Harvington Hall is well known for it’s wall paintings (see link) which were completed in the 1600’s. Until 1936 these paintings had lain forgotten beneath a layer of whitewash although they have since been uncovered and can be seen by visitors to the Hall. The largest of these paintings(above) is of a mermaid and this image is today’s subject.
The Mermaid passage.
The Harvington mermaid lies above a doorway on the first floor and can best be seen as one leaves the great chamber. The picture shows a two tailed mermaid sitting on a scallop shell. Around the mermaid are two smaller mermaids as well as an intricate scrolling design including what appear to be fountains of water as well as vases and fruit.
The image of fruit on the mermaids head suggests (to me) a cornucopia – an image associated with female fertility. The picture is in a style knownas ‘arabesque’ – popular in the Elizabethan period and there is an idea that it may have been completed by a Flemish or German artist.
The mermaid is in reasonable condition but was clearly once part of a larger design which is fading into the walls around it. The worst damage to the mermaid (the plain & nearly circular patch left of centre) was caused where a hole was cut to allow access for a flue pipe from a stove in the room beyond.
Mermaid legends are of ancient origin and often have similar themes. A mermaid is pretty much always seen as a seductive and tempting figure. In the same way that the sea can be both beautiful and dangerous – stories often tell of mermaids trying to lure people with their beauty – often with tragic consequences. It is also common for there to be terrible consequences if a mermaids advances are spurned.
In Elizabethan times, the mermaid came to be a euphemism for a prostitute ( I have been told that German people still recognise this connection, unknown in modern English people). This was used as a slur against Mary Queen of Scots and Shakespeare is commonly thought to have refered to this in ‘The Midsummer Nights Dream’
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a Dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song;
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid’s music.’
In this piece, the ‘mermaid’ represents Mary Queen of Scots, the Dolphin is the ‘Dauphin’- the French Prince she was married to and the ‘certain stars’ are noble supporters who rallied to her hopeless cause.
I always wondered why Harvington had a painting which was suggestive of such a sensual theme, it hardly seems to fit with the rest of the Hall given it’s strongly Catholic background. This website which discusses Mermaids in Irish Church art gave me cause to think.
The author confirms the association between the mermaid and sin and tempation but concludes with the suggestion that the image of a mermaid was used to divide the secular part of the church from the sacred areas. At Harvington, the mermaid is roughly situated at the point where one leaves the family areas of the house and moves upstairs to areas where Priests would have stopped and masses were held. Is it possible that this image was used here for a similar purpose? (* See below *)
A modern mermaid.
I thought I would include the reason that I got thinking about mermaids in the first place. I have just come back from a holiday in Yorkshire, one day we took a walk out to the cliffs at Flamborough head.
Whilst walking I looked out over a cliff and saw a dead poropise on the rocks below. There is a suggestion that the mermaid myth may be built upon mis-interpretations of sightings such as this.
This sighting was confirmed by the local wildlife experts as being a dead porpoise but It is easy to imagine how one might catch a glimpse of such a creature and ‘see’ a mermaid – especially if one had been rised to believe in such creatures.
The mermaid image continues to inspire people – just try putting ‘mermaid’ as a search term on flickr – this is my favourite (above). I was however suprised (& a little pleased!) to find that the mermaid can still cause some offence.
The Starbucks Mermaid.
I stated above that (apart from the Germans) I didn’t think anyone would still associate the mermaid with anything lewd. Apparently there is a Christian group in the US who have campaigned for a boycott of Starbucks because of their use of the two-tailed mermaid! (See also)
As they say in Yorkshire – ‘theres nowt as queer as folk’
(* of course – it may be that the mermaid is there because it was fashionable at the time & the Hall inhabitants just liked it – it is possible to over-do the search for deeper symbolic meanings!)
PS Thanks to Lee Durkee for drawing my attention to this image of a mermaid feeding her young – from the Royal collection.
PPS See also ‘How many breasts does a mermaid have‘ by Lee Durkee