Question. When you think of a mermaid, is this the first thing that springs to your mind? Do you imagine some hideous hag, sunning herself on the rocks, luring unsuspecting seafarers to drown themselves in the sea? Or have you been brainwashed by Disney, and picture a fair maiden with a fishy tail, who is friends with all the creatures in the ocean?
This fair maiden may surprise you, then. It is now a resident at the British Museum and is on permanent display in their Enlightenment Gallery, although it was also loaned to the British Library's major exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic in 2017. It has a snarling face, jagged teeth, demonic eyes and long claws, and its tail and body are shrivelled. It could not be further from the Disney stereotype.
It's probably fair to let you in on a secret, lest this is giving you nightmares. The British Museum's mermaid is 'fake news', an 18th-century Japanese concoction. Analysis has shown that it comprises the upper portion of a monkey's body and the tail of a fish, held together with a metal pin. That may be grotesque, but at least it is not an embalmed Disney-esque character that has seen better days.
So where did it come from? The British Museum was presented with its mermaid by Princess Arthur of Connaught (d. 1959) in 1942. She was a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria and granddaughter of King Edward VII, and had married her first cousin, once removed, Prince Arthur of Connaught, in 1913. (The attendants at her wedding, all of them princesses, were named Maud, Mary, Mary and May, just to keep it simple; the bride was born Princess Alexandra.) We know, in turn, that Princess Arthur had obtained this precious object from her husband, based on a note kept in the mermaid's box:
'H.H. Prince Arthur of Connaught, a Mermaid. Presented by Seijiro Arisuye, who keeps [sic] it for a long time, as the curiosity, caught it two hundred years ago.'
Prince Arthur (d. 1938), himself a grandson of Queen Victoria, had served as Governor-General of the Union of South Africa from 1920 to 1924. He had visited Japan in 1906 in order to invest Emperor Meiji the Good with the Order of the Garter, for which he received in return the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Chrysanthemum, Japan's highest honour. In 1918, he was a guest aboard the Japanese battlecruiser Kirishima when it voyaged from Japan to Canada. Maybe Prince Arthur was given the mermaid by Seijiro Arisuye on one of those occasions? It beats getting a teatowel or a commemorative spoon.
History hasn't recorded whether Prince Arthur was more thrilled to be presented with the Order of the Chrysanthemum or a fake mermaid. We assume he was in on Seijiro Arisuye's joke. Indeed, there was a long tradition of creating such creatures as some form of ghastly entertainment, at least from the 17th century onwards; as the British Museum's website informs us, many of these objects originated in Japan or eastern Asia and they ended up in western European hands. We happen to think that the BM's mermaid is full of character, and that it has found a very worthy home; if only it had a rock to sit on!
Julian Harrison for Cradles & Labels