Friday, July 8, 2011

"The Mermaid of Legend and of Art" (The Art Journal, 1880)

Within my bound volume of the 1880 issues of The Art Journal (picked up as part of a boxed lot at an auction earlier this year), there is a three-part series by Llewellynn Jewitt1 titled "The Mermaid of Legend and of Art."

Jewitt writes in his introduction:
"But few fabulous or mythological objects have entered so largely into Art, as well as into legend and poetry, as that of the 'enchanting syren' 'with dulcet and harmonious breath' -- the Mermaid (the mere-maiden, or maiden of the sea) -- and I have thought, therefore, that a few pages might profitably, as well as pleasantly, be devoted to a consideration of some of the main features under which the strange being has, at one time other, been presented to the eye by the painter, sculptor, or worker in metals."
Mermaids remain a popular figure in folklore today. I find it interesting that, of all of the titles in Ruth Manning-Sanders' "A Book of..." series, the hardest to find and most expensive one is "A Book of Mermaids."2

Here are some mermaid illustrations, and their descriptions, from Jewitt's 1880 series:

"Of its prevalence as an heraldic bearing it will perhaps be sufficient to say that, in some scores of instances in our own British armory, the mermaid occurs either as a distinct bearing on the shield, or as an adjunct in form of crest or supporter. ... [In Fig. 11], two mermaidmens appear as supporters to the arms of Bishop Berkeley, in Bristol Cathedral, where it occurs, exquisitely carved, on one of the stalls."

"A singular example of the mermaid as a bell ornament occurs in Fig. 34, which is carefully copied from one of the church bells of Appleby, in Derbyshire. She is represented with comb in her left, and mirror in her right hand. Doubtless the introduction of this device on bells had, like that of the fylfot cross, a superstitious origin, and was believed to be, like it, efficacious in the lulling of storms and averting of danger from lightning and tempest."

"Figures of the mermaid also occur in some of the early printed books, both in quaint old cuts and in those that are 'adorned with copper plates.' many of these are strange in their form, and occasionally hideous in their features and accompaniments. Figs. 35, 36 and 37 [Note: Figure 37 is not shown on this blog.] represent three extraordinary monsters, which will serve to show the extent of wildness to which the imagination of the old engravers sometimes carried them."
Jewitt further states that the "Bishop"3 is said to have been caught in the British Channel in 1531, and the "Monk" is said to have been captured in Norway.

These two illustrations come from the book "Monsters of the Deep," according to Jewitt. He's likely referring to 1875's "The Monsters of the Deep: And Curiosities of Ocean Life. A Book of Anecdotes, Traditions, and Legends," by Armand Landrin and W.H.D. Adams, which is available from Google as a free eBook.

"It would be interesting, did space permit, to quote at length some of the remarkable, and, in many instances, droll accounts that have from time to time been printed of the sight or capture of these fabulous creatures, but I am compelled to refrain from so doing, and must content myself by saying that ever and again mermaids have been exhibited and 'made much of' both in England and in other countries, and indeed may yet be seen preserved in some museums. The one give in Fig. 38 was exhibited in the Leyden Museum4, and Fig. 39 was shown in the early part of the present century in London. Like Barnum's late imposition, this monstrosity 'was a hideous combination of a dried monkey's head and body, and the tail of a fish.'"
1. In "The Art-Journal, 1850-1880: Antiquarians, the Medieval Revival, and The Reception of Pre-Raphaelitism," Brown University professor George P. Landow writes that Jewitt was the most important essayist in The Art Journal's history:
"In the 1870's Jewitt helped write a series on the ancient homes and castles of England, and he himself wrote a series on 'The Museums of England, with Special Reference to Objects of Art and Antiquity,' which appeared at irregular intervals after 1871."
According to Landow, Jewitt also wrote: "Art Under the Seats," an illustrated series on medieval carving and grotesqueries in choir stalls.
2. For example, on the day I wrote this post, there were six used copies available on, but the cheapest copy sells for $99.95! Why do people love it so? I'll let someone else answer: The 2008 post "Mermaid Influences" on the Black Mermaid Productions blog raves about the Ruth Manning-Sanders/Robin Jacques effort.
3. The Bishop is a dead ringer for Guiron, one of Gamera's enemies. Interestingly, I am not the first person to note this similarity. Chris Barrus of the Quartz City blog made the comparison in 2008.
4. The Leyden Museum is, I believe, now called the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities.

1 comment:

  1. the animal planet tv show about "mermaids" references a pt barnum poster for a "real mermaid" display of 1865 (NOT the "feejee mermaid"!) - is there any confirmation of the provenance of this poster (or even of the pt barnum show that was cancelled) from an independent, reliable source, prior to the (2012) tv show?