Censored water-nymph painting put back on display in Manchester

Several days I reported that a lovely famous pre-Raphaelite painting, “Hylas and the nymphs“, created in 1898 by John William Waterhouse, was removed from display at the Manchester Art Gallery. Just to remind you, here it is:

Although the Guardian reported that the curator denied it was censorship, it clearly was—as indicated by her remarks.

Clare Gannaway, the gallery’s curator of contemporary art, said the aim of the removal was to provoke debate, not to censor. “It wasn’t about denying the existence of particular artworks.”

The work usually hangs in a room titled In Pursuit of Beauty, which contains late 19th century paintings showing lots of female flesh.

Gannaway said the title was a bad one, as it was male artists pursuing women’s bodies, and paintings that presented the female body as a passive decorative art form or a femme fatale.

“For me personally, there is a sense of embarrassment that we haven’t dealt with it sooner. Our attention has been elsewhere … we’ve collectively forgotten to look at this space and think about it properly. We want to do something about it now because we have forgotten about it for so long.”

Gannaway said the debates around Time’s Up and #MeToo had fed into the decision.

I’m pleased to report, though, that the Pecksniffery didn’t last long. After a huge outpouring of public criticism, the Manchester Evening News reports that Hylas and the Nymphs is back on view.  Instead of admitting it made a mistake, though, the gallery is pretending that it got exactly what it wanted: debate.

Amanda Wallace, Interim Director Manchester Art Gallery, said: “We’ve been inundated with responses to our temporary removal of Hylas and the Nymphs as part of the forthcoming Sonia Boyce exhibition, and it’s been amazing to see the depth and range of feelings expressed.

“The painting is rightly acknowledged as one of the highlights of our Pre-Raphaelite collection, and over the years has been enjoyed by millions of visitors to the gallery.

“We were hoping the experiment would stimulate discussion, and it’s fair to say we’ve had that in spades – and not just from local people but from art-lovers around the world.

“Throughout the painting’s seven day absence, it’s been clear that many people feel very strongly about the issues raised, and we now plan to harness this strength of feeling for some further debate on these wider issues.”

Wallace would make a good politician!  That statement is a masterpiece of Weaselly Words. And now they’re going to “harness this strength of feeling” to get more debate? Why don’t they just harness it to stop censoring their damn artworks!

You can see some of the public outrage in a Guardian piece from last Friday. Here are tree letters:

Russell Blackford, a Friend of the Website, also weighed in against this censorship on his Metamagician site. He also includes a letter he sent to the art gallery:

I am shocked at your decision to remove “Hylas and the Nymphs” by John William Waterhouse, a work that I have loved for decades. My wife and I have a large print of it on one of our walls at home, and we’re proud of it.

You are privileged to be the custodians of this treasured work of art, and it’s your responsibility to make it available to the whole world. Removing it from view, apparently for reasons based on political ideology, is an extraordinary act of cultural vandalism. I understand that it will no longer even be possible for the public to buy postcards of “Hylas and the Nymphs”.

I urge you to reverse this appalling decision immediately. I’m tempted to urge that you also fire whoever was responsible. That would be going too far: we are all entitled to make mistakes, even serious ones, without losing our livelihoods. But the person responsible should certainly be counselled about the nature of their responsibilities, so they won’t do something like this again.

Yours sincerely,
Russell Blackford
Newcastle, Australia

I wasn’t aware that the Museum had also removed postcards of the painting from sale! You’d think people would learn by now that this kind of censorship never works (well, maybe rarely in today’s climate), and simply produces the Streisand Effect. A painting as beautiful and renowned as this simply cannot be removed because it causes offense to some Pecksniffs.

h/t: Tim


  1. GBJames
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:34 am | Permalink


  2. Paul Beard
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    It worked. Free publicity for someone who couldn’t think of anything better to do.

  3. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    <blockquote"… it was male artists pursuing women’s bodies …

    Hell’s bells, that could describe, either overtly or implicitly, the shank of the Western artistic canon, male edition, broadly construed.

    • loren russell
      Posted February 5, 2018 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      In this cae, it seems to be A woman’s body — Judging from this painting at least, Waterhouse could afford [or otherwise recruit] only one model.

