It’s Tuesday night at The Sun pub quiz.
‘Alfred, Lord Tennyson,’ Judith said, without hesitation. ‘I have a painting by John Waterhouse which is inspired by that poem, the Victorians loved all things Arthurian.’
She might have added Greek and Roman as well. The Victorians were steeped in mythology. In my psychological thriller, Deluded, Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott is displayed in a heavy gold Victorian frame at the bottom of the stairwell in Judith’s house. When Lisa sees it she is not impressed.
A red-haired woman dressed in cream medieval-style robes, her face a deathly pallor, was staring out of the painting as if in a trance. She was sitting in what looked like a grand canoe, drifting down a river.
‘Exquisite,’ said Lisa, dryly, ‘but very contrived, staged.’
Waterhouse was not to Lisa’s taste. It appears that this aversion is also shared by Manchester Art Gallery’s curator of the exhibition themed In Pursuit of Beauty. She has described the collection as a cause for ‘embarrassment’. The curator decided to withdraw Waterhouse’s celebrated Hylas and the Nymphs from the display.
I have a special interest as a print of this painting has adorned my bathroom wall for many years, and I often visit the Gallery to ponder the Pre-Raphaelite collection – I use the term loosely – primarily to look at this picture. A Facebook posting revealed that the painting is well-loved by my female friends – one also has a print, displayed in her dining room. She loves it because the nymphs have ‘mystery and power’. I share this feeling. These mysterious young women have the upper hand, after all the temptresses are about to abduct Hylas – a rare case of the depiction of assertive women.
In the furore that followed the removal of Hylas and the Nymphs the Gallery’s action was justified as a means to prompt a ‘conversation’. I was in the museum on the Thursday following the picture’s withdrawal. The only suggestion of a ‘conversation’ evident was the curator’s tentative scanning of the public’s comments which were stuck to the now empty wall. The staff in the hall were not prompting actual conversations with any passing visitors.
By Saturday the painting had been returned. Although longer, typed arguments have been added to the mélange of post-it notes, it was still difficult to decipher many of the penciled comments. Let’s face it, a post-it note does not give too much scope to express an opinion, never mind a conversation. The curator had promised the painting would be probably displayed again but ‘hopefully contextualized’. That new context seems to be a sea of yellow post-it notes. Opposite Hylas and the Nymphs there is a portrait of a stern bare-breasted woman. A post-it is stuck to the wall next to it. ‘Don’t let them take me!’
Whatever the Gallery’s motivation, removing a celebrated painting was misguided, smacking of censorship – and of all the paintings to choose it seems odd to select one of empowered women, if their rationale was based on the Victorian’s objectification of women. This Greek myth was a subject which appealed to both male and female painters. There is another portrayal of Hylas and the Water Nymphs painted fourteen years later by Henrietta Rae. However, it is only Waterhouse’s nymphs which, when Googled now, are associated with the headline ‘soft-porn painting’ and ‘offensive nymphs’.
We can all read into the painting what we will, based on what we see, and informed by our knowledge of Greek mythology. I don’t think about the imminent demise of Hylas when I see it, just the women entrancing him. Other commentators have described it as the Naiads’ abduction or murder of a gay man – Hylas being the lover of Heracles. However, the mystery of the disappearance of Hylas was never solved. In my imagination he lived happily among the water lilies with the nymphs. In the end we can all see the same thing and see it differently, and that is partly the point of my novel, Deluded.
DELUDED, the gripping psychological thriller, is now available on Amazon.co.uk.
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