Ulysses and the Sirens (1909)
Study of Janet Fletcher for Ulysses
JW Waterhouse Lamia (1905)
JW Waterhouse Lamia (1909)
Study of Winifred Green for Lamia
This strange correlation between beautiful women and death was ever present at this time with women often portrayed as the carriers of death and disease. The first major Vampire novel, for example, was not Dracula but Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla (1872) which was published 25 years before Bram Stoker's book. In Carmilla, the vampire was a woman and, indeed, the strong implication is that she is a lesbian; the ultimate threatening woman: one with no use for a man whatsoever. As the heroine of the book says:
"Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, "You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever".
The Flying Fish (1910)
There was nothing so serious with a painting he exhibited at the RA in 1910. Flying Fish is much more akin to his The Foam Sprite from sixteen years earlier and is really one of his "pin-ups", rather than a serious narrative painting, but it has some marvellously rendered waves and the leaping sea nymph has a great deal of movement and energy in her; reproducing the pose and detail of the original sketch with little change. The boldly diagonal composition makes it one of Draper's most successful single figure paintings. The model was Janet Fletcher, who had been the central siren in Ulysses.
Study of Jessie Morris for The Morning Mists
One of the Royal Academy schools, models, an actress, Jessie Morris, posed for all of the very sensuous figures and Draper made studies for the background in the Mont Blanc region. The painting was sold in 2000, having been lost for over seventy years, for £883,000.
Study for The Summer Seas
The pose of the girl in the next picture we will examine is virtually identical to that of The Summer Seas so were probably done from the same sketches. Draper often reused poses he had done for previous works, sometimes from drawings done decades earlier.
The Kelpie (1913)
Another watery maiden by Draper is The Kelpie (1913), the only painting he exhibited that year. Kelpies were spirits (actually usually described as being in the form of horses, not gorgeous women!) who haunted rivers and lakes and would prey on sailors and other travellers, so they were not nearly as benevolent as nymphs. Draper's Kelpie does have something of the sinister about her, although the picture was not well received when it was exhibited; critics thinking that the girl's figure was "too modern" for a mythological subject. Kelpies were creatures of northern rather than Mediterranean myth and her background setting reflects this. As was noted by Simon Toll in his excellent book on Draper the artist was an expert at combining source material from different places and fusing them together to provide a realistic and convincing looking whole. In the case of The Kelpie the source material appears to be some photographs he took of a stream in Scotland together with some detailed pencil studies he made in Savoie. The rendition of the transparently clear water in the foreground of this picture is nothing short of miraculous.
For most of this period, Draper concentrated on lucrative portraits but in 1915 he submitted to the Royal Academy one of his last great mythological pictures. Compositionally, it is almost a mirror image of The Kelpie; the centre of the painting being dominated, once more, by large rocks. The central figure is Halcyone who was one of the Pleiades; the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione who was a sea nymph. Draper depicts her by the sea mourning for her husband Ceyx who was lost at sea. Above her head flit kingfishers into which the nymphs turn Halcyone and Ceyx after she throws herself into the sea in grief; the colours of her robes reflecting the plumage of the birds. Hilda Edgell posed for the figure of Halcyone. The painting was accompanied by the following couplet:
"How Halcyone in her bereavement was transformed by water nymphs, and rejoined her mate in eternal summer in the form of the bird that bears her name."
One notable aspect of this picture is the number of nymphs portrayed; a contrast to the one or two he usually painted.
Studies for Halcyone
Worse than the criticism he had endured before was the total lack of interest in this painting when it was exhibited at the Royal Acadeny in the summer of 1915. Perhaps its rather trite depiction of grief simply didn't strike a chord with a British public coming to terms with the enormity of the war across the Channel.
Draper's last mythological painting was Reveil (1918) portraying a post-bacchanialian nymph and a bacchante. Like Halcyone, it was almost entirely ignored by the critics and even, worse, became the first of Draper's mythological paintings not to sell. He never attempted another such painting, although he continued to paint portraits until his death on 22nd September 1920.
Herbert Draper in his studio in St John's Wood 1903
Under the weight of the modernist movement in the twenties Drapers paintings were almost immediately forgotten as old fashioned and somehow embarrassing. It would be seventy years before his pictures started to be appreciated again and started to be included in exhibitions of fashionable, once more, Victorian classicists. Fortunately, his family kept his pictures and sketches together.
Study for Reveil
Agent Triple P went to the exhibition at the Tate in 2000 called Exposed: The Victorian Nude where Draper's, The Gates of Dawn, The Lament for Icarus and Ulysses and the Sirens were all triumphantly displayed. We look forward with interest to the price that The Sea Maiden fetches next week at Christies to see if it confirms the rehabilitation of one of the technically finest artists of the Late Victorian and Edwardian ages.