Although Draper (fig. 1) had exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1887, The Sea Maiden, shown in 1894 when he was thirty, was his most ambitious work to date and his first popular success. Born in Covent Garden, London, Draper was the seventh child and only son of a prosperous grocer. His father had hoped that he would take up a career in science or medicine, but his sights were always set on art. Although there was no artistic tradition in the family, the interest emerged strongly in Draper's generation. One of his sisters, Amy, became a professional artist. Another, Edith, was a talented amateur, while a third, Minnie, married into the Varley family, well known in the annals of English landscape painting.
Having attended the St John's Wood Art School in the early 1880s, Draper graduated to the Royal Academy Schools in 1885. There he was taught by all the leading Academicians of the day and evidently won the respect of the President, Sir Frederic Leighton, who did much to guide his early progress. Draper was indeed a singularly successful student. In 1886 he won a competition to paint a mural in a public building, subsequently carrying out the design, which showed a group of children in a landscape under the title Spring, in the nurses' refectory at Guy's Hospital. He also gained a Silver Medal for life-drawing and the Landseer Scholarship, which was designed to enable students to travel. Many of his peers had continued their art education in Paris. The French capital had nurtured the careers of Leighton himself and of Edward Poynter, Leighton's close follower, who was now a prominent Academician and had directed the Slade School of Art in the early 1870s. Now those they had taught were keen to follow suit, and Draper was no exception. He spent a year in Paris from 1888 to 1889, studying at the Académie Julian under such stalwarts of the French academic tradition as Jules Lefèbvre and W.A. Bouguereau.
Back in London, his taste for foreign travel whetted, Draper competed for yet another Royal Academy prize, the Gold Medal which brought with it a bursary of £200 and represented its most prestigious award. Once again he was successful, and in 1890 he set out on an extensive tour that included Spain, Tangier, Italy, Germany, Holland and Belgium. Home again the following year, he rented a studio in Chelsea, but he had still not outgrown his wanderlust and in the winter of 1891 he returned to Rome, tempted to make it his permanent home. Leighton, however, advised against this course, and he was soon back once more in London.
This time he settled at 9 Pembroke Studios, an attractive new development just off Edwardes Square in Kensington. Only a hundred yards or so to the north was the artists' colony in Holland Park where Leighton had built his famous studio house in the 1860s and gathered his friends G.F. Watts, Val Prinsep and others around him. Several younger artists of Draper's generation, including Herbert Schmalz, Solomon J. Solomon and Ernest Normand and his wife Henrietta Rae (see lot 170), had taken studios in Holland Park Road in the 1880s, thus having these luminaries as neighbours; but, as the Normands were to discover, such close proximity had its drawbacks. Draper was in some ways in a better position in Pembroke Studios, near enough to the Olympian heights for reassurance but sufficiently distant to escape the more stultifying effects of daily intercourse with the gods.
Draper was to remain in Pembroke Studios for five years, and it was there that The Sea Maiden was painted. He had conceived the design in Rome in 1890, describing the subject as 'a group of savage fishermen finding to their surprise a seamaiden in their nets when they came to haul them up'. The composition was planned down to the last detail, and numerous studies survive or are recorded photographically. The figures were all drawn from the nude, either in Rome or when Draper was back in London. Italians were generally considered to be the best models, partly because of their fine physique, partly because of an assumption that art was in their genes; and many of those used by Draper for his seafarers - Luigi De Luca, Domenico Mancini, Angelo Colarossi and others - appear elsewhere in the annals of late Victorian art, whether modelling for other artists or for the leading art schools. However, Draper was not averse to English models and the sea maiden herself was modelled from two, a Miss Bowry posing for the naked body and Ethel Warwick for the head.
Studies for the picture's background were made in the Scilly Isles and Devon, and Draper even persuaded the captain of a fishing trawler to take him out to sea to watch the nets being hauled in, an exhausting experience as the ship was away for forty-eight hours at a stretch. He also made a model of the boat, studying it in the open air to familiarise himself with the way it caught the light. Leighton, however, advised against too much realism, urging him to make the boat as dark as possible for the sake of the composition.
The picture appeared in the RA catalogue with a three-line quotation from Swinburne's verse-play Chastelard (1865), a romantic drama about Mary Queen of Scots. The poet's name was not given, and this caused some confusion among the critics. M.H. Spielmann, the editor of the Magazine of Art, wrote of 'Chastelard's poem', evidently unaware that he was the subject of the play, not its author, while F.G. Stephens, writing as usual in the Athenaeum, was contemptuous of the phrase 'a strange-haired woman with sad singing lips' ('whatever they may be'), again seemingly unaware that Swinburne was responsible.
It appears that Draper was actually illustrating Swinburne's text, rather than simply quoting it in the catalogue because it seemed appropriate, since we know he was keen to explain that the poet was his authority for showing the sea maiden without a fish's tail. This meant that she was not, strictly speaking, a mermaid, although for all practical purposes the picture belongs to the genre of mermaid subjects that figures so prominently in Victorian art. Burne-Jones, for example, had treated the theme several times in the 1880s, inspired by the proximity of the sea at Rottingdean, the village on the Sussex coast where he had recently acquired a country retreat. The most important example was The Depths of the Sea (fig. 2), exhibited at the RA in 1886, which shows a mermaid, an enigmatic smile on her lips, dragging a dead mariner down to her watery lair. When the art critic on the Times, reviewing the RA exhibition in 1894, wrote that Draper 'should leave the painting of sirens to Sir Edward Burne-Jones', he was almost certainly thinking of this picture.
