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August 2021

Scylla and Charybdis

By Elevenses, Greek mythology, Scylla and Charybdis, Talking art

Today we are between a rock and a hard place, so to speak. In times past folks may have been more worried about being between Scylla and Charybdis which, to be honest, is a pretty terrible place to be as anyone who has ever passed through the Straits of Messina between Italy and Sicily will know.

Who or what are Scylla and Charybdis?

This is a fresco from a cycle of works about Ulysses or Odysseus who had the journey of all journeys home from Troy, and as part of this nightmare had to pass through the Straits of Messina.

Ulysses fresco Scylla nd Charybdis

Alessandro Allori, Scylla from the Ulysses Cycle, 1575, Palazzo Salviati, Florence

Charybdis is depicted on the bottom right of the fresco and was thought to be the daughter of Poseidon, the Sea God, and Gaia, the Earth Goddess, which is funny because I always thought of her as a man; she definitely looks like an old man here.

As with many stories in Greek mythology, Charybdis had a better start in life which, thanks to Zeus, has now somewhat gone down the drain.

Being the daughter of Poseidon, she was closer to him than she was to her uncle Zeus and so when Poseidon requested that she help him increase the size of his realm by flooding large areas of land with seawater, she acquiesced only to incur the wrath of Zeus. No one wants the wrath of Zeus because he’s nothing if not inventive. As Charybdis’s punishment, she was turned into a monster that would eternally swallow sea water, creating whirlpools.

Scylla may have had an even more dramatic and terrible transformation as she was a beautiful nymph, possibly or possibly not the daughter of Lamia, who got herself turned into a terrible monster, destined to be trapped in the rocks opposite Charybdis. Her monstrosity took the form of six ravenous heads that yapped like dogs and had three rows of sharp teeth to tear apart any sailor that came within reach. Unfortunately, six of Odysseus’s men were lost to her as we see here. You have to love the fact that the remaining men simply seem mildly curious at the fate of their fellow sailors.

The Strait of Messina is, by the way, extremely dangerous so who knows, perhaps the legends were created to fit the geography rather than the other way round?! Controversial!

Here Scylla is again on this krater from classical antiquity. I’m not sure those dogs look particularly terrifying?! It’s curious that she has a serpentine tail and carries a fish knife. Arguably depictions of her altered after Ovid’s Metamorphosis became widely known and most artists took their cue from his description:

She frantically felt for the flesh of her thighs, her legs and her feet,
but all that she found was a cluster of gaping hell-hounds.
She’d nothing to stand on but rabid dogs whose bestial backs she was holding
in check beneath her truncated loins and protuberant belly (trans. David Raeburn)

Louvre Krater, Scylla

Krater from Classical period, circa 450-425BC, Louvre, Paris

Let’s go back to the story of Scylla because you would imagine that she must have done something truly horrific to have such a grim destiny.

The truth is that she did absolutely nothing wrong except attract the wrong man. Here he is. This is Glaucus, at least as Rubens imagined him, and I find it very hard to believe that Scylla wasn’t interested but she wasn’t.

Glaucus Rubens

Glaucus was extremely interested in her, however, oh yes! So much so that he went to the witch Circe to ask her make him a love potion to give to Scylla. But what does Circe do instead? She gives him a draft that turns Scylla into a monster. Why? Because Glaucus is irresistible to at least one lady in this story! Circe doesn’t get her man, however, she gets exiled instead and wreaks havoc elsewhere.

Circe isn’t in this image but here is the lovely Scylla who looks as though she’s just taken all her unruly dogs for a walk by the sea wearing only a transparent wisp of material and hopefully a lot of SPF 50. The model was Rubens’ second wife Helen Fourment who was 37 years his junior and to his evident delight, very happy to pose nude.

Rubens, Scylla and Glaucus, 1636, Musée Bonnat-Hellau, France

If we know what Rubens’ main concern was (he painted Helen as often as he could and absolutely adored her), Turner’s is also obvious. Same scene, completely different focus! Look at that sun – the light is just fantastic as you would expect from Turner. BUT although we know that he excelled at painting dramatic light effects, the sun is sort of part of the story. Guess who Circe’s father was? Helios the Sun God. Circe’s presence can be said, therefore, to radiate throughout this work. Apparently, although it’s square, it was also intended to be framed in a circular frame making the reference to the sun even more implicit. This was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1841 where it was ridiculed for being indistinct and lacking detail.

