In the aftermath of a shipwreck, an exhausted survivor struggles towards the safety of the shore. He clings to an algae-clad rock without the strength to pull himself from the dark waters that surge and ebb around him. The treacherous currents and undertows threaten to pull him under the waves and almost all his strength is gone. At this moment of crisis, he is surprised by the beautiful vision of a young girl sitting on the rock above him with pearly-white skin and with lips parted in song. Her passive expression is enigmatic and whether she will help him or harm him we cannot know but we can be sure that he is spellbound by her pale beauty and magic song. Her abalone-shell harp and pearl hair decoration identify her as one of the sirens – ancient beguiling enchantresses of the ocean who lured mariners to their doom with their seductive song. The lower part of her legs, splashed by the spray of the sea, are magically transformed into the glistening fish scales and fins of a mermaid. Her hair is the auburn hue that in the nineteenth century became a potent symbol of the femme fatale. But she is not the vicious predatory sea-creature painted in continental Europe by the likes of Arnold Bocklin, Franz von Stuck or Gustave Moreau. She appears innocent of the harm her singing has caused and continues to pluck at the strings of her harp and gaze down at the drowning sailor below, as curious of him as he is of her.
Waterhouse seems to have conceived The Siren around the same time that he began a similarly sized painting A Mermaid (Royal Academy of Art, London), which was probably inspired by Tennyson’s poem of 1830 ‘The Mermaid’. It depicts a mermaid alone on a rocky beach combing her long hair and singing her fatal song. He had considered various poses for the mermaid, evidenced by a series of oil sketches and pencil drawings. It seems that one of those sketches led to the creation of an original composition in which he made her powerful enchantment more potent with the inclusion of the besotted, helpless mariner. A sketch for the initial idea for the composition which became The Siren was made in Waterhouse’s copy of the Poetic Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, although in that rough sketch there was a trio of mermaids. Waterhouse may have been partly inspired to depict the relationship between a mermaid and a doomed mariner by seeing at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1886, The Depths of the Sea (private collection) by his artistic hero Edward Burne-Jones, which also depicts a mermaid unaware of her deadliness to the mortal lovers of her song as she drags the body of a naked mariner deeper into her watery grotto.
In 1900 Waterhouse also painted Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus (Collection of Sir Tim Rice) which was probably based upon the same sketches that inspired The Siren. In this picture, two naiads (water nymphs) are looking down into a dark pool at the floating head of the musician Orpheus and the relationship between the female and male figures is very alike the siren and mariner.
In this painting the siren has become the ultimate fin-de-siecle hallucinatory presence, whose beauty could only be seen by those already powerless to her enchanted music. Like Waterhouse’s hero Hylas in the painting Hylas and the Nymphs of 1895, who is on the brink of being pulled to his watery death, the mariner in The Siren will slip down into the shadowy depths. For Waterhouse the siren represented the same subject as Circe, la Belle Dame sans Merci, Medea and Lamia – women whose beauty and magical powers made them personify dangerous femininity. However the intensity of the moment is the main idea of the picture rather than a depiction of a specific literary or mythological figure or episode of a narrative drama – this is very different from Waterhouse’s earlier depiction of the sirens, Ulysses and the Sirens of 1891 (National Gallery of Victoria, Australia) which sought to depict the Homeric sirens as half-bird-half-woman launching a terrifying assault on Ulysses’ ship. Whilst the earlier picture was a whirling maelstrom of a composition suggesting noise, violence, terror and hunger, The Siren captures the eerie and silent tension between the seductress and her devotee/prey. The 1891 picture was based upon a design depicted on a classical vase at the British Museum and has an unconvincing artificiality whilst The Siren seems to be a far more personal vision concentrated on human emotion and desire.
The Siren was probably commissioned by the art dealers Thomas Agnew’s, who sold it on 1 February 1901 for £450. It was bought by the industrial engineer and amateur artist James Gresham (1836-1914), founder of Gresham & Graven, manufacturers of brake equipment for railway vehicles. Gresham had a remarkable life story - when he was attending a grammar school in Newark he broke his leg and was taken to hospital in Lincoln by carriage, which overturned and further damaged his leg so badly that it was amputated above the knee. He developed his own artificial leg and with a keen mind for business he patented his design and used the money that was generated to pay for drawing lessons at the South Kensington School of Art. Here he met and befriended the artist William Powell Frith who encouraged his studies. It soon became clear that Gresham lacked the inspirational spark and originality to make him a great painter and when in 1856 he saw an advert for the position of a Sketching Clerk to assist the Secretary of the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition, he was encouraged to apply. His fortune was made in engineering but he retained his love of modern art and he became an avid connoisseur. Among the many pictures in his collection were The Soldier of Marathon by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Sotheby's, New York, 20 April 2005, lot 71, formerly owned by the fashion designer Gianni Versace), The Lantern Maker's Courtship by William Holman Hunt (Manchester City Art Gallery) and La Pia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas). It is interesting that another of the pictures in his collection was The Cave of the Storm Nymphs by Edward Poynter (sold in these rooms, 2 November 1994, lot 215) which depicts a similar saltwater fantasy to Waterhouse’s The Siren.
Following Gresham’s death The Siren was offered again at auction and attracted the attention of one of the greatest industrialists of his generation, William Hesketh Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme. His prowess in industry was matched by his connoisseurship and with the vast proceeds of his soap factories Viscount Lever amassed a collection of over 20,000 items and built the model village at Port Sunlight with an art gallery at its heart to contain the majority of his collection. Lever seems to have begun acquiring pictures by Waterhouse in 1916 when he bought Fair Rosamund (Sotheby’s, New York, 9 May 2014, lot 27) from the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and also The Decameron (now the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight). The Siren was probably the next picture by Waterhouse to enter the Leverhulme collection in 1917 and he also purchased three other pictures by Waterhouse; The Love Philtre (present whereabouts unknown) and An Al Fresco Toilet at Capri (private collection) both sold in 1926 and the unfinished The Enchanted Garden which he bought from the artist’s widow (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight).
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