Photo Essay: Visiting a Mermaid

First posted in March, 2005

This post is over a year in the making.

In January, 2004, Sam and I visited the Royal Academy of Arts in an attempt to view John William Waterhouse's graduation piece, A Mermaid. It was going to be the first Waterhouse I had ever seen with my own eyes, not through a photograph, and I was very excited. We went well out of our way on an otherwise miserable day to see it, only to be told by some uninformed person at the front desk that they didn't have that painting, that all they had were temporary exhibitions.

I knew they had it. I knew. And I whined a lot in a very uncharacteristic way after we were turned away, and so Sam, being the absolutely wonderful boyfriend that he is, wrote to the Academy. And after some time he was sent a reply that yes, they had it.

And so last month, while visiting London, my friend Storme and I spent a day visiting museums. And we made another special trip to the Academy, just to see the mermaid.

The painting, first of all, is hung in a really dreadful place. It's at the base of some stairs, next to a very busy café, so you can't just stand right in front of it and appreciate it unless you're going to do so from, say, five feet away and within earshot of lots of cutlery and dishes. It's under glass. And there are spotlights. The spotlights reflect off the glass and off the oil on the canvas, so good luck photographing it, and due to its aforementioned location forget about standing there to admire it, let alone sketch it, as I sometimes do with pieces of which I am particularly fond.

Angle, glass, and lighting make the painting impossible to photograph.

The painting is smaller than I anticipated. I expected a huge canvas, but it's not quite three and a half feet tall, two and a half feet wide. I wasn't disappointed by that, merely surprised.

And she is gorgeous. The colors are rich and positively stunning.

And I was immediately taken aback by the fact that the painting looked absolutely pristine. For those of you familiar with the painting, almost all the photographs you see of it show a great deal of cracking, particularly in her hair and in the cliffs that rise from the water in the distance (take a look at the image hosted on for instance). But they're not there. There's not a single crack on the surface of the painting.

Storme and I puzzled over this for some time. We went to the gift shop to see what prints they had to confirm my memory of the cracking in the oil. And while we found no large print for sale, we did find something interesting. A card and a post card, shown here, respectively:

Notice the difference? It wasn't my imagination or my (notoriously poor) memory, and so it must have been restored. And due to all the heavy use of photographs that include the cracking, it probably was done quite recently.

I asked around with the staff at the Academy, but everyone with whom I spoke was nearly as clueless as the woman who, a year before, had told me that they didn't even have that painting on display. None of them even knew if the museum had its own restoration staff. It was really unbelievable.

And so, upon returning to my home in Alaska, with my travels behind me, I e-mailed the academy, and promptly received an automated response that stated it would be four weeks or so before I heard back. But fortunately they wrote back in half that time, and I received the response earlier this week:
Dear Jacqueline,

The last major conservation work to be carried out on The Mermaid was in 1989. This involved a general cleaning of debris and dust and the painting surface cleaned. The most noticeable drying crackle were filled in at this time with pigments mixed with Ketone N Resin and loose paint was reattached with DMC2. There were damages to the tacking edge of the canvas that were also repaired at this time. It was this work that accounted for the paintings wonderful condition that you noticed. Conservation on such paintings is an ongoing task and the works are regularly examined and, where necessary, worked upon.

Conservation of paintings is not done on site and we employ a number of freelance conservators along with institutions such as the Courtauld.

I hope you find this information useful.

Andrew Potter
Research Assistant
Royal Academy Library

And so the mystery ends. All those photographs you see with the cracked paint were taken over fifteen years ago.