If the subject had appealed to Burne-Jones a few years before it was handled by Draper, it would be taken up by J.W. Waterhouse not long after, inspiring his RA diploma picture of 1900 (fig. 3) and a contemporary work, The Siren, in which the eponymous temptress, playing her harp, looks on dispassionately as a sailor drowns at her feet. Other English artists of this period who were attracted to the theme included Robert Anning Bell, who treated it as a gesso relief, and Charles Hazelwood Shannon.
Sometimes a literary text would haunt artists for decades. Such was the case with a passage in A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Oberon recalls sitting 'upon a promontory' hearing 'a mermaid on a dolphin's back/Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath/That the rude sea grew civil at her song'. The image inspired paintings by David Scott (1836), Noel Paton (1883) and Arthur Rackham (1908).
A comprehensive discussion would not confine itself either to Britain or the visual arts. The Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin was only one of many European exponents of mermaid themes, while the literary dimension is rich and varied; think only of Thomas Moore's poem 'The Origin of the Harp', which inspired a picture by Daniel Maclise in the 1840s; or Goethe's 'Der Fisher', that Leighton illustrated in 1858; or again, Hans Christian Anderson's story 'The Little Mermaid', embodied by Edward Eriksen in his famous statue of 1913 on the marina at Copenhagen. In his monograph on Draper Simon Toll makes yet another literary comparison, arguing that Oscar Wilde's story 'The Fisherman and his Soul' presents specific parallels with Draper's picture.
As all this shows, the mermaid theme appealed powerfully both to the Romantics and their successors the Symbolists, among whom Draper may be counted. For the latter the mermaid subject was a sub-species of two larger categories with which they were obsessed, those of the femme fatale, enticing men to destruction in many forms and guises, and the hybrid or chimera, the mythical half-human, half-animal creature that fascinated Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, Fernand Khnopff and others. Draper's sea maiden is unusual not only in that she has no fish tail but in being at the mercy of the men she would normally be luring to a watery grave. However, even Draper could not leave the subject there. Fifteen years later the tables were turned in his Ulysses and the Sirens, shown at the RA in 1909, in which three curvaceous vamps surge menacingly over the gunwales of the heroes' ship (fig. 4). Moreover, if two of them are fully human in form, one has a fishtail and is thus clearly a thoroughbred mermaid.
The picture had a somewhat mixed reception at the RA, although it was generally acknowledged to be a major statement by a young and promising artist. The critic on the Times, for instance, described it as 'very ambitious', and felt that Draper, 'for all the grotesqueness of his subject', showed 'a power of draughtsmanship and of colour which promise well for his future'. M.H. Spielmann in the Magazine of Art though it 'a work of remarkable ability' which, in spite of certain shortcomings, including some 'faulty drawing', was, as an imaginative conception ('the clear working out of the subject'), nothing less that 'a triumph'. F.G. Stephens in the Athenaeum took a similar line. He wished Draper could have conveyed a little more of 'the charm of romance', but nonetheless found it 'most refreshing' to discover in 'a wilderness of impertinences and platitudes like the Academy, a new motive, new life, considerable vivacity..., varied and animated (expressions) and a good deal that is worthy of praise in other parts of the picture'.
The Sea Maiden was even the subject of an anonymous article in the Studio, which saw it as an example of a 'new movement' in art that was attracting 'the best of our younger men'. Impressionism and naturalism, the article implies, had had their day, and artists were returning to literary subject matter and strong formal values. In truth this was wishful thinking. The taste for subject pictures continued to decline, and artists in Draper's position were soon forced to diversify. Although he never abandoned literary themes, he was increasingly occupied with portraits and the coastal scenes and seascapes which are already anticipated in The Sea Maiden and other early works.
Despite rapidly changing fashions, the picture found a buyer in Marcus B. Huish, a barrister and the first managing director of the Fine Art Society. He was also an industrious author, editing the Art Journal for twelve years and publishing books on such varied subjects as Japanese art, Greek terracottas, Turner's engravings and the watercolours of Helen Allingham, often as by-products of Fine Art Society exhibitions.
It was almost certainly as stock for the Society that Huish bought Draper's picture since within a few years it belonged to Christopher Henry Hawkins, a wealthy diplomat with a house in London, 10 Portland Place, and strong Cornish connections. One of the finest eighteenth-century houses in the county, Trewithen House near Truro, had been in his family for generations, and indeed his descendants live there to this day.
Hawkins must have been of remarkably independent mind since he bought not only Draper's Sea Maiden but an even more ambitious late Victorian subject picture, Ernest Normand's colossal Bondage, which would appear at the RA the following year (and is offered in these Rooms in the sale of Orientalist Art on 15 June 2010, lot 40. See the end of this catalogue for further details). In May 1905 his widow attempted to sell The Sea Maiden at Christie's, but it was bought in and fourteen years later she gave it to the Royal Institution of Cornwall. She had already presented them with Bondage in 1909, and thus these two great period pieces were reunited.