|Mermaids in the Deep (The Mermaid Family) (1878)|
|Mermaid and Child|
|The Sea Nymph|
Burne-Jones never pursued the appreciation of authority in the way that some others did (yes, Millais, I'm looking at you), but conversely he didn't refuse honours bestowed. In 1885, Ned became an associate of the Royal Academy and he exhibited a painting in response, in the Academy during the following summer. His patron William Graham (father of one of Burne-Jones' favourite young lady friends, Frances) called the Academy 'the gilded cage in Piccadilly' and possibly Ned felt the conflict between wanting to take part and wanting to flee and hide back in the safety of the more familiar Grosvenor Gallery. The resulting picture is one of his most famous and most difficult works...
|The Depths of the Sea (1886)|
Rather than being the instrument of escape, the mermaid here is the one who has captured you, is dragging you to your death. Or is she? The sailor is already dead and the mermaid is carrying him off. Possibly Burne-Jones feared the effect that plunging into the world of the Academy would have on him, maybe he equated it with being the dead sailor. The mermaid claiming the dead body could have had an oddly comforting resonance in this way, that she would claim him if he was lost in the rough sea of the art world. As it was Burne-Jones exhibited nothing after 1886, his mermaid year, and the Academy did not make him a full member. Finally, wishing for his freedom, in 1893 Ned resigned from the RA and swam away.
For me, the mermaid is the perfect symbol of Ned's work, with its hidden power, wickedness but not evil, uncertain temperament, but also gentleness and timidity, as if it doesn't know what a thing of wonder it is to the rest of us. Happy birthday Ned, I hope you're swimming with the mermaids today.