The sea hath its pearls

(Collaboration with Melville Holmes)

Preface: I fell in love with this painting the moment I saw it. It inspired this site and became the topic of this first article I ever wrote with the artist I later married. A framed print hangs next to my desk to always remind me that every soul is the “gift of a world.”

William Henry Margetson (British, 1861-1940) produced a number of oil paintings although he was primarily known as an illustrator of books and magazines. He turned his focus to portrait painting towards the turn of the century. Most of his portraits feature a lovely and singular female subject in the center of the canvas. The Sea Hath Its Pearls (1897) is one of his earlier efforts in this genre.

Margetson takes us delicately into a private moment:  Alone, on a wide stretch of beach, a young woman spies something unusual in the sand. She picks it up and cradles it in the palm of her hand, scarcely believing. It is–a single large pearl!

“The Sea Hath Its Pearls,” reproduction of oil painting by William Margetson {{PD-Art}}. Original painting is owned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia.

Her face is partially obscured by the turn of her head and by shadow, but the bare hint of her expression draws us from a respectful distance into her private reverie. Leaving behind any question of how a pearl can wash ashore without the oyster that produced it, we accept what we see because here is the realm of poetry, not logic. The artist leads us to play along with the make-believe and consent that this pearl’s discovery by the fair maiden is providential and laden with meaning.

A Failed Imitation?

Speaking of this picture in particular, one writer has construed Margetson¹ as a would-be imitator of leading Victorian painters known for idealizations of ancient Greece and Rome and assumed that here Margetson had the Mediterranean in mind but settled for the English coast instead.² Closer scrutiny, however, shows something else. Consider that the female’s  graciously draped garment has sewn-in sleeves, something the Greek and Roman garments did not have. The classical patterns of those used in the depictions of antiquity consisted of simply draped rectangular sheets of cloth. Margetson would have known this, having received his training at the Royal Academy where he was surrounded by antique and Classical Revival artworks. Let it here be suggested that Margetson in fact hit his mark: an occurrence that cannot be reduced to any particular time or place.

To dismiss Margetson’s painting on the assumption that he was trying to do something beyond his knowledge or means neglects the evidence of the picture itself and fails to account for its popular impact, an impact that is interestingly lacking in the majority of his works readily available today. The Sea Hath Its Pearls has been reproduced, after all, as a popular poster. We might call it a crowd pleaser. Why? What is it that people respond to so directly in a picture by an artist without critical acclaim or reputation?

Although the maiden is lovely, she is no mere object of desire or even aesthetic contemplation. Something in her face and bearing carries the quiet dignity of a creature alive within the context of her own significance. No role defines her; she is neither mother, sister, wife nor servant. Call it luck, call it inspiration, but Margetson created a strong image that sets off an immediate and sympathetic reaction in the viewer.

Influence of Heine

Perhaps Margetson was familiar with a famous Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) quotation: “Every woman is the gift of a world to me.”² For whatever reason, Margetson named his painting after a poem by Heine (translated into English by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow):

The sea hath its pearls,
The heaven hath its stars;
But my heart, my heart,
My heart hath its love.

Great are the sea, and the heaven;
Yet greater is my heart,
And fairer than pearls or stars
Flashes and beams my love.

Thou little, youthful maiden,
Come unto my great heart;
My heart, and the sea and the heaven
Are melting away with love!

Heine declares his heart to be greater than the sea and the heaven in contrast to his ladylove who is “fairer than pearls or stars.” She takes a diminutive place in comparison with Heine’s heart: “Thou little youthful maiden,/Come unto my great heart.” Ironically, the small maiden has power over Heine’s heart, the sea and the heaven, to melt them all through his love for her.

Margetson’s pearl from the sea also compares with his maiden, but in this case the reference points to something greater than either of them. Both “pearls” have, momentarily at least, escaped their respective seas–one from the watery sea of marine life and the other from the metaphorical sea of humanity.  Indeed, the universe would miss neither maiden nor pearl save for the fact that Margetson has focused them within a gilded frame.

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¹Art critics tend to rank artists as “major” or “minor” and Margetson falls within the latter category for several reasons: his relatively small output, his never having achieved celebrity, and his never being seen as on the forefront of innovation. We should remember that during the same time frame that The Sea Hath Its Pearls was completed the Post-Impressionist Gauguin was painting in Tahiti, and Cezanne, the “father of Modern Art,” was working in Provence. Relatively conservative, academically skilled artists such as Margetson who were not on the vanguard of Modernism have been the targets of both anti-academic and anti-Victorian sentiment on the part of some writers on art: technically adequate but essentially insipid and superficial.

²See reference to Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) Handbook, 1999, at http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/work/705/ referenced on July 31, 2011. Comments seem a little surprising since the AGNSW purchased the painting directly from Margetson in 1897. Of course, art philosophies have undergone much change since then. Margetson is compared in passing to Poynter and Leighton. The fashion of his model’s clothing is perhaps more reminiscent of those in some of Alma-Tadema’s works.

³Heinrich Heine, Ideas: The Book Le Grand, 1826.