Artists around St Ives strayed into the realms of fancy in the years leading up to the turn of the century. It appealed to the public to imagine, for example, a walk up the coast to Zennor, during which one might spot a mermaid sunning herself on the rocks, naked nymphs taking a dip from an isolated stretch of sand, or putti playing in rock pools. A glance inland might capture a saint tending a flock of sheep.
The phenomenon first made an appearance on Show Day in 1897, and was conspicuous in 1898 and 1899, but then tailed off. Julius Olsson's The Golden Shore of 1897 was one of the first examples, and is a large canvas depicting mermaids bathing in an ultramarine sea under sun-baked Cornish cliffs. Olsson may have heard tales of 'merry maids', as they tended to be known to Cornish fishermen, from the locals, but his painting is more likely to have been prompted by a new edition, published in 1896, of Robert Hunt's Popular Romances of the West of England, which recorded various Cornish mermaid tales and suggested that the name Morva, the parish next to Zennor, derived from the Breton word for mermaid, morverch. Olsson will also have known the story of the mermaid carved on a pew end in the church at Zennor.
When exhibited on Show Day, the St Ives Weekly Summary, 27 March 1897 recorded that 'The Golden Shore shows a sheet of water where mermaids are bathing, the background being a line of grass-capped cliffs that catch the reflection of the setting sun, and blue sky where cumulous clouds float. In the mid-distance a mermaid sits on a rock, which a second is just reaching, and under the cliffs several other mermaids are enjoying a splash. It is a striking picture, in which the deep blue sea, reflecting the warm colour of the cliffs, is skillfully treated'.
We are grateful to David Tovey, author of Pioneers of St Ives Art at Home and Abroad, for his help in preparing this catalogue entry. Please visit David's website at www.stivesart.info for further information.