Well, lucky, lucky me. On August 1st 2008 I finally got off my backside and went to The Manchester City Art Gallery in…errrm…Manchester. And, at 11.34am I saw one of my all-time favourite paintings: Hylas and the Nymphs by J.W. Waterhouse. When I got to the gallery part of me wanted to find it straight away, such was my eagerness. I felt like a youth searching for his true love amidst a crowd of faces and, though some were familiar and made me smile in recognition, there was only one that was would make my heart skip a beat. But no, I took my time and would see it when I did.
There were a number of Pre-Raphaelite paintings there: Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Maddox-Brown, Alma-Tadema and others. I was very pleasantly surprised to see a few Millais in there, one in particular being a favourite of mine that he had done, Autumn Leaves. I did a copy of this picture about 18 years ago, so it was great to see it in the flesh, as it were. The other Millais was called Stella, a painting which I thought was something of a departure for him. Not in subject matter – it being a portrait – but in the way he had painted it. The application of paint was very thick and liberal, not the usual smooth and fine work I’m use to. I liked it very much.
I walked into the second-to-last part of the Pre-Raphaelite/Victorian gallery and saw no sign of Hylas and the Nymphs, though I will admit to being a little coy because I didn’t really want to see it until I was upon it, fearing that such may water down my experience of it. I began to wonder if it was here at all. Maybe they had loaned it out to the imminent exhibition of Waterhouse’s work in Europe and Canada! In spite of myself, I glanced quickly into the last gallery, my panicked eyes searching greedily for a glimpse. Oh! and there she was, stuck away in the corner but larger than life and startlingly real, jumping out in her dark-green beauty as everything else around it, and in my vision, blurred into a grey monotony. But, I looked away and carried on my barely restrained perusal of all the other paintings that remained in sweet anticipation. Actually, there was one other painting in that last gallery that I was impressed with and that was by an artist named Arthur Hacker. The painting is called Syrinx and had the kind of brusqueness of landscape and sensitivity to portrait that reminded of Waterhouse’s work, not to mention it’s mythical subject. Syrinx was the daughter of a river-god who, upon learning of Pan’s desire to rape her, transforms herself into reeds to escape his amorous clutches. Pan then cut the reeds and made pipes of them, his desperate breath forever blowing hauntingly across them. I love the mythology behind some of these paintings and Hylas and the Nymphs is no exception. In Greek mythology (though I think this is William Morris’s version) Hylas was the son of a king and was taken by Heracles on board the Argo as one of the Argonauts who, one day needing supplies, land on the island of Lemnos. Hylas is sent to look for water where he happens upon a group of sea/water nymphs who lure him into their watery world. He is never seen again, though Heracles stayed behind on the island to look for him.
Hylas and the Nymphs
So, after Syrinx came the subject of my day’s pilgrimage. What can I say? I’m finding it hard to find the words without sounding trite. As good as some other paintings were in the gallery (Millais and Hacker in particular), Hylas and the Nymphs stood head and shoulders above them all in my opinion (not that I’m biased, of course). It’s just an incredibly beautiful work, far more so in real life. Reproductions in books just don’t come close. What struck me most about the painting was how green it was. The lily pads and water are so vibrant. I almost feel like I’ve been lied to a little bit by all images I’ve seen of it in the past, so dull do they look in comparison. I’ve never seen a picture that has transported me to it’s own world anything like Hylas and the Nymphs did two days ago. It’s like viewing a moment in time frozen forever on canvas by an artist who could access the mythical world through his imagination and leave an imprint for us all to see. I’ve not seen anything quite like it. Needless to say, I spent a good bit of time around it, looking at it up close and from far away as well as at different angles. Another thing you don’t see in reproductions, as well as the colour, is how thick and ‘clumped’ the paint is in certain areas as if Waterhouse had worked and re-worked them a number of times. The main culprit for this treatment is the the girl whose head is closest to Hylas (not the one holding his arm but the one behind), though you only really see this up close and at an angle.
Well, I’d been with the painting for awhile and decided to finish off the rest of the gallery (and then come back for a final look). The only other thing of interest to me afterwards was a painting called The Glassblower by one Mervyn Peake. It was a good picture and my first time for seeing anything by Peake’s hand but, more than anything, I’ll remember him for his Gormenghast trilogy. For me, John W. Waterhouse is by far-and-away my favorite artist. Likewise Mervyn Peake is far-and-away my favourite author: I can’t praise Gormenghast highly enough. But more on Peake another day. The day really belonged to Waterhouse.
So, back to Hylas and the Nymphs. I stayed a bit longer doing pretty much what I did before as well as taking a few photo’s (which incidentally, I cannot use for anything other than educational purposes – I was a good boy and asked for permission and didn’t use the flash!). I was amazed at the amount of people who walked past the painting without really giving it much of a look. Huh!!?? Excuse me!!?? Hellllooooo!!!! Anybody in there? Oh well, I suppose all art is subjective and people have a right to their opinion (bloody philistines!). I must have stood out like a sore thumb for the amount of attention I was giving Hylas and the Nymphs. I was half expecting to get arrested and charged with stalking a Waterhouse! Starting to feel a little self-concious, I left reluctantly with the feeling of somehow wanting more, just like a youth parting from his true love. What I really wanted to do was take the painting with me, but I know I would have been arrested for that. So, with a last longing look and a silent goodbye (until next time) I left the mythical world that Waterhouse had let me glimpse and stepped into the heart of Manchester with it’s city hustle and bustle: McDonalds, buses, trams, rubbish, endless strange faces and featureless architecture. Already my heart was being sucked in to the city’s grey embrace to drown me in it’s waters of consumerism. I’m reminded of the nymphs luring Hylas to his doom. Manchester or Lemnos?
Give me Waterhouse any day.
Until next time,