Tradition dictates that on February 14th each year prospective lovers will send each other romantic missives in a bid to win affections. One such tale of love and desire is told in the legend of the Mermaid of Galloway. In the 1810s Sir John Leicester, owner of Tabley, was intrigued by a poem, published by Robert Hartley Cromek in a book of traditional folklore, which told one version of the tale of the mermaid. Leicester commissioned the artist William Hilton to commit the story to canvas.
According to the folklore of the Scottish Lowlands, the mermaids were a race of goddesses who had become corrupted with earthly desire. Their beauty was such that the heart of any man who viewed their faces would be filled with unquenchable desire. Their visits to the earth were rare and the subject of many stories but they would select a man of ‘exalted virtue and rare endowments’ and then woo him with their siren like voices.
In this painting we see the moment a young man falls prey to the charms of the mermaid. Her arms are raised above her head; one hand combs her long curly locks of burning gold whilst the other tries to tear them out. Her eyes meet his and, despite his evident youth and strength, he quickly succumbs to her powers. Above them, a storm rages in the sky and waves crash against the nearby rocks representing both the turmoil of emotion raging in the young man’s heart and the improbability of his release.
In keeping with the taste of the time, the two figures are portrayed in a classical style, heavily influenced by the poses of the statues and friezes of Ancient Greece.
Tabley House is a former stately home near Knutsford owned by the University of Manchester and is open from 1 – 5pm Thursday to Sunday and Bank Holidays
Why you should see this painting:
This wonderfully intense and theatrical depiction of signifies how vulnerable even the strongest of minds can become once we succumb to our emotions.
Image © University of Manchester, The Tabley House Collection