  4. glen1davidson
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Clare Gannaway, the gallery’s curator of contemporary art, said the aim of the removal was to provoke debate, not to censor. “It wasn’t about denying the existence of particular artworks.”

    Yes, we weren’t worried that a work that exists in various forms all over the internet would have its existence denied.

    We were simply worried about people telling us that we can’t look at art because it offends certain ideologues who have a lot of power at this time.

    Just the old issues of censoring images, and, in an important sense, ideas that some now find offensive.

    Glen Davidson

  5. Harrison
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    I’m not too concerned about postcards given that the work is public domain and anyone is free to make and even sell their own postcards if they so wish. I do however strongly agree with Blackford that a museum has a great burden of responsibility toward all original works it possesses, and none should be treated so shamefully.

  6. MKray
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    It is not Pre-Raphaelite (though contemporaneous). Waterhouse was never a member of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.

    • darrelle
      Posted February 5, 2018 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      I think that’s probably splitting the hair too fine. No, he wasn’t a member of the original brotherhood but he certainly painted in that style. Calling Hylas and the Nymphs a Pre-Raphaelite painting is correct, calling Waterhouse a Pre-Raphaelite painter is correct, and neither is the same as saying that Waterhouse was a member of the brotherhood.

      It is normal virtually everywhere in the art world to refer to Waterhouse and the paintings by him in that style as Pre-Raphaelite, just as it is normal to call an artist who is known for painting in the Impressionism style an Impressionist and their paintings in that style Impressionist paintings. An artist doesn’t have to be a member of the founding group of a style to be associated with that style.

  7. Heather Hastie
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    The interim director of the gallery said she was pleased the “experiment” worked.

    I wonder if there’s anywhere, privately or publicly, that anyone at the gallery referred to this as an “experiment” before it was conducted.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted February 5, 2018 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Separately, I’m a bit annoyed at one of the complainants. He refers to the #MeToo movement et al as overblown by the media and only affecting a minority of people.

      This is typical of a certain type of man who considers women a minority, and fails to recognize that a huge majority of us suffered in some way and have for millenia. They also think men who were also victims either don’t count (because they consider them weak) or count more than victims who are women (usually those who are victims of male on male abuse because that’s not “normal” whereas male on female is “normal”).

      • Posted February 5, 2018 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

        I noticed that too but it was buried in a torturous sentence. I imagine him saying that with a mouthful of marbles. Sounds better.

  8. Christopher Henson
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    The functionary, Gannaway, who removed the painting originally, is unfortunately a typical representative of the British chattering classes. She wasn’t censoring the painting, she says, because she says she wasn’t censoring it. And she probably even believes that. These are the people who curate British intellectual life in the 21st century.

  9. Posted February 5, 2018 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Most people have jumped he gun. I did too. I went to take a look on Saturday, the day the picture was put back.

    The removal was a part of another project specifically planned to provoke discussion. The MeToo and TimesUp were the context, not the reason.

    Opposite the Nymphs picture is Sappho, by Charles Mengin – supposedly one of the most alluring images of he female body. And I have to say that’s not too far off the mark. And there are other provocative representations of naked and part naked women around the gallery. As a male curator explained, “If we wanted to censor, we’d have to remove maybe half our exhibits.”

    To be honest, they seemed as thrilled by the negative responses as much as the positive. It might be worth noting the deep love of art that would be a natural part of a curator’s persona. The human body, which they may well have been exposed to in the flesh while studying. I don’t think we’re dealing with 3rd wave feminist prudes here (though I know nothing more about the curator or artist that were involved in the event).

    The other charge was that it was a publicity stunt. Again, he said that had they intended that there are a number of things they would have done differently … and would have been better prepared … which brings us to the post cards: it seems they sold out, so much was the demand. They were not removed.

    I had conversations with other visitors there, and even those that, like me, saw it as censorship initially were changing their minds.

    And as far as the stated intent, it worked well. On Saturday the picture was put back, and the post-it notes left in place. And the outrage on display (again, of which I might have been a willing contributor) was as visceral as any that we might accuse SJWs of.

    So, given the pre-planned project by the artist Sonia Boyce, I’ll give the benefit of any remaining doubt to those who run my favourite local gallery.

    • Posted February 5, 2018 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for an in-person, local perspective! From what you write, I gather it may have been a kind of weird performance art piece; do something provocative and see what happens. If it’s true, I like it. Sometimes it’s fun to upset the apple cart just to see which way they go a-rolling.

