Under the Sea

Inspired by a visit to the London Aquarium, I recently spent a pleasurable hour trawling through the Factory, looking at the fish in our collection. Aside from offering endless pun possibilities, fish have significance in all cultures. They act as food and economy for many river and coastal towns, are the basis for one of the most famous stories in the bible, and, as you will see here, have inspired artists for centuries.

Dove and Dolphin, William Frend De Morgan, ca. 1850-1900. Museum no. E.1175-1917. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This porcelain design by William de Morgan, a leader in the Arts & Crafts movement, depicts a dolphin giving a dove an olive branch. This seemingly contradicts the famous story in the Book of Genesis, which tells of how the dove plucked the olive branch from a tree. This design thus presents an interesting mystery – what do you think the artist was trying to portray?

Second set of most skilled designs for pendants and earrings, Hans Collaert and Adriaen Collaert, 1582. Museum no. E.2205-1911. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This beautiful jewellery design, from the sixteenth century, is again inspired by a biblical story. In the design we see Tobias and the Archangel Raphael, who undertake a long journey together with Tobias’ dog. Along the way they kill a large fish, which provides the base of the design. Raphael guides Tobias in how to use parts of it to aid him in his journey. It is interesting to think about who may have commissioned this ornate design, and their association to Raphael, as he is considered the patron saint of healers, travellers and fishermen.

Lobster Pots, Ventnor, Edward Cooke, 1835. Museum no. FA.39[O]. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This lively lobster making his escape from the cooking pot adds a ‘Brill’-iant tone of vibrant colour to this beach landscape. In the nineteenth century lobsters were considered, as now, as a luxury food. The outdoor setting is therefore unusual, as a lobster would have usually been painted in an opulent dining room setting, befitting its extravagant status.

Wallpaper, Walter Crane, 1878. Museum no. E.4031-1915. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. / Billow, Walter Crane, 1879. Museum no. E.4024-1915. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Although better known as an illustrator, Walter Crane also designed wallpapers and other decorative objects. These two wallpaper samples illustrate how he was inspired by the movement of fish through water, as the three fish we see here all have a similar S-bend shape to their bodies. Crane also uses naturalistic colours, the golden browns of sand, and the blue of the sea.

Family of Negro Slaves from Loango, William Blake, 1796. Museum no. E.1215H-1886. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This fascinating engraving was made by William Blake, as an illustration to a book by the soldier John Gabriel Stedman. Entitled ‘Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam,’ Stedman documented his time as a soldier in Suriname, attempting to repress a slave revolt. His narrative, and most of Blake’s illustrations, showed their disgust at the conditions which were imposed on the slaves. This image however, reflects his contradictory attitudes towards the institution of slavery. Stedman believed that sudden emancipation would cause many problems, and that slavery was necessary in order to keep Europe supplied in luxury goods such as tobacco and sugar. He also argued that English colonizers treated their slaves well, as reflected, in this engraving, where the slaves are mutually depicted as inferior through their lack of clothing, but as a stable family unit.

Neptune, René Boyvin, 1540-1560. Museum no. 22790:5. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Classical mythology also contains important associations with water, and the creatures that live in it. This engraving depicts Neptune, the Roman God of the Sea. He is shown holding a trident, surrounded by a mixture of classical and water motifs. A crab dangles from arch of the grotesque beneath which Neptune stands. In the cartouche beneath, is a woman, possibly his consort Salacia, in a chariot being pulled through the waves of the sea, by fish-like creatures. Grotesques, ornate decorative Roman structures, became very popular in sixteenth century prints, after the rediscovery of Nero’s Domus Arena in the fifteenth century. It was unusual however, to depict a Pagan divinity and a grotesque together, making this print quite unique!

If you have enjoyed today’s post you are very whelkome to come into the Prints and Drawings Study Room and have a look at the collection yourself. Happy fishing!

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