'No picture I know, the Mona Lisa included, has such a haunting enigmatic female face as the mermaid in this, the first of two versions of this subject.'

The Depths of the Sea, 1886, by Sir Edward Burne-Jones Bt (1833–98), 771⁄2in by 291⁄2in, Collection: Lord Lloyd-Webber.

Andrew Lloyd Webber says:
‘If, when you hear the name Burne-Jones, you think of angels and stained-glass windows, look at the face of the mermaid in this extraordinary, supercharged picture and think again. The Victorians were obsessed with mermaids, those creatures of transformations with the power to kill and regenerate, but not to die. No picture I know, the Mona Lisa included, has such a haunting enigmatic female face as the mermaid in this, the first of two versions of this subject. What demonic sexual magic lurks within this pre-Christian creature, who stares at us so knowingly, so provocatively?’

Lord Lloyd-Webber is a composer and musical-theatre impresario.

John McEwen comments:
Burne-Jones was the leading light of the Royal Academy’s main rival, the Grosvenor Gallery, so he was surprised to be elected an Associate Member in 1885. He accepted, touched by the approval of his peers and the encouragement of the President, Sir Frederic Leighton. Amid much expectation, he exhibited this picture in 1886.

To paint it, he used a glass tank another artist, Henry Holiday, had set up for a picture of Rhinemaidens. Holland’s tank contained water dyed blue-green, three tinted sculptures of nymphs, similarly modelled rocks and pebbled sand. The result bore out Henry James’s observation that, for all their fantasy, Burne-Jones’s pictures had required ‘a vast deal of “looking”’. It was Leighton who insisted on the shoal of sprats; he thought they would ‘bring home to the vulgar eye’ the effect of ‘underwateriness’.

Mermaids were a poetic preoccupation of many high-Victorian writers and artists, Leighton not least, and, for Burne-Jones, this was further encouraged when he bought a house at Rottingdean on the Sussex coast. Margot Asquith’s older sister, Laura, may have inspired the mermaid’s face or it may have been a young girl the artist saw in the woods, whom he considered ‘a nixie… come up from a well’. However, a surviving drawing suggests it was a professional model.

The picture was insensitively hung at its unveiling below a stag-hunting scene. Burne-Jones did not exhibit again as an Academician and resigned, much to Leighton’s dismay, in 1893. The following year, he received a baronetcy. The picture entered Lord Lloyd-Webber’s collection in 2012.

This article was first published in Country Life, November 19, 2014

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