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted February 5, 2018 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

        I had taken it similarly. I thought it was a case of censorship of a painting that no one was objecting to (that I can recall) in order to inspire a debate about this kind of censorship. To me, I thought she meant well but just did not think it through and it sort of blew up on her.

    • GBJames
      Posted February 5, 2018 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      I’ll second/third/whatever “thanks” for the local insight. Not sure if I was played, exactly, or what. But this is a better understanding than I had of things before.

    • Posted February 5, 2018 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      I neglected to add this link to the gallery’s site:


    • Posted February 5, 2018 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      I agree with Kirbmarc below. It was a publicity stunt, and what was the positive outcome that it produce? They’re not having a public discussion or anything, they just wanted publicity.

      If the museum comes up with documents written a priori that it was an experiment that would be quickly ended, and the painting put back within a few days, then I’ll change my mind. In the meantime, in light of the serious removals of materials that art galleries have created because they were deemed “offensive” (the Emmett Till painting, the kimono exhibit at Boston’s MFA), I’ll put this one in that class as well.

      • BJ
        Posted February 5, 2018 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

        Even if it was an “experiemnt” or “performance art,” I don’t see that as an excuse. No experiment should require the censorship of any other artwork (unless the experiment is by the artist of the work in question), and no art should be censored, even for a few days, to promote a specific ideology. And no performance art should be allowed to censor another artist’s work without that artist’s consent to participate.

        • Posted February 5, 2018 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

          Meh. Remember that hilarious butter commercial John Lydon (AKA, Johnny Rotten) did? It was both a reason to make money and a huge f*ck you to his fans who thought he was “selling out” – and what could be more punk than telling your fans to go f*ck themselves? There is a place for provocation in the arts. In some respects, it’s an integral part of art.

          Nevertheless, despite Mr Murphy’s personal knowledge about them, I suspect they’re lying too – now they are covering their tracks to try to save face. Bet if they really did plan this, then my hat’s off to them.

          • BJ
            Posted February 5, 2018 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

            “There is a place for provocation in the arts. In some respects, it’s an integral part of art.”

            Absolutely! I just don’t think people should censor the art of others and then claim it was some sort of “statement” or “performance art.” I guess, more than that, I find it repulsive to claim something is “performance art” (even if that’s what they called what they were doing from the start) when what they really mean is “we were censoring a piece of art to promote our politics.” Art should be political, and art should even be politicized by people, but it shouldn’t be politicized by curators and/or curators working with other artists to censor other pieces.

  10. Kirbmarc
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    It was done to get attention, not a debate. And it worked.

  11. kelskye
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    The cynic in me thinks it’s an attempt to get more visitors and sell more prints, using the coverage as a means of promotion for the museum. There was no debate to be had, at best it’s parasitising on the #MeToo movement, or at worst taking the worst possible interpretation of #MeToo and doing something incredibly stupid from it.

    I honestly don’t get what they were trying to accomplish, and in the age of PR, it’s hard to separate truth from spin. And the spin is strong in that “we wanted to start a debate” line.

  12. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Ironically, it has been reported that Barbra Streisand has some nude nymphs paintings in here living room!

    • David Coxill
      Posted February 6, 2018 at 12:05 am | Permalink

      Wot are they painting ?

  13. eric
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    Our attention has been elsewhere … we’ve collectively forgotten to look at this space and think about it properly. We want to do something about it now because we have forgotten about it for so long.”

    Soooo….did they put it back up in the same room, or did they move it? Or did they rename the room?

  14. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    I suppose I should comment.

  15. Posted February 6, 2018 at 1:11 am | Permalink

    The gallery isn’t above using pictures of naked women on the front page of its web site to advertise guided tour events. I call hypocrisy.

  16. bric
    Posted February 6, 2018 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    The artist who arranged all this has an article in the Guardian


    • GBJames
      Posted February 6, 2018 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      What a bunch of claptrap.

    • glen1davidson
      Posted February 6, 2018 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      You just don’t understand.

      They’re too deep for you.

      Glen Davison

  17. Gareth
    Posted February 6, 2018 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Now they’re claiming the whole thing was ‘art in action’ /yawn

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