• 6 May 2020
  • The British Art Talks podcast is a new audio series from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. It features new research and aims to enhance and expand knowledge of British art and architecture.

This episode is a discussion between Classicist Mary Beard and art historian Cora Gilroy-Ware, author of The Classical Body in Romantic Britain. It hones in on Etty’s 1837 The Sirens and Ulysses

painting featuring three women in the foreground gesturing to boat of sailors William Etty was obsessed with the female form. At the height of his career as a history painter, long after his election to Royal Academician in 1828, he sat side-by-side with novices to study naked models, a practice he continued even as his health faded toward the end of his life. Whether posed alone or in groups, these models served as templates for goddesses, graces, muses, nymphs and sirens in his finished paintings. Bypassing the conventions of his day, Etty abandoned the doctrine that the figure ought to be idealised according to the established norm of beauty based on Greco-Roman sculpture. His nudes tend to have breasts, thighs and other bodily features that are larger or more irregular than had long been customary. As the audience for contemporary British art grew steadily throughout his lifetime, his flouting of convention proved exciting and scandalous.

But there is more to Etty’s art than a move to a more naturalistic or realistic aesthetic. In his works, the female body remains mysterious and opaque, layered in flesh and rich paintwork. Many of the women who posed for him were employed simultaneously as sex workers, a fact that created a palpable sense of tension in the critical reception of his achievements, and arguably within the paintings themselves. This programme will take a look at this endlessly fascinating artist, exploring the conspicuous sensuality of his take on the classical body.   

About the speakers

  • Head and shoulders photo of Cora Gilroy-Ware

    Cora Gilroy-Ware is a scholar and artist currently working at Thomas Dane Gallery, London. She has held fellowships at the Yale Center for British Art, the Huntington Library, University of Naples L’Orientale, California Institute of Technology and University College London, and curated exhibitions at Tate Britain and the Huntington European Art Gallery. Based on her doctoral thesis, her first book, The Classical Body in Romantic Britain, has recently been published with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. She has written articles that have appeared in numerous journals, including the London Review of Books, X-Tra Contemporary Art Quarterly, the White Review, and the Open Library of Humanities.

  • Mary Beard at a table

    Mary Beard is a professor of classics at the University of Cambridge. She is author of several books (including The Parthenon, The Roman Triumph, SPQR and Women and Power), as well as being classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement and presenter of history and arts documentaries on BBC television. She is the host of the regular TV arts programme Front Row Late (currently broadcasting as Lockdown Culture)