The public response

The Sirens and Ulysses provoked an extreme public reaction when it was exhibited in 1837. People either loved it or loathed it. Here are some of the comments they made. Nearly 200 years later, the picture still creates a stir. You can read the comments of the twenty first century audience further down the page.

‘The Syrens’…is a disgusting combination of voluptuousness and loathsome putridity – glowing in colour and wonderful in execution but conceived in the worst possible taste.
Spectator, 6 May 1837

The composition of this picture is fine and the painting beautiful, but the subject cannot fail of producing the most unpleasant feelings… it is to be hoped that there are few who would nauseate their friends by placing it in their galleries.
Observer, 4 June 1837

An historical work of the first class… we are surprised to hear exceptions taken to the subject of the work as there are certainly few passages in Homer, or any other author, to which the talents of the painter or sculptor could be more legitimately addressed.
Gentleman’s Magazine, June 1837

Even the partial nudities… outraged the modesty of many. “Fast” young men, pointing to a bare-bosomed Siren, would exclaim, “How disgusting!” Ladies… could scarcely be persuaded to turn their heads in the direction of the Picture.
Alexander Gilchrist Life of William Etty, 1855

And let us feel as we may the repulsiveness of its charnel-house of a foreground, there is a grand and noble largeness in the work.
Handbook to the Gallery of British Paintings in the Art Treasures Exhibition, 1857

The public response 2008

Love how the process is displayed. Makes the gallery a more interactive place. More interactive stuff is great!
Melanie, Canada

Fascinating restoration. Brilliant workmanship.
Visitor to Manchester Art Gallery, 2007

After you finish do you feel bored and never want to see the painting again? Do you see it as a whole art work or just as parts?
Visitor to Manchester Art Gallery, 2007

Fascinating to find out more about how you conserve this artwork. I love the fact that work on-going is in the gallery itself and visible to all. Sometimes (or do I mean always?) the process is as important as the final product.
Visitor to Manchester Art Gallery, 2007

Brilliant idea! Loved seeing behind the scenes! This museum should be winning prizes. Well done and thanks.
Visitor to Manchester Art Gallery, 2007

I think I’d die of frustration!
Visitor to Manchester Art Gallery, 2006

I think the job you guys do is both fascinating and important. I’m sure Etty would be proud.
Visitor to Manchester Art Gallery, 2007

Why is it so important to restore the painting? Because I think that it is then really not the original artists work it is other peoples.
Michaela Gibbs, 2007

Utterly compelling and wonderful to have observed over the months. Congratulations on your skills and integrity with this amazing work of art.
Visitor to Manchester Art Gallery, 2007

I think it is one of the most beautiful, fragile paintings I have ever seen, and this temporary setting with work tools around makes it look like an installation piece.
Ruth Warman, 2007

An amazing way to interact with art. How refreshing to have the behind the scene arts displayed in this way, backing down the distance between the professionals and the public.
Visitor to Manchester Art Gallery, 2007

Eventually the outcome will be something far from the original masterpiece… a piece of art of many artists, losing its true identity. Maybe it should decay like anything else in life.
Visitor to Manchester Art Gallery, 2007

Amazing work and wonderful idea. Art is a process, not just a ‘finished’ work and seeing this restoration gives a new level of understanding and appreciation.
Visitor to Manchester Art Gallery, 2007

Very interesting… it’s a moral painting. Linking sex to death. Relevant to the hysteria concerning AIDS today… seeing the act of retouching brings it back to life.
Visitor to Manchester Art Gallery, 2007

A question of integrity. Does what is gained through restoration always outweigh what is lost?
Visitor to Manchester Art Gallery, 2007

Both painting and subject are revoltingly sexist, but we can’t re-make history – nor should art need to be politically correct. So, horrible picture, but go for it!
Visitor to Manchester Art Gallery, 2007