Glaucus and Scylla Turner

J. M. W. Turner, Scylla and Glaucus, 1841, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.


By Elevenses, Lamia, Talking art

I can say with some certainty that you wouldn’t want to meet Lamia. Why not? John William Waterhouse has depicted her as a pretty lady sitting pensively beside a lake maybe checking out her hair in the reflection. There’s a lot of detail in this image (Waterhouse adopted the style of the pre-Raphelites, so called because they championed a return to art pre Raphael who they felt led the charge towards art becoming less precise and less detailed) and it’s all very lovely, so much so that it might take a while to notice that the beautiful blue and gold cloth on her lap is in fact a snake skin and that there are a couple of snakes either side of her too.


John William Waterhouse, Lamia, 1909

What are the snakes all about? That’s a fair question. Waterhouse’s painting references a poem by Keats.

This beautiful woman, Lamia, starts the poem as a snake. Ah ha! She persuades Hermes to return her to human form and in exchange she will reveal the hiding place of a nymph with whom he’s fallen madly in love. The clue to whether the love is reciprocated is in the fact that the nymph has hidden from him.

Sisterly love? Very much not!

Lamia herself has her eye on a delicious fellow and, as the beautiful woman she has been transformed into, she seduces him and they live a solitary life together until one day he says that they really ought to marry.

Lamia doesn’t go a bundle on this but she agrees as long as the philosopher Apollonius isn’t invited. What did he ever do to her? Nothing but she knows that he will recognise her as the serpent she truly is.

Apollonius pitches up anyway, reveals her as a serpent, ruins the wedding feast and she vanishes and her new husband dies. A bad marriage that didn’t even really begin!

Here’s another painting by Waterhouse in which she’s seen seducing the knight. Again, the devil is in the detail; notice the snake at the bottom of the work and the way Lamia is rocking snake skin accessories!

Lamia and the Knight, Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse, Lamia and the Soldier, 1905, private collection

So where did Keats get his inspiration from?

Greek mythology, obviously!

Disappointingly I can’t find a painting of any part of the Lamia story from Greek mythology – I suppose that’s because it’s relatively unknown, but I did find examples such as the two below on

So now we have a snake and babies involved. The Greeks really knew how to tell a good story – and with this one they managed to create one that is still used to threaten naughty children today in some countries.

Lamia started life in many of the tales as the beautiful Queen of Libya. In some she is also the daughter of the sea god Poseidon and a nymph.

Unfortunately for Lamia she caught the eye of Zeus and they had a rapturous affair, even though she’s his niece. What happens when you get jiggy with Zeus? There are offspring. Always. What also happens when you have an affair with Zeus? His wife finds out and exacts retribution. Not on her husband but on the object of his affections, although in this case, Zeus must have been pretty devastated too because Hera killed the children he had with Lamia. Well, except one possible daughter Scylla, who became a six headed monster who killed sailors. I say ‘possible’ because her parentage is uncertain. Anyway, the grief destroyed Lamia and not only did she also turn into a monster, but she completely flipped and began to kill any child she could lay her hands on. Some say that she even ate them.

Some of you, even as I speak, might be wondering why no plan was hatched to kill the crazy baby murderess. All you’d have to do is wait until she fell asleep, right? That might have been a good plan BUT in some versions of the story, Hera wasn’t done with killing her children and making Lamia mad. Oh no, the coup de grace was that she caused Lamia to be sleepless by preventing her from ever being able to close her eyes. Luckily for Lamia the ever practical Zeus was on hand with a remedy for that. He made her eyes removable so that she could take them out when she needed rest.

So now Lamia exists in mythology as a vampiric child killer and, largely thanks to Keats, as a dangerous shapeshifting seducer of men.

