• 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

  • Cora Gilroy-Ware headshot sitting on a bench

    Cora Gilroy-Ware’s research explores continuities between historic and contemporary, ancient and modern. Her doctoral project on the surprisingly under-researched classical nude in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century British art led to her first book, The Classical Body in Romantic Britain, and a broader interest in neglected chapters in the history of visual classicism. As a scholar of BIPOC heritage, she seeks to reconcile decolonial approaches with traditional art historical areas of concern. With support from the Henry Moore Foundation, she is currently at work on a second book project on adaptations of Greco-Roman art, particularly marble sculpture, among artists of African and indigenous American descent including Mary Edmonia Lewis, Augusta Savage, Selma Burke, Carrie Mae Weems and Kara Walker. She has curated exhibitions at Tate Britain and the Huntington, and written for the London Review of Books, Apollo, The White Review and other journals.

  • 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)