Past Events

The Mermaids and Sirens of Edward Burne-Jones

Research Lunch – Cecilia Neil-Smith

  • 30 June 2023
  • 1:00 – 2:00 pm
  • Paul Mellon Centre

I am currently undertaking a PhD on androgynous depictions of mermaids and sirens in the art of the late Victorian era, analysing in detail the work of three highly influential Pre-Raphaelite artists: Edward Burne-Jones, Evelyn De Morgan and John William Waterhouse. In this talk I will discuss the large-scale marine works of Edward Burne-Jones, specifically The Sirens (1870) and The Depths of the Sea (1886), exploring how the mermaids and sirens in these paintings act as symbols for counter-normative gender expression. On a recent visit to the Paul Mellon Centre Archive, I discovered some very useful material in the notebooks of Paul Oppé, on the criticism Burne-Jones faced on account of his androgynous depictions of men and women, and the questions these raised regarding his sexuality. Critics and reviewers from Burne-Jones’s early days as an artist through to the present day, have commented on his “androgynous creations” : Henry James, John Nicoll, Joseph Kestner, Amelia Yeates, Ludovic Le Saux and Béatrice Laurent, to name but a few, have all noted their presence with varying theories and outlooks. However, perhaps surprisingly, none have focused explicitly on his several androgynous renderings of mermaid and siren figures. I intend to rectify this, analysing, in particular, The Sirens (1870) and The Depths of the Sea (1886), alongside their biographical and textual origins. Although Burne-Jones produced several drawings, caricatures and smaller studies on the same subject, which will be acknowledged for their more minor role in his oeuvre, these two arresting, large-scale works are of the most interest and importance in relation to Burne-Jones’s treatment of the androgynous mermaid/siren figure. Having dominated much of his time, thoughts and even nightmares, they can both offer valuable insights into the significance of these mythical figures, and their ambiguous genders, to the artist and to his audience.

The Depths of the Sea depicts a mermaid dragging a dead mortal man to the depths of the ocean, reversing dichotomous Victorian gender roles of the dominant male and subservient, weaker female. The Sirens is an unfinished piece depicting an ambush of androgynous sirens on a helpless ship, inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey and perhaps also the poetry of Burne-Jones’s idol, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I will analyse these oceanic images in the context of Burne-Jones’s biographical influences: his coastal home at Rottingdean, his tempestuous affair with Maria Zambaco, his homosocial bond with Rossetti and his friendship with members of the “Fleshly School of Poetry” such as Algernon Charles Swinburne. These influences, alongside inspiration from textual sources, combined to produce two progressive images of mermaids and sirens that can still speak to the gender-conscious society we live in today.

Listing image caption: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art (The Ringling)

About the speaker

  • Cecilia Neil-Smith colour headshot

    Cecilia Neil-Smith is in her second year of PhD study in art history and visual culture at the University of Exeter, and her project focuses on mermaids and sirens as figures of indeterminate gender in art and literature between 1860 and 1910. She previously studied English (BA) and Victorian literature, art and culture (MA) at Royal Holloway, University of London, before studying for a history of art postgraduate certificate at Birkbeck, University of London. Her research interests include Pre-Raphaelite depictions of gender, Victorian spiritualism and the representation of mythical creatures and monsters in British art.