Lamia Edward Topsell woodcut

Woodcut depicting Lamia, 1607, from Edward Topsell‘s The History of Four-Footed Beasts

Oh, she was possibly also inspiration for this creature to be found in Edward Topsell’s 17th century book, The History of Four-Footed Beasts. The beast which has the head and breasts of a woman, forelegs like a bear, hindlegs like a goat and the body of a serpent but with scales like a dragon (snakes and dragons have often been interchangeable), they preyed on humans and sucked the blood of children.

They probably ruin your hardy perennials too so I’d say they wouldn’t be a welcome visitor. All that from a roll in the hay with Zeus!

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Marriage a la Mode – The Lady’s Death

By Elevenses, Marriage a la Mode, Talking art

This is the final painting in Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode series and it’s descriptively called ‘The Lady’s Death’. Ouch.

We don’t see what happened after Silvertongue killed the Countess’s husband in a sword fight in a dodgy bagnio and fled out of the window, but Hogarth has filled in the gaps for us, leading us to this moment.

Marriage a la Mode - The Lady's Death

William Hogarth, Marriage a la Mode: The Lady’s Death, 1743, National Gallery, London

It is clear, for instance that Silvertongue and the Countess had a room on the ground floor because the lawyer survived long enough to be arrested, brought to trial and hanged for murder. We know this because at the lady’s feet is a discarded broadsheet that has a drawing of a gallows at the top and the headline that includes the words ‘Counsellor Silvertongue’ and ‘last dying speech’. Just next to this is a presumably empty bottle with a label reading ‘laudanum’ visible. So, from her surroundings and the fact that her Dad is next to her (remember him from the first painting?) we can deduce that she returned to her father’s home to lie low with her child, who also makes his or her first and last appearance here. Perhaps she has spent frantic weeks pouring over the papers for news of her lover, or following his trial because the suggestion is that the news of his death has made her so desperate that she has now chosen to take her own life surrounded by her loving family and faithful servants. Or not.

bad news and laudanum, hogarth

Let’s talk about her Dad first. Is he distraught that she’s breathing her last? No. He’s removing the ring from her finger. Okay, so in the case of suicide all of her possessions would have had to have been turned over to the crown so you could say that he’s making the best of a terrible situation but in all honesty I feel he could have waited just a while longer and allowed her to give one final (or perhaps one single – we know she wasn’t maternal!) cuddle to the child that is being presented to her by the maid.

Hogarth Marriage a la Mode Death of Lady


The child isn’t, it has to be said, the cutest little thing. It could be a boy or a girl as both wore dresses until the age of around 8, but whichever sex he or she is, they haven’t been given the best start in life. We’ve seen that sunken bridge on the nose before in Dr. M. La Pillule and we’ve certainly seen the black spot. The poor child is suffering from congenital syphilis. If you recall, the doctor was rather bandy legged but here the disease is so far advanced that surgical boots and braces are required, all suggesting that the heir to the Squanderfield title won’t last long at all. Cast your mind back again to the first image and the ostentatious family tree that started with William the Conqueror. That’s about to come to abrupt end.

The blame for the ‘abrupt end’ of the Countess is, it seems, being put firmly at the feet of the footman. Is he a footman? A servant, certainly. He’s not the brightest and the apothecary (I’m very disappointed not to meet Dr La Pillule again) appears to be berating him for not preventing the lady’s death. The items in his pocket have been identified as a stomach pump 18th century style, and a bottle of syrup which was used to induce vomiting. Apparently that’s all too late now.

The blame game Hogarth Marriage a la Mode

I’ve said that I’m sad not to see Dr La Pillule but, wait, there is another shadowy figure heading out the door to the left of the work. Could that be him? It’s hard to tell as he’s half hidden and has his back to us. Having delivered the news that has prompted the Alderman to remove the ring from the Countess’s finger, he may well be admiring the line of buckets on the wall. Each is marked with an ‘S’ for sand. Once again, we are invited to look back to the earlier works and perhaps think of that marvellous proverb ‘don’t kindle a fire you can’t extinguish’ that was suggested by a smouldering corset ribbon in The Bagnio. Doesn’t that seem a lifetime ago now?

