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Front Cover –The Sirens and Ulysses (detail) – William Etty 1787-1849

 

 

William Etty’s huge painting The Sirens and Ulysses 10 ft x 15ft was last displayed in 1857. For the next hundred and fifty years it mouldered in the basement of Manchester’s Moseley Street Art Gallery. Mouldered is probably the right word since it was in bad condition with pieces cracking and falling away. But maybe Victorian sensibilities had a role in its neglect since Etty was considered almost a pornographer, fascinated as he was with flesh – usually female flesh. In 2000 restoration began and six years later it was back on view.

 

Howard Jacobson, Manc oik and novelist, looked again at Etty, inter alia, in his TV presentation of The Genius of British Art – an episode entitled Flesh. Howard’s take on this was that it’s modern prudes who are suppressing this stuff, that the monarch, Victoria, was as horny as a horntoad and that the contemporary patrons of art were also lechers who couldn’t get enough of it. Etty did die rich and, if not famous, at least notorious. Certainly the contents of the Lady Lever gallery at Port Sunlight support this contention (see Ron Horsefield’s Salammbo on p 92) with lots of Ettys on display.

 

Maybe a woman is required to break this taboo – just as we accept Jewish jokes from Woody Allen and the repeated “niggers” from Samuel L Jackson in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. And so it is the crusading curator of York Art Gallery, Sarah Burnage, has set up an exhibition of one hundred of Etty’s works running between June 25 2011 and January 22 2012. Etty was born and died in York but even there much of his bequest to the gallery has been hidden until now.