This beautiful drawing clearly shows the same model as the one who posed for the mermaid in The Depths of the Sea (fig. 1), Burne-Jones's one and only exhibit at the Royal Academy. He was elected an associate in 1885, much to the delight of Sir Frederic Leighton, the president, who was eager to recruit new talent and was well aware that Burne-Jones was the star of the rival Grosvenor Gallery. The Depths of the Sea was shown the following year but the RA was never Burne-Jones's spiritual home and the academicians, sensing his half-hearted involvement, did not make him full member. He showed nothing more after 1886, and in 1893, to Leighton's intense dismay, he resigned.
An unusually disturbing work for Burne-Jones, The Depths of the Sea shows a mermaid dragging the body of a drowned sailor down to her watery lair. Her smile expresses her sense of triumph, and she is unaware that her 'catch' is already dead. The picture was the most important of several mermaid subjects that Burne-Jones was inspired to paint by the proximity of the sea at Rottingdean, a mile or two east of Brighton on the Sussex coast, where he bought a house as a country retreat in 1880.
The enigmatic expression on the mermaid's face has led to much speculation about the identity of the model. The artist's widow encouraged this, writing in her biography of him (1904) that he 'always associated' the picture with Laura Lyttelton, since 'the face of the mermaid had some likeness to her strange charm of expression.' Born in 1862, the daughter of Sir Charles Tennant and the elder sister of the formidable Margot Asquith, Laura had been one of the brightest and most beloved of the Souls; but a year after marrying Alfred Lyttelton in 1885, she died in childbirth. Burne-Jones was deeply moved at the sudden extinction of a life so full of promise, and set about designing a memorial which he exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1887. Meanwhile another friend, Lady Lewis, was forming her own romantic theory about the mermaid, claiming that it represented a young girl whom the artist had seen in the woods when he was staying with her in the country. 'He was as under a spell', she wrote, 'and when we came home at once made a drawing of her from memory...; he never altered it, but used it for the head of the mermaid. Often he spoke of her - said he was sure she was a nixie and had come up from the well'.
Whatever the truth of these stories, a fine study for the mermaid's head in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight (fig. 2) has every appearance of having been made from a professional model. According to Burne-Jones's autograph work-record, the painting was executed 'at the beginning' of 1886, prior to its exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery that spring, and our drawing, which bears this date, must be contemporary. The model has the same ambiguous expression as the mermaid in the picture, described by F. G. Stephens when he reviewed the Grosvenor exhibition for the Athenaeum as 'a look of triumph that is neither human nor diabolic... almost worthy of Leonardo da Vinci' himself. But the drawing is essentially an independent creation, only tangentially related to the painting. Burne-Jones would often make drawings of this kind when he had a model whose features he found intersting, and it is clear that he was fascinated by this one, who either had, or could put on, a subtly provocative and come-hitherish expression.
The drawing belonged to Rowland Alston, for many years curator of the Watts Gallery at Compton and a friend of the collector Cecil French (1879-1953). In fact it was Alston who was named in French's will as the 'artistic adviser' responsible for distributing his pictures after his death, an arrangement that saw them going to many museums but by order not to the Tate Gallery, to which French had taken an intense dislike because of its promotion of modern British art under John Rothenstein's directorship. However, a few items from the collection were bequeathed to French's friends, including Alston himself, and one or two seem to have been given away before the collector's death. Our drawing was certainly not among those that Alston received under the terms of the will (a painting by G. F. Watts and an album of lithograph by C. H. Shannon), but it is possible that French had given it to him at an earlier date.