deeply scented roses. Later when I was in Sixth Form the piece informed my A-level dissertation on Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic Movement.
The annuals are filled with similar Victorian narrative paintings, such as La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Sir Frank Dicksee which illustrated the poem of the same title by Keats. Such paintings describe a type of sensuality typical of the late Victorian era. It is a type of wooziness first seen in the work of the Rossettis, in the poetry of Christina Rossetti e.g. Goblin Market (1859-62), and then in the paintings and poetry of her brother Dante Gabriel, e.g. Beata Beatrix (c. 1864-70). This is what Jan Marsh in her excellent biography of Christina Rossetti calls “the dominant late-Victorian poetic mode, with its intense but dream like imaginative world.”
In Sixth Form in York I had a group of friends and we were all equally bewitched by this vein of painting and the poetry it frequently illustrated, e.g. Keats, Tennyson (especially The Lady of Shallot). We were of our time, Athena and other card and design companies had done much to boost the fashion for the Pre-Raphaelites in the late 1980s which also saw us grow our hair into Rossetti-like tresses and seek out the most Medieval looking clothes. We all related to Anne of Green Gables. One weekend this rather eccentric group of seventeen year olds made a pilgrimage to see Hylas and the Nymphs and other Victorian paintings at Manchester City Art Gallery (as well as the various alternative hip emporiums then to be found in the Corn Exchange). We all stood transfixed in front of Waterhouse’s work. I was the only pupil in my year to be taking Art at A-level and seeing the original painting after so many years of looking at it in reduced black and white print had a tremendous effect upon me, emotionally, intellectually and creatively. I remember my eyes welling up at the use of greens and browns, the vividity and depth of the colours, the water, the green, green water, the passages of flesh so deftly rendered, and the overall effect of the painting which seduces the eye and bewitches, perfectly capturing the subject matter, the intoxication of the verse it illustrates. It is still in my mind one of the most beautiful paintings in the world.
Quite naturally I bought a poster of the work for my room and it is the only poster that I have had professionally framed. With my wages from my part time job at a local bookshop I chose a dark wood frame carved with an Art-Nouveau pattern, and this is still one of my most treasured possessions despite the print not quite getting the colours right! It is redolent of a ground breaking moment in my life as a painter and a very happy day out with my friends from Sixth Form.
My last blog post on here almost anticipates my reaction to the grounds for the removal of this incredible work from Manchester City Art Gallery this week. Apparently this was a “creative act” by the “artist” Sonia Boyce, who sees the women as “pubescent” and the work as sexual. My previous blog was in response to the reaction to Emma Watson’s photoshoot for Tim Walker which I did not see as at all sexual or a reversal of her role as feminist ambassador. I consider myself a feminist but think Sonia Boyce’s recent intervention to be a clumsy ham-fisted reaction, one completely lacking in any discernment or subtlety.
In 2015 I submitted a proposal for a piece in the International Women’s Day event at Manchester City Art Gallery, “In Case of Emergency Break Glass,” a one day gallery takeover event. I wanted to make something in response to the Waterhouse but my proposal was rejected. I’m pretty glad it was because making the proposal and continuing with the work I had begun for it forced me to examine some delicate questions about my own reactions to this work and the real reasons I wanted to be involved. My proposal had centred on the notion of the femme fatale, of the woman temptress, who since Eve offered Adam a bite of her apple has traditionally led man to his doom. I was not angry about any sexuality present in the painting, and I think there is very little, but at the continuance of the myth that women are somehow an evil and unreliable presence in the world. An attitude I have sadly met with again and again in my relationships with men. One man likened me to a siren, a figure tempting him to his downfall and let’s face it, it takes two.
When the piece was rejected I continued with the work and the real reasons for my wanting to pursue the venture emerged. It was pure admiration of Waterhouse’s work, which is a masterpiece and nothing less. Copying a work forces the artist to recognise composition in a very physical way. In the pre-internet days of 1991 my mother had gone to extreme lengths to obtain an out-of-print book on Waterhouse by Anthony Hobson for my birthday. Hobson relates what he refers to as Waterhouse’s “key-hole” composition which he employs in several of his paintings, where the figures or a room encircle the protagonist. This composition format is employed in Hylas and the Nymphs. The gentle lilt and curve of the women amidst the repeated oval motif of the waterlilies does much to render music to this composition, a gentleness so precipitous of poor Hylas’s fate. It is so much more than a “nymph titty” painting as one of Boyce’s collaborators so eloquently put it on a post-it note that replaced the painting. My reaction to the removal of the work and its replacement with such ignorant commentary is pure anger. This anger stems not only from the removal of my favourite painting but an increased trend I see for eradicating the presence of talent and a celebration of the banal in the interests of some ill thought out “democratising” of the art world.
I don’t know but I suspect that Boyce comes from London where there is a wealth of painting to look at. Anyone who lives within affordable travel distance of London (from here it costs £100 for a day return) is enormously privileged in a way only those who do not can fully understand. Da Vincis, Titians, Waterhouses, Monets, Van Dycks, all within walking distance of each other. Art gallery collections in the North are miles apart from each other and a trip to each one a great excursion. If you remove a significant piece from any regional collection you are not democratising art you are robbing the demos itself.