Smouldering corset

Doctor's departure Marriage a la Mode

The ostentatious bad taste of the young couple’s marital home is also lightyears away from the strange meal on the table. I would worry that they aren’t getting enough nutrients if they eat like this: an egg on what the National Gallery suggest is a plate of rice, a couple of slices of bread and a pig’s head that the dog is tucking into. I’d say that the fact that the dog is warily about to slide it off the table by the ear makes reference to their ‘pig’s ear’ of a marriage but the expression wasn’t in common use until the mid 20th century. However, the old proverb ‘you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’ dates from the 16th century and I think that just about sums up the whole charade!

Pig's Ear marriage a la mode Hogarth

Who can identify, by the way which bridge the Alderman’s house has a view of? It’s not the one I mention in the live talk because that wasn’t built until the 19th century – doh! Sometimes I have to make a ‘deliberate’ mistake!!! I made the same mistake back in February too in the post about Valentine’s cards which you can watch here or read about here. It’s London Bridge, not Tower Bridge, obviously…

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Marriage a la Mode – The Bagnio

By Elevenses, Marriage a la Mode, Talking art, Uncategorized

So, the last we saw of Viscount (now Earl) Squander, he was at a dodgy doctors with his mistress looking for a cure for syphilis. The last we saw of the Countess, she was flirting with Silvertongue the lawyer who suggested they attend a masked ball together. It seems that one thing led to another and the pair ended up in the insalubrious setting of a bagnio – a Turkish bath cum coffee shop that also sold rooms by the hour.

Marriage a la Mode The Bagnio

William Hogarth, Marriage a la Mode: The Bagnio, 1743, National Gallery, London

I don’t want to use my imagination too much here because this isn’t a scene I want playing in my head but clearly things were a bit frenzied when they got to the room. There are clothes strewn everywhere, her shoes have been abandoned next to a mask and the invitation to the ball, her corset has also been discarded and has landed on top of a bundle of sticks meant for the fire. This bundle of sticks was also known as a bundle of faggots, faggot being a derogatory term for a prostitute so Hogarth is giving us more than a nudge as to what he thinks of all this carry-on!

smouldering corset Marriage a la Mode Hogarth

You might notice too that a ribbon from the corset is beginning to smoulder. This is not a reference to how sexy and smouldering the couple are but a reference to a proverb ‘kindle not a fire that you cannot extinguish’; a warning that I’m going to say comes rather too late judging by the state of the bed!

Anyway, somehow the Earl has burst in on the delightful pair. Has he been told of their tryst or did he just happen to wandering by the same bagnio?? Who can say?! What we can say is that it’s likely he wished he hadn’t because now he’s been stabbed by sleazy old Silvertongue who is showing us his best side as he scarpers out of the window in his nightshirt. What a sweetheart.

Sleazy Silvertongue makes an exit

Earl Squander's dramatic death

The Countess is suddenly contrite and begging forgiveness on her knees with Silvertongue’s blood soaked sword next to her but I don’t think that’s uppermost in the Earl’s mind as he slides dramatically to the floor. At least he didn’t die of syphilis in the end (although the reminder that he has it is ever present)! It’s been pointed out that his head is framed by a mirror, a reminder of his vanity in the first painting where he only had eyes for himself.

He evidently hasn’t gone quietly either as the proprietor has alerted the local constabulary and they make their appearance at the door over to the right of the work.

Now, I have never been in a room that might be rented by the hour but I don’t imagine that they would be lavishly furnished with works of art. So what, you might wonder, is the deal with a wall that is not only adorned with a tapestry, but has works of art hanging over the top of the tapestry. Tapestries weren’t cheap either!

The tapestry is of the Judgement of Solomon who carried out a novel maternity test on two women both claiming to be the mother of the same child. He suggested that the baby get cut in two so that they could have half each. Obviously there was no way that the real mother would let this happen. I’m not sure whose body the portrait of the lady obscures but the work has been strategically placed for comic effect (note where the parasol she’s holding is positioned) and as yet another dig at Countess Squander because she’s holding a squirrel which, guess what, was also slang for a prostitute.

Apparently these legs are rather similar to those of an engraving of Samuel McPherson who, at the time that Hogarth was painting Marriage a la Mode, became infamous for being shot for desertion. No surprise that they are right next to the rather less attractive legs of Silvertongue.

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.