Herbert Draper (1863-1920) was an English classicist painter whose career began in the Victorian era and extended through the first two decades of the 20th century. Draper rapidly became one of the most popular and successful painters of mythology in the 1890s, and the sea and the nude feature prominently in his work. Perhaps his most celebrated picture is ‘The Lament for Icarus’, now in Tate Britain.
The subject of his painting ‘The Sea Maiden’ is taken from a quotation in Algernon Swinburne’s poem, ‘Chastelard’:
A song of drag-nets hauled thwart seas,
And plucked up with rent sides and caught therein,
A strange haired woman with sad singing lips.
Preliminary studies for it involved numerous trips off the coasts of Devon and Cornwall, while the ancient boat was painted from a wax model. Draper even persuaded the captain of a fishing trawler to take him out to sea to watch the nets being hauled in, an exhausting experience as the ship was away for forty-eight hours at a stretch. Its sale in 2010 by the Royal Cornwall Museum to help to secure its finances generated debate about the policy of disposing of art works for this purpose.
Draper also carried out decorative projects, and when he was commissioned to paint a 20’ x 30’ canvas ‘Prospero summoning Nymphs and Deities’ for the ceiling of the great Livery Hall of the Drapers’ Company, he rented the largest studio he could find, Studio 5 at Porthmeor. However even this studio was not big enough, and four feet of canvas,top or bottom, had to be rolled up at any time.
Text: